Basque DNA Analysis Shows They Were Isolated a Long Time

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.

Map of the Basque language

Map of the Basque language region. Via Wikimedia.

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.

16th manuscript depicing two senior Basque women (source: Wikimedia)

16th manuscript depicting two senior Basque women. Via Wikimedia.

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.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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19 Responses to Basque DNA Analysis Shows They Were Isolated a Long Time

  1. Helmut says:

    Hi Bruno. Very nice blog, as always! Your ” Why ” question in the end is a very good one, hope somebody will have the answer! An additional one from my side: why is rhesus negative also a ‘proof’ of long isolation? Any articles or references on that? Thanks! Helmut

    • Van de Casteele Bruno says:

      Hi Helmut – it’s all a matter of relative % — given the “normal” european population you would expect 16% … here you have 36% which indicates that the population has been kept seperately genetically. Same for the lack of type B (and AB).

  2. Rob says:

    The question of “why” is certainly interesting. Basque Country is mountainous but not so much more than elsewhere. If nothing else, they have coastal access. You’d think that would have resulted in greater not less intermixing. What cultural/geographical factors contributed to their unusual degree of isolation?

    • Van de Casteele Bruno says:

      Exactly! I’m actually guessing it is a cultural thing, but for so long? Hoping someone does some research on the topic … fascinating

  3. Richard says:

    No wonder. about basks….Some of you will laugh. Myself live now in a locked area in central CHILE. I say locked bacause it´s some 20.000 hectares of valley and fair lanscape but surrounded by huge moutains virtually imposible to access except by an ancient inca track. Well , happens that in years 1820 a group of Basque soldiers refugged in the area being chased by locals.. They reamained secluded here to present day ..totally unaware that a new country and laws was formed .. for around 100 years. This is true. Only around 1910 a proper road was made and some integration with the rest of the folks in the rest of the country began..this locallity is named CALEU.. you can find more about it in youtube… Thanks.

  4. Anrique says:

    Cool report but what are basque people actually
    like are they saints

  5. Paul Carter Block says:

    We have communities even today who impose isolation on themselves without being forced into that situation by, for example, geography. The Amish of North America choose to live their separate existence for social and philosophical reasons. The Cathars of Langedoc kept themselves apart for similar reasons. Such cultures invite suspicion; in the case of the Cathars, their different-ness led to their extermination.
    This question is, as Bruno, says, one for the anthropologists to answer.

  6. Norm says:

    Maybe the Basques are the remnants of the blue man, as described in The Urantia Book. I donno, just sayin’.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Probably not. That’s old fashioned race hierarchies. There’s no scientific basis for them—or much else in that book apparently—so it’s not very useful to speculate about. It’s like trying to guess at how many elves can fit inside a unicorn. Looking at the book online it claims that blue men invented spears and arts. There’s no evidence that people living in the Basque region did either. The first spears are probably 4-500,000 years old. Settlement of the Basque region probably began about 35,000 years ago.

      Basques are just people like any others. They were isolated for a long time, so they’re of interest in to geneticists and anthropologists, but they’re not special, and they don’t have “the brain power of the red man associated with the soul and sentiment of the yellow man,” whatever that means. Sounds like gibberish to me.

  7. Norm says:

    Well, the important thing is that you read the book and you know what you’re talking about. I did notice an abundance of vague terms like “apparently,” and “probably” (3 times for “probably”) in your comments. But you did “look at the book online” anyway or at some comments on the book. That’s something. It’s a good way to get ready made opinions such as what “there’s no scientific basis for,” in the book. Just take someone else’s word for it. Regarding your statement that “it claims that blue men invented spears and arts,” I don’t read it that way. The text says: “They early invented the spear (not “spears” as you said) and subsequently worked out the rudiments of many of the arts of modern civilization.” It doesn’t say the blue man invented the spear first for all mankind. Probably spears were invented all around the world by many peoples. In fact, the book says that Neanderthalers were using spears to spear fish 750,000 years ago. It also doesn’t say that that they invented “arts.” It says they “worked out the rudiments of many of the arts of modern civilization.” Paraphrasing the book is not recommended, just read what it says is the best way to go about it. It’s like the saying, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” It’s best to read the book for oneself. It’s a 2000 page book. And because it’s a religious book, it makes a lot of people angry. People get angry when someone else’s religious book is not what they already believe. And I have no idea what you mean when you said, “That’s old fashioned race hierarchies.” Where did you get that idea? Nor did I understand what “how many elves can fit inside a unicorn” has to do with anything.

  8. James O'Connell says:

    I have read that people of Basque type migrated to Britain in prehistoric times and have left a much larger genetic footprint than formerly thought. Also there is a connection with people of the Canary Islands which gave rise to speculation of connection to a supposed Atlantis connection and origin.

  9. Rich says:

    I can’t believe I’m the first to mention this. Some say the Basque people are remnants of the Cro magnons. This is a faint stub of an idea that’s probably not valid and I definitely have not researched.

  10. didi says:

    The Basque people are the closest related to Atlantis … there can be some proof found in the Bay of Biscay

  11. Kellie Donahue says:

    Th negative women are unlikely to have live progeny with rh positive men
    Invaders are therefore unable to leave a genetic presence in the tribe unless they are also rh negative
    Little genetic mixing survives

  12. Debora Norton says:

    I have been interested in the Basques for years. I am not surprised that their DNA is unlike much of the world. It also goes along with the fact that their language is also unlike any other. I think that their origins are much older than we think…I will just put this out there because I have thought of this for awhile now- Perhaps the Basques arrived on Earth as survivors of conflict (so it’s pre-wired within them to be wary of mixing with other cultures), they built Gobekli Tepe as a memorial of their landing site (like a museum) and then left the area to establish a more secure region to settle. Just an idea. D

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