|Ignatius of Loyola · Jeanne III of Navarre · J.S. Elcano|
|approx. 7 million worldwide|
|Regions with significant populations|
Traditionally Roman Catholic
The name Basque derives from Medieval French and ultimately from the ancient tribe of the Vascones, described by Ancient Greek historian Strabo as living south of the western Pyrenees and north of the Ebro River, in modern day Navarre and northern Aragon. This tribal name, of unknown etymology, was extended in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages to cover all Basque-speaking people on either side of the Pyrenees.
Basques are now mainly found in an area traditionally known as Euskal Herria, located around the western end of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.
The Basques are known in local languages as:
- Euskaldunak ("Basque speakers", also used loosely to describe all ethnic Basques) or euskotarrak ("Natives of the Basque Country", a rarely used neologism) in Basque
- Vascos in Spanish
- Basques in French
- Bascos in Gascon
This article discusses the Basques as an ethnic group or, as some view them, a nation, in contrast to other ethnic groups living in the Basque area. The history of the Basque region as covered here will focus on how that history bears on the Basques as a people.
Recent genetic studies ( Stephen Oppenheimer) have confirmed that about 75% of the people of the British Isles have bloodlines that can be traced to inhabitants of the Basque areas of Spain and France based on Y-chromosome and mtDNA analysis. The originators of these genes are thought to have traveled up the Atlantic Coast in the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic period.
A similar proportion of the remaining, Romance speaking, inhabitants of the whole Iberian peninsula (both Spain and Portugal) share similar percentages of haplogroup R1b to the people of Britain and Ireland as well as very similar mtDNA ancestry.
Etymology of the word "Basque"
The English word "Basque" comes from French Basque (pronounced /bask/), which itself comes from Gascon Basco (pronounced /ˈbasku/) and Spanish Vasco (pronounced /ˈbasko/). These, in turn, come from Latin Vasco (pronounced /wasko/), plural Vascones (see History section below). The Latin labial-velar approximant /w/ generally evolved into the bilabials /b/ and /β̞/ in Gascon and Spanish, probably under the influence of Basque and Aquitanian, a language related to old Basque and spoken in Gascony in Antiquity (similarly the Latin /w/ evolved into /v/ in French, Italian and other languages). This explains the Roman pun at the expense of the Aquitanians (ancestors of the Gascons): 'Beati Hispani quibus vivere bibere est", which translates as "Blessed (are the) Spaniards, for whom living is drinking'. The Romans considered the Aquitanians akin to the Spaniards.
Several coins from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC found in the north of Spain bear the inscription barscunes written in the Iberian alphabet. The place where they were minted is not certain but is thought to be somewhere near Pamplona in the heartland of the area that historians believe was inhabited by the Vascones. Some scholars have suggested a Celtic etymology based on bhar-s-, meaning "summit", "point" or "leaves", according to which barscunes may have meant "the mountain people", "the tall ones" or "the proud ones", while others have posited a relationship to a pre-Indo-European root *bar- meaning "border", "frontier", "march". Others suggest that Latin Vasco comes from a Basque and Aquitanian root used by these people to refer to themselves, eusk-, pronounced /ewsk/, which is rather similar to Latin /wasko/. The name of an Aquitanian people which the Romans recorded as Ausci (pronounced /awski/ in Latin) appears to represent from the same root. The basque word for hand/grasp is similar to the root "eusk" in Basque as well, with the sense that other ethnic groups have also for self referral as "those who grasp(thought,word),those who understand (us)".
In modern Basque, Basques call themselves euskaldunak, singular euskaldun, formed from euskal- (i.e. "Basque (language)") and -dun (i.e. "one who has"); euskaldun literally means a Basque speaker. Not all Basques are Basque speakers, and not all Basque speakers are Basques; foreigners who have learnt Basque can also be called euskaldunak. Therefore the neologism euskotar, plural euskotarrak, was coined in the nineteenth century to mean an ethnically Basque person whether Basque-speaking or not. These Basque words are all derived from euskara, the Basque name for the Basque language.
