The name Basque derives from Medieval French and 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.
The Basques are known in local languages as:
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 have confirmed that many western Europeans, including the great majority of Spaniards, Portuguese, Britons, Irish and French, have a common ancestry with modern Basques that can be traced to inhabitants of the Basque areas of Spain and France based on Y-chromosome (Haplogroup R1b) and mtDNA (Haplogroup V) analysis. Basques have the highest proportion of the Rh negative blood type of all the peoples of the world. The original possessors of these alleles are thought to have traveled up the Atlantic Coast in the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic period.
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 learned 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 name of the Basque language as "enusquera". It may be however a writing mistake.
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 is now 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 Castilian 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, despite the current self-governing status of the Basque Country, as settled by the Spanish Constitution, elements of Basque society are still attempting to establish a completely separate State (see Basque nationalism), sometimes by violent means.
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.
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.
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 Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, 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, and the Nuevo Santander region of Mexico. .
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 Basques were important in the mining industry, many were ranchers and vaqueros (cowboys), and the rest opened small shops in major cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puebla.
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 Center, host to a Basque festival every year, as well as a festival for the entire Basque diaspora every five years. Reno, Nevada, where the Center for Basque Studies and the Basque Studies Library are located in the University of Nevada, is another significant nucleus of Basque population. In Winnemucca, Nevada there is an annual Basque festival that celebrates the dance, cuisine and cultures of the Basque peoples of Spanish, French and Mexican nationalities arrived to Nevada since the late 19th century.
California is a major concentration of Basques in the United States, most notably in the San Joaquin Valley between Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield, the city itself has a large Basque community and the city boasts several Basque restaurants. 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, and the surrounding area of San Bernardino County has many Basque descendants. These Basques in California are grouped in the ethnic term Californios.
In South Texas along the Mexican-Texan border of the Rio Grande Valley, many people are of Basque heritage or have Basque surnames. Along this area are many ranches given to colonial Spanish settlers from Basque Country to New Spain which still exist today. These Basques in south Texas are grouped in the ethnic term Tejanos. Basques of European Spanish-French and Latin American (Latino) nationalities also settled throughout the western U.S. in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington state.
There are also many Basques and people of Basque ancestry living outside their homeland in Spain, France and other European countries. A total of over 100,000 ethnic Basques may live in Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom as a result of emigration to industries in those countries between 1945 and 1970.
As a result of state language promotion, school policies, the impact of mass media, and the effects of migration, today virtually all Basques (except for some children below school age) speak the official language of their state (Spanish or French). Therefore, there are extremely few Basque monoglots: essentially all Basque speakers are bilingual on both sides of the border. This reality, coupled with the fact that Spanish or French is also typically the first language of citizens from other regions (that often feel no need to learn Basque), maintains the dominance of the state tongues of both France and Spain. Recent Basque Government policies aim to change this pattern, as they are viewed as potential threats against mainstream usage of the minority tongue.
The Basque language is thought to be a genetic language isolate. 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.
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.
Despite ETA and the crisis of heavy industries, the Basque economic condition has recovered remarkably in recent years, emerging from the Franco regime with a revitalized 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.
A sprout of Protestantism in the continental Basque Country produced the first translation of the new Testament into Basque by Joanes Leizarraga. 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.
Christianisation of the Basque Country has been the topic of some discussion. There are broadly speaking two views. According to one, Christianity arrived in the Basque Country during the 4th and 5th century but according to the other, it did not take place until the 12th and 13th century. The main issue lies in the different interpretations of what is considered Christianisation. Early traces of Christianity can be found in the major urban areas from the 4th century onwards, a bishopric from 589 in Pamplona and three hermit cave concentrations (two in Álava, one in Navarre) were in use from the 6th century onwards. In this sense, Christianity arrived "early".
Pre-Christian belief seems to have centered around a female goddess called Mari. A number of place-names contain her name and would suggest these places were related to worship of her such as Anbotoko Mari who appears to have been related to 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. One of her names, Mari Urraca possibly ties here to a historical Navarrese princess of the 11th and 12th century, with other legends giving her a brother or cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest. So far the discussions about whether the name Mari is original and just happened to coincide closely with the Christian name María or if Mari is an early Basque attempt to give a Christian veneer to pagan worship have remained speculative.
Mari's consort is Sugaar. 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.
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.
Historically, Basque society can be described as being somewhat at odds with Roman and later Western European societal norms.
Strabo's account of the north of Spain in his Geographica (Strabo) makes a mention of 'a sort of woman-rule - not at all a mark of civilization' (Hadington 1992), a first mention of the - for the period - unusual position of women. “Women could inherit and control property as well as officiate in churches. Combined with the issue of lingering pagan beliefs, this enraged the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps leading to one of its most savage witch-burnings in the Basque town of Logroño in 1610”.
This equality existed well into the twentieth century: “...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”.
Although the kingdom of Navarre did adopt feudalism, most Basques also possessed unusual social institutions different from those of feudal Europe. Some aspects of this include the elizate tradition where local house-owners met in front of the church to elect a representative to send to the juntas and juntas generales (such as the Juntas Generales de Vizcaya or Guipúzcoa) which administered much larger areas. Another example was the fact that in the medieval period most land was owned by the farmers, not the Church or a king.
There are several sports derived by Basques from everyday chores. Heavy workers were challenged and bets placed upon them. Examples are:
The largest symbol of Basque identity in football is Athletic Bilbao. While there are other clubs within the Spanish Basque country, such as Real Sociedad, Bilbao's cantera policy has meant the club refuses to sign any non-Basque players.
Navarre has a separate autonomy based in the historical fuero (charter) and on the fact that, unlike the Basque region, it was an independent kingdom before the unification of Spain in the Middle Ages. Of the territory belonging to the modern autonomous region of Navarre, only the northern half can be considered Euskal Herria (literally, "where Basque is spoken"). Basque ultra-nationalists would like to see the whole of Navarre integrated with the Basque Country.
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 basque language.
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.
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 British Isles 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...
In fact, according to a European wide study, the main components in the European genomes appear to derive from ancestors whose features were similar to those of modern Basques and Near Easterners, with average values greater than 35% for both these parental populations, regardless of whether or not molecular information is taken into account. The lowest degree of both Basque and Near Eastern admixture is found in Finland, whereas the highest values are, respectively, 70% ("Basque") in Spain and more than 60% ("Near Eastern") in the Balkans.
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."