The Basque region on the border of Spain and France (Fig. 1) has long posed a puzzle to linguistic anthropologists: the local native language, Euskara, is a linguistic isolate unrelated to the languages of the Indo-European family surrounding it. Although now only spoken by 25% of the modern-day Basque population, toponymic evidence suggests that the ancient Basque population previously occupied a much larger territory, reaching from the Garonne River in the north to the Ebro River in the south (Behar et al. 2012). One dominant explanatory hypothesis holds that Euskara descended from a now otherwise extinct Paleolithic linguistic family no later than 6-7 thousand years ago and was relatively isolated by the Pyrenees Mountains, minimizing the cultural impact of farmers from the Near East whose westward migration sparked the European transition from mobile hunter-gatherer societies to segmentary and sedentary agricultural settlements in the Neolithic period, including, potentially, the spread of Indo-European languages (Cavalli-Sforza 1988).
Archaeological data and genetic analyses have both complicated and broadened our understanding of this mystery. Comparisons of contemporary and ancient DNA have disproved any claims that the Basque people are a “living fossil” of the first Paleolithic European inhabitants. Genetic haplogroup J, often considered to be a marker of the Near Eastern Neolithic population expansion, was found to be present at an average frequency of 16% at two prehistoric Basque archaeological sites (Coffman 2005:44). This suggests a partial Near Eastern lineage in the ancient Basque population that mixed with local Mesolithic hunter-gatherer inhabitants between 7.3 and 6.8 thousand years ago, negating the concept of total Basque isolation (Günther and Valdiosera 2015).
However, recent studies on the modern European population have identified six related mitochondrial DNA H haplogroups found to be exclusive to Basque-speaking and immediately adjacent populations, while absent from other populations in Western Europe, suggesting that these haplogroups are autochthonous or indigenous to the region. These mtDNA variants are estimated to have separated from the pan-European gene pool 8,000 years ago, predating the putative arrival of Near Eastern farmers (Behar et al. 2012). This contradicts the evidence of haplogroup J and supports a theory of partial genetic continuity in the modern Basque population from earlier Paleolithic and/or Mesolithic populations. Furthermore, genomic sequencing of eight individuals from the El Portalón cave site in Atapuerca, Spain (Fig. 2), dated to between 5.5 and 3.5 thousand years ago and in association with archaeological remains of an early European farming culture (domestic animals and pottery vessels), demonstrated that these individuals, who carried mtDNA haplogroups associated with both early European farmers and hunter-gatherers, were most closely genetically linked to modern-day Basques than to any other modern-day population (Günther and Valdiosera 2015). This evidence bridges the multiple hypotheses and suggests that the Basque population descended in relative isolation from Neolithic migration, compared to other Iberian populations, from an admixed group of early farmers and hunter-gatherers who spoke a non-Indo-European language.
Additional information on the Basque language or the Atapuerca burial grounds.
Behar, Doron M., Christine Harmant, and Jeremy Manry
2012 The Basque Paradigm: Genetic Evidence of a Maternal Continuity in the Franco-Cantabrian Region since Pre-Neolithic Times. PubMed Central. 90(3):486-493.
Cavalli-Sforza, Luca L.
1988 The basque population and ancient migrations in Europe. Munibe (Antropologia y Arqueologia). 6:129-137.
Günther, Torsten, and Cristina Valdiosera
2015 Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112:11917-11922.
2005 We Are Not Our Ancestors: Evidence for Discontinuity between Prehistoric and Modern Europeans. Journal of Genetic Genealogy. 1:40-50.
Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn
2018 Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice with 303 Illustrations. Fourth ed. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.
2018 Pottery Shard Shows Early Humans in Europe Were More Connected Than Archaeologists Thought. Newsweek. Accessed from: https://www.newsweek.com/early-human-pottery-spain-783939
2017 From Open Data to Open Government: Citizen Participation in the Basque Country. Government Innovators Network, Harvard University. Accessed from: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/blog/open-data-open-government-citizen-participation-basque-country-irekia
How can archaeology help us to better understand migration today?
One migration-focused archaeological insight that has entered the public sphere in the last few years is the set of research and art projects surrounding the experiences of migrants crossing the southern U.S.-Mexico border. Archaeologists like Jason DeLeon have extensively documented objects found at or near the border that were lost or left behind as people attempted the border crossing into the U.S. The objects left behind, which have been used for research purposes as well as for social justice commentary through artwork on this humanitarian crisis, reveal bits and pieces about the day-to-day lives and identities of these migrants to humanize them, especially important when their individuality is often erased by mainstream media.
2013 Trash that talks: An exhibit of things left behind by migrant workers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Global Michigan.