Alfonso Irigoyen claimed that the word euskara comes from an ancient Basque verb enautsi "to say" (cf. modern Basque esan) and the suffix -(k)ara ("way (of doing something)"). Thus euskara would literally mean "way of saying", "way of speaking". One item of evidence in favour of this hypothesis is found in the Spanish book Compendio Historial, written in 1571 by the Basque writer Esteban de Garibay, who records the native name of the Basque language as "enusquera".
In the nineteenth century, the Basque nationalist activist Sabino Arana posited an original root euzko which, he thought, came from eguzkiko "of the sun" on the assumption of an original solar religion). On the basis of this putative root Arana proposed the name Euzkadi for an independent Basque nation. Arana's etymology is discredited today, but his neologism Euzkadi, in the regularized spelling Euskadi, is still widely used in both Basque and Spanish, since it's the official name of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.
In fact the root eusk- might come from the name of the aquitanian tribe Ausci that gave its name to the french city of Auch that was called before Elimberrum 'new town' (from basco-aquitanian ili-berri).
It is thought that Basques are a remnant of the early inhabitants of Western Europe, specifically those of the Franco-Cantabrian region. Basque tribes were already mentioned in Roman times by Strabo and Pliny, including the Vascones, the Aquitani and others. There is enough evidence that they already spoke Basque in that time (see: Aquitanian language, Iruña-Veleia).
In the Early Middle Ages the territory between the Ebro and Garonne rivers was known as Vasconia, being united under the Castillian noblesse. After Muslim invasions and Frankish expansion under Charlemagne, the territory was fragmented and eventually the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of Pamplona arose as the main states with basque population in the ninth century.
This state, later known as Navarre, experienced feudalization and was subjected to the influences of its vaster Aragonese, Castilian and French neighbours, with Castile annexing parts of it in the eleventh and twelfth century and from 1512 to 1521. The remainder of Navarre would end up being united to France.
Nevertheless the Basque provinces enjoyed a great deal of self-government until the French Revolution in the North and the mainly religious wars named Carlist Wars in the South trying to establish a catholic theocratic monarchy. Since then, a violent fragment of Basque society has been attempting to stablish a socialist State (see Basque nationalism)in spite of the actual self-government of the Basque Country settled by the Spanish Constitution.
Political and administrative divisions
The autonomous community (a concept established in the Spanish constitution of 1978) that is known as Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa or EAE in Basque, and as (la) Comunidad Autónoma Vasca or CAV in Spanish (in English: Basque Autonomous Community or BAC), is composed of the three Spanish provinces of Alava, Biscay and Guipuscoa. The corresponding Basque names of these territories are Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and their Spanish name is Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa.
Although the BAC only includes three of the seven provinces of the currently called "historical territories", it is sometimes referred to simply as "the Basque Country" (or Euskadi), at times by writers only considering those three provinces, but also on occasions merely as a convenient abbreviation when this does not lead to confusion in the context; others reject this usage as inaccurate and are careful to specify the BAC (or an equivalent expression such as "the three provinces") when referring to this entity or region. Likewise, terms such as "the Basque Government" for "the government of the BAC" are commonly though not universally employed. In particular it should be noted that in common usage the French term Pays Basque ("Basque Country"), in the absence of further qualification, refers either to the whole of Euskal Herria or, not infrequently, to the northern (or "French") Basque Country specifically.
Under Spain's present constitution, Navarre (Nafarroa in actual Basque, Navarra historically in Spanish) constitutes a voluntarily separate entity, called in actual Basque Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa, in Spanish Comunidad Foral de Navarra (the autonomous community of Navarre). The government of this autonomous community is the Government of Navarre. Note that in historical contexts Navarre may refer to a wider area, and that the present-day northern Basque province of Low Navarre may also be referred to as (part of) Nafarroa, to distinguish it from which the term "High Navarre" (Nafarroa Garaia in Basque, Alta Navarra in Spanish) is also encountered as a way of referring to the territory of the present-day autonomous community.
There are other three provinces claimed by the nationalist basque parties as parts of an expanded Basque Country: Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa in Basque; Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule in French), have no official status within France's present-day political and administrative territorial organization and there is only a marginal political support to the Spanish basque nationalists.
