The Basques: The First Europeans?
Most of the mystery surrounding the origins of the Basque people, who live amongst the Pyrenees in Spain and France, comes from their unique language. The Basque language is unrelated to any other language and the Basques refer to themselves as Euskaldunak or "those who speak Basque." "This is one of the rare instances of a people defining themselves by their language," writes Basque coordinator Izaskun Kortazar on the North American Basque Organizations (NABO) website.
This linguistic distinction seemed to suggest that the Basques had a unique origin as well, as opposed to migrating with the Indo-European speakers whose languages dominate Europe. Theories have included that the Basques have been in Europe since Cro-Magnon times or are the descendants of the original Iberian peninsula inhabitants. The idea that the Basques pre-dated other Europeans was generally accepted, since their language did not appear to migrate from anywhere else but was rather always spoken in the area of Basque country.
The Basques: Genetics and Controversy
Genetic evidence at first seemed to support the uniqueness of the Basques as well, especially when research on population genetics was mostly based around blood types. (The Basque people have a high rate of Rh- blood in their communities compared to other Europeans.) But more recent genetic studies have challenged the assumption that the Basques are the first Europeans or that they are distinct from other Europeans.
Instead, studies done on mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes over the last few years have suggested that the Basques are genetically similar to Europeans, especially Spaniards. (A 2008 study by J. Martinez-Laso et al. did find that Basques and Spaniards were closer to paleo-North African populations than other Europeans, bolstering the claim that the Basques descend from the original Iberians.)
In 2010, a study by Laayouni et al. published in Human Genetics claimed that the Basques were not a genetic outlier amongst European populations. A few months after that study was published, Basque researchers released a study claiming that French and Spanish Basques are a homogenous group distinct from other Europeans. In any event, the distribution and diversity (or lack of diversity) of different haplogroups in the area make it clear to ancient history blogger Jean Manco (buildinghistory.org) that there is "no evidence that the Basques are a living fossil of the original European gene pool."
So who are they?
"Why did people think that the Basque were so special?" asks Razib Khan on his Gene Expression blog. "Mostly because their language is special." Discussing the Laayouni findings on his blog, Khan notes that the Basque language had a wider range in Europe than it does now, so it should be no surprise that people who identify as French or Spanish may still have Basque ancestry.
As for the survival of the Basque language, Khan points out that there were many pre-Indo European languages spoken before the arrival of the IE dialects, and that the Basque tongue may have been preserved due to "simply luck and a random act of history." The strong Basque identity, their mountainous territory and their fierce defense of that territory has kept Euskara alive to the present day.
But where did they come from? NABO's website states that the most probable explanation is that the Basques are descended from the Iberians. Manco suggests that the Basques originally were a Copper Age group who came to the Pyrenees, although there is no strong evidence to argue where they came from. Manco believes testing ancient DNA, both from the Pyrenees and from the Aquitaine region of France, where a Basque-like language was spoken in late pre-historic times, may provide more answers. "The Basques," she writes, "remain something of a mystery."