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Basque DNA Analysis Shows They Were Isolated a Long Time

by Bruno Van de Casteele

September 27, 2015

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Donate That the Basque people are a bit special in Europe was already well known. The Basque are the inhabitants of a region in southwest France and northern Spain. They have a language (Euskara) that is difficult to link to other known language groups like Celtic, Germanic, and Romance languages. They also have the largest percentage of Rh- (rhesus negative blood), indicating a long period of isolation.

A recent DNA study has now confirmed this fact. BBC News reported on a study published in PNAS, in which Swedish researchers analyzed skeletons from 3,500 to 5,500 years ago in the Basque region. They managed to extract DNA and prove that these people (probably farmers) are closely related to present-day Basques.

It is speculated that the arrival of farming coincided with the local, proto-Basque population mixing genetically, while keeping part of the initial proto-Basque language. That was also the last major genetic mixing that occurred, as the Basque country then managed to remain largely separate from subsequent population migrations in Europe. The BBC article mentions several; most notably the Muslim occupation from the 8th to the 15th century left no traces in the Basque population, while it did in the rest of the Iberian peninsula.

This is, of course, a very interesting scientific result, proving, with hard data, a long period of isolation, already hinted at by previous surveys. But, as for any good scientific result, this is only the beginning. The BBC article gives the impression that the case is now settled, but for me a more interesting research topic opens by asking "Why?" It's one thing to describe the facts of genetic analysis; now I would like to know more why and how this group of people managed to remain so isolated, despite the presence of other groups nearby, including military occupiers. Also, I'm also interested to know if those reasons still apply. All this is probably a task for geographers, anthropologists, and others. But to me, it is only now that it gets really interesting.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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