Population, main cities and languages
There are 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Autonomous Community (279,000 in Alava, 1,160,000 in Biscay and 684,000 in Gipuscoa). The most important cities in this region, which serve as the provinces' administrative centers, are Bilbao (Bilbo/Bilbao) (in Biscay), San Sebastian (Donostia/San Sebastián) (in Gipuscoa) and Vitoria (Gasteiz/Vitoria) (in Alava). The official languages are Basque and Spanish. Knowledge of Spanish and Basque are equally compulsory according to the Spanish constitution, and virtually universal. Knowledge of Basque, after declining for many years during Franco's dictatorship owing to official persecution, is again on the rise due to favourable official language policies and popular support. Currently about 27 per cent of the BAC's population speaks Basque.
Navarre has a population of 601,000; its administrative capital and main city, also regarded by many nationalist Basques as the Basques' historical capital, is Pamplona (Iruñea in modern Basque). Although Spanish and Basque are official languages in this autonomous community, Basque language rights are only recognised by current legislation and language policy in the province's northern region, where most Basque-speaking Navarrese are concentrated.
Approximately a quarter of a million people live in the part of claimed French Basque Country. Nationalists politicians in Basque Country generally refer to this as the "north" (Iparralde), and therefore to the Spanish provinces as the "south" (Hegoalde). Much of this population lives in or near the Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz (BAB) urban belt on the coast (in Basque these are Baiona, Angelu and Miarritze). The Basque language, which was traditionally spoken by most of the region's population outside the BAB urban zone, is today losing ground to French at a fast rate. Associated with the northern Basque Country's lack of self-government within the French state is the absence of official status for the Basque language throughout this region.
The Basque diaspora
Large numbers of Basques have left the Basque Country for other parts of the world in different historical periods, often for economic or political reasons, and in some cases to escape imprisonment or death.
A great many Basques emigrated to Argentina, where they represent about 10% of the national population, and substantial numbers settled elsewhere in North and South America, particularly in Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and the United States, where Basque place names are to be found, such as New Biscay, now Durango (Mexico), Biscayne Bay, Jalapa (Guatemala), Aguerreberry or Aguereberry Point in the United States.
In Mexico most Basques are concentrated in the Monterrey, Saltillo, Camargo, Jalisco, Durango, and the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila areas. In Guatemala most Basques are concentrated in Jalapa Guatemala for six generations now, some have immigrated to the city of Guatemala. The largest of several important Basque communities in the United States is in the area around Boise, Idaho, home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Centre and host to a Basque festival every five years. Reno, Nevada, where the Centre for Basque Studies and the Basque Studies Library are located in the University of Nevada, is another significant nucleus of Basque population. There also exists a history of Basque culture in Chino, California. In Chino, there are two annual Basque festivals that celebrate the dance, cuisine, and culture of the peoples. In Winnemucca, Nevada there is an annual Basque festival that celebrates the dance, cuisine and cultures of the peoples, much like Chino. In South Texas along the Mexican-Texan border of the Rio Grande Valley, many people are of Basque blood or have Basque surnames. Along this area are many ranches given to colonial Spanish settlers to New Spain which still exist today. Many people in Uruguay are of Basque blood also.
There are also many Basques and people of Basque ancestry living outside their homeland in Spain, France and other European countries.
The identifying language of the Basques is called Basque or Euskara, spoken today by 25%-30% of the country's population. An idea of the central place of the ethnic terms in Basque nationalist politicians is given by the fact that, in Basque, Basques identify themselves by the term euskaldun and their country as Euskal Herria, literally "Basque speaker" and "Country of the Basque Language" respectively. The use of the language as a political instrument has damaged the original culture of the Basque Country. Essentially an identity issue, the language has nonetheless been converted into a political issue by Spanish and French policies targeting its use and the widespread Basque response of teaching, speaking, writing and cultivating their heritage language with ever-increasing enthusiasm and success, as a way of maintaining, defending and symbolizing their survival as a people.
As a result of state persecution, school policies, the impact of mass media, and the effects of immigration, today virtually all Basques (except for some children below school age) can use and understand the official language of their state (Spanish or French), meaning that all Basque speakers except for little children are effectively bilingual. Spanish or French is also typically the first language learned by immigrants, many of whom do not learn Basque, although recent Basque Government policies aim to change this pattern.
The Basque language is thought to be a genetic language isolate, which means that within the limits of nowadays available scientific knowledge it cannot be shown to "come from" the same languages as, and hence be "related to", other known languages. Thus Basque contrasts with other European languages, almost all of which belong to the large Indo-European language family. Another peculiarity of Basque is that it has been spoken continuously in situ, in and around its present territorial location, for longer than other modern European languages, which have all been introduced in historical or prehistorical times through population migrations or other processes of cultural transmission.
However, popular stereotypes characterizing Basque as "the oldest language in Europe" and "unique among the world's languages" may be misunderstood and lead to erroneous assumptions. Over the centuries, Basque has remained in constant contact with neighboring languages in its western European surroundings, with which it has come to share numerous lexical items and typological features; it is therefore misleading to exaggerate the "outlandish" character of Basque. Basque is also a modern language, and nowadays firmly established as a written and printed medium, also used in present-day forms of publication and communication, as well as a language spoken and used in a very wide range of social and cultural contexts, styles, and registers.
Land and inheritance
Basques have a close attachment to their home (etxe(a)or 'eche' 'house, home'), especially when this consists of the traditional self-sufficient, family-run farm or baserri(a). Home in this context is synonymous with family roots. Old baserri names, themselves typically expressing short-range geographical orientations or other locally meaningful identifying features, have transmuted into modern Basque surnames, thereby providing even Basques whose families may have left the land generations ago with an important link to their rural family origins: Bengoetxea "the house of further down", Goikoetxea "the house above", Landaburu "top of the field", Errekondo "next to the stream", Elizalde "by the church", Mendizabal "wide hill", Useche "house of birds" Ibarretxe "house in the valley", Etxeberria "the new house", etc.
A widespread belief that Basque society was originally matriarchal seems to conflict with the clearly patrilinear character of known family inheritance structures. There have been attempts to reconcile these points by assuming that the latter represents an innovation. In any case, the social position of women in both traditional and modern Basque society is somewhat better than in neighbouring cultures, and women have a substantial influence in decisions about the domestic economy. In the past, some women participated in collective magical ceremonies, and were key participants in a rich folklore, today largely forgotten.
In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favour survival of the unity of inherited land holdings which generally fall to a single male heir, usually the oldest son. This system forced the other siblings to find other sources of sustenance, and before the advent of industrialisation resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas. This system, harsh by modern standards, was no doubt responsible for sending out into the world a great many enterprising personalities of Basque origin, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre to world-renowned saints of the Catholic church such as Francis Xavier.
Basque cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture, influenced by the neighboring communities and the excellent produce from the sea and the land. A twentieth-century feature of Basque culture is the phenomenon of gastronomical societies (txoko, "corner" in Biscay), food clubs where men gather to cook and enjoy their own food. Until recently, women were only allowed one day in the year. Sagardotegiak or cider houses are popular restaurants in Gipuzkoa open for a few months while the cider is in season.
Despite ETA and the crisis of heavy industries, the Basque economic condition has recovered remarkably in recent years, emerging from persecution during the Franco regime with a strong and vibrant language and culture. The Basque language is expanding geographically led by large increases in the major urban centers of Pamplona, Bilbao, and Bayonne, where only a few decades ago the Basque language had all but disappeared.
One of the pieces found in the Roman town of Veleia is interpreted as the oldest representation of the Calvary ever found. If confirmed, this could advance the date of the diffusion of Christianity in the Basque Country, at least in the valleys. Traditionally Basques have been mostly Roman Catholics. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Basques as a group remained notably devout and churchgoing. In recent years church attendance has fallen off, as in most of Western Europe. The region has been a source of missionaries like Francis Xavier and Michel Garicoïts. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was a Basque.
A sprout of Protestantism in the continental Basque Country produced the first translation of the new Testament into Basque by Joannes Leyçarraga. After the king of Navarre converted to Catholicism to be king of France, Protestantism almost disappeared.
Bayonne held a Jewish community composed mainly of Sephardi Jews fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. There were also important Jewish and Muslim communities in Navarre before the Castilian invasion of 1512-21.
Nowadays only slightly more than 50% of Basques show some kind of belief in God, while the rest are either agnostic or atheist. The number of religious skeptics increases noticeably for the younger generations, while the older ones are more religious.
Pre-Christian religion and mythology
There is strong evidence of a previous religion, reflected in countless legends and some enduring traditions. This pre-Christian religion was apparently centered on a superior female goddess: Mari.
“Christianity arrived late to Basque country. The populace was only superficially Christian in remote rural areas during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even in the twentieth century, some mountainous regions escaped Christianity. There, belief in the goddess remains a living reality.” (Gimbutas 2001: 173).
Mari's consort Sugaar also seems to bear some importance. This chthonic couple seem to bear the superior ethical power and also the power of creation and destruction. It's said that when they gathered in the high caves of the sacred peaks, they engendered the storms. These meetings typically happened on Friday nights, the day of historical akelarre or coven. Mari was said to reside in mount Anboto, periodically she crossed the skies as a bright light to reach her other home at mount Txindoki.
Another divinity seems to be Urtzi (also Ost or Ortzi, meaning "sky") but it seems to have been imported, as legends do not speak of him. Nevertheless his name appears in weekdays, months names and meteorological events. In medieval times, Aymeric Picaud, a French pilgrim, wrote on the Basques, saying: et Deus vocant Urcia ("and they name God as Urci-a"; the -a being the Basque nominative or suffixed article).
There is also Anbotoko Mari, a goddess whose movements affected the weather. According to one tradition, she traveled every seven years between a cave on mount Anboto and one on another mountain (the stories vary); the weather would be wet when she was in Anboto, dry when she was in Aloña, or Supelegor, or Gorbea. It is hard to say how old this legend is; despite the pagan elements, one of her names, Mari Urraca, ties her to a possibly historical Navarrese princess of the 11th and 12th century and other legends give her a brother or cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest.
Legends also speak of many and abundant genies, like jentilak (equivalent to giants), lamiak (equivalent to nymphs), mairuak (builders of the cromlechs or stone circles, literally Moors), iratxoak ( imps), sorginak ( witches, priestess of Mari), etc. Basajaun is a Basque version of the Woodwose. There is a trickster named San Martin Txiki ("St Martin the Lesser"). It has been shown that some of these stories have entered Basque culture in recent centuries or as part of Roman superstitio. It is unclear whether neolithic stone structures called dolmens have a religious significance or were built to house animals or resting shepherds. Some of the dolmens and cromlechs are burial sites serving as well as border markers.
The jentilak (' Giants'), on the other hand, are a legendary people which explains the disappearance of a people of Stone Age culture that used to live in the high lands and with no knowledge of the iron. Many legends about them tell that they were bigger and taller, with a great force, but were displaced by the ferrons, or workers of ironworks foundries, until their total fade-out. They were pagans, but one of them, Olentzero, accepted Christianity and became a sort of Basque Santa Claus. They gave name to several toponyms, as Jentilbaratza.
The Basque possessed “unique social institutions startlingly different from those of feudal Europe. The Basques never developed an elitist culture, instead appointing a ' Lord of Biscay' by democratic election.... [W]omen held significant power at least as far back as 7 A.D., when the Greek geographer, Strabo, wrote ... of 'a sort of woman-rule - not at all a mark of civilization.'" (Hadington 1992).
Historically the Basques have been egalitarian: “Women could inherit and control property as well as officiate in churches. This enraged the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition. One of its most savage mass witch-burnings was staged at the Basque town of Logroño in 1610”.
The striking uniqueness of Basque society and culture continued up into the twentieth century: “Goddess religion, the lunar calendar, matrilineal inheritance laws, and agricultural work performed by women continued in Basque country until the early twentieth century. For more than a century, scholars have widely discussed the high status of Basque women in law codes, as well as their positions as judges, inheritors, and arbitrators through pre-Roman, medieval, and modern times. The system of laws governing succession in the French Basque region reflected total equality between the sexes. Up until the eve of the French Revolution, the Basque woman was truly ‘the mistress of the house,’ hereditary guardian, and head of the lineage” (Gimbutas 2001: 172).
Traditional Basque sports
The great family of ball games have their unique offsprings among Basque ball games, known generically as pilota (Spanish: pelota). Some variants have been exported to the United States and Macau under the name of Jai Alai.
There are several sports derived by Basques from everyday chores. Heavy workers were challenged and bets placed upon them. Examples are:
- trainera (oar boat) regattas: from fishermen activities.
- sokatira: tug-of-war.
- harri jasoketa: stone-lifting, from quarry works.
- aizkolaritza and trontzalaritza: tree hacking and log sawing.
- segalaritza: grass mowing with scythes.
- dema or stone block pulling, from construction works:
- idi probak with couples of oxen.
- asto probak with donkeys.
- zaldi probak with horses.
- gizon probak with couples of sportsmen.
- txinga erute: carrying of weights, one in each hand, representing milk canisters.
- ram fights.
- zipota, a French Basque martial art, similar to savate.
- barrenatzaile competitions: drilling stone blocks with a metal bar, only in the former mining areas of West Biscay.
- shepherd dog competitions.
Bull runs and bullock games
The world-famous encierro (bull run) in Pamplona's fiestas Sanfermines started as a transport of bulls to the ring. These encierros, as well as other bull and bullock related activities are not exclusive to Pamplona but are traditional in many towns and villages of the Basque country.
While there is no independent Basque state, Spain's autonomous community of the Basque Country, made up of the provinces of Alava (Araba), Vizcaya (Bizkaia) and Guipúzcoa (Gipuzkoa), is primarily a historical consequence and an answer to the wide autonomy claim of the residents.
Navarre has a separate autonomy based in the historical fuero (charter), that has never been submitted to a referendum giving the possibility (always open) of incorporating itself to the Basque Autonomous Community, option rejected by many residents.
The Northern Basque Country has no autonomy whatsoever and it is just part of the French department of Pyrénées Atlantiques, centered in Bearn. The claim of a separate Basque department has been large among a very minority of local elects of nationalist ideologies in the last decades but incompatible with the French Constitution.
Both Spanish and French governments have, at times, tried to suppress Basque linguistic and cultural identity. The French Republics, the epitome of the nation-state, have a long history of attempting the complete cultural absorption of ethnic minority groups. Spain has, at most points in its history, granted some degree of linguistic, cultural, and even political autonomy to its Basques, but under the regime of Francisco Franco, the Spanish government reversed the advances of Basque nationalism, as it had fought in the opposite side of the Spanish Civil War: cultural activity in Basque was limited to folkloric issues and the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, the Basque Country within Spain enjoys an extensive cultural and political autonomy. The majority of schools under the jurisdiction of the Basque education system use Basque as the primary medium of teaching.
However, in Navarre, Basque has been declared an endangered language, since the conservative government of Unión del Pueblo Navarro opposes Basque nationalism and symbols of Basqueness, highlighting Navarre's own autonomy.
The situation of Basque is also delicate in the North, where lack of autonomy and monolingual public schooling in French exert great pressure on the native language.
Political status and violence
Since the nineteenth century, Basque nationalism has demanded the right of self-determination and even independence. The desire for independence is particularly common among leftist Basque nationalists. The right of self-determination was asserted by the Basque Parliament in 2002 and 2006. Since self-determination is not recognized in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, a wide majority of Basques abstained and some even voted against it in the referendum of December 6 of that year. However, it was approved by clear majority at the Spanish level, and simple majority at Navarrese and Basque levels. The derived autonomous regimes for the (Western) Basque Country was approved in later referendum but the autonomy of Navarre (amejoramiento del fuero: "improvement of the charter") was never subject to referendum but just approved by the Navarrese Cortes (parliament).
As with the Basque language, the Basques are generally considered to be an isolated ethnic group.
The Basques are clearly a distinct ethnic group in their native region. They are culturally and especially linguistically distinct from their surrounding neighbours, and the controversial claim has often been made that they are comparably genetically distinct as well. Traditionally, by popular culture, they are considered to be tall, muscular, high-shouldered, big ears, big noses and with a very high incidence of black hair, fair skin and blue and gray eyes. Some Basques, especially in Spain, are strongly, even violently, nationalist, identifying far more firmly as Basques than as citizens of any existing state. Many others are not, feeling as Basque as Spaniards, and have to suffer from the harassment of the extreme Basque nationalists. Indeed, the only question would seem to be whether the term "ethnic group" is too weak, or whether one should favour the term "nation", advocated by many in Basque Country.
In modern times, as a European people living in a highly industrialized area, cultural differences from the rest of Europe are inevitably blurred, although a conscious cultural identity as a people or nation remains very strong, as does an identification with their homeland, even among many Basques who have emigrated to other parts of Spain or France, or to other parts of the world.
The strongest distinction between the Basques and their traditional neighbours is linguistic. Surrounded by Romance-language speakers, the Basques traditionally spoke (and many still speak) a language that was not only non-Romance but non-Indo-European. Although the evidence is open to question, the prevailing belief among Basques, and forming part of their national identity, is that their language has continuity to the people who were in this region not merely in pre-Roman times, but in pre-Celtic times, quite possibly before the great invasions of Europe by Asian tribes.
Although they are genetically distinctive in some ways, the Basques are still very typically west European in terms of their Mt-DNA and Y-DNA sequences, and in terms of some other genetic loci. These same sequences are widespread throughout the western half of Europe, especially along the western fringe of the continent. The Saami people of northern Scandinavia show an especially high abundance of a Mt-DNA type found at 11% amongst Basques. Somewhat higher among neighbouring Cantabrians, the isolated Pasiegos have a Mt-DNA V haplogroup of wider microsatellite variation than Saami.
It is thought that the Basque Country and neighbouring regions served as a refuge for palaeolithic humans during the last major glaciation when environments further north were too cold and dry for continuous habitation. When climate warmed into the present interglacial, populations would have rapidly spread north along the west European coast. Genetically, in terms of Y-chromosomes and Mt-DNA, inhabitants of Britain and Ireland are closely related to the Basques, reflecting their common origin in this refugial area. Basques, along with Irish, show the highest frequency of the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup R1b in Western Europe; some 98% of native Basque men have this haplogroup. The rest is mainly I and a minimal presence of E3b. The Y-chromosome and MtDNA relationship between Basques and people of Ireland and Wales is of equal ratios as to neighbouring areas of Spain, where similar ethnically "Spanish" people now live in close proximity to the Basques, although this genetic relationship is also very strong among Basques and other Spaniards. In fact, as Stephen Oppenheimer has stated in The Origins of the British (2006), although Basques have been more isolated than other Iberians, they are a population representative of south western Europe. As to the genetic relationship among Basques, Iberians and Britons, he also states (pages 375 and 378):
By far the majority of male gene types in the derive from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal), ranging from a low of 59% in Fakenham, Norfolk to highs of 96% in Llangefni, north Wales and 93% Castlerea, Ireland. On average only 30% of gene types in England derive from north-west Europe. Even without dating the earlier waves of north-west European immigration, this invalidates the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory... ...75-95% of British and Irish (genetic) matches derive from Iberia...Ireland, coastal Wales, and central and west-coast Scotland are almost entirely made up from Iberian founders, while the rest of the non-English parts of the Britain and Ireland have similarly high rates. England has rather lower rates of Iberian types with marked heterogeneity, but no English sample has less than 58% of Iberian samples...
Before the development of modern Genetics based on DNA sequencing, Basques were noted as having the highest global apportion of Rh- blood type (35% phenotypically, 60% genetically). Additionally Basques also have virtually no B blood type (nor the related AB group). These differences are thought to reflect their long history of isolation, along with times when the population size of the Basques was small, allowing gene frequencies to drift over time. The history of isolation reflected in gene frequencies has presumably been key to the Basque people retaining their distinctive language, while more recently arrived Indo-European languages swamped other indigenous languages that were previously spoken in western Europe. In fact, in accordance with other genetic studies, a recent genetic piece of research from 2007 claims: "The Spanish and Basque groups are the furthest away from other continental groups (with more diversity within the same genetic groups) which is consistent with the suggestions that the Iberian peninsula holds the most ancient West European genetic ancestry."
Among the most notable Basque people are Juan Sebastián de Elcano (led the first successful expedition to circumnavigate the globe after Magellan died mid-journey); Sancho III of Navarre; and Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, founders of the Society of Jesus.