Ancient DNA cracks puzzle of Basque origins

Sep 16, 2015



DNA from ancient remains seems to have solved the puzzle of one of Europe’s most enigmatic people: the Basques.

The distinct language and genetic make-up of the Basque people in northern Spain and southern France has puzzled anthropologists for decades.

One theory proposed that they were an unmixed pocket of indigenous hunters.

Now, a study in PNAS journal suggests they descend from early farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming isolated for millennia.

The Basques have unique customs and a language – Euskera – that is unrelated to any other spoken in Europe, or indeed the world.

Nestled in a mountainous corner of Atlantic Europe, they also show distinct genetic patterns to their neighbours in France and Spain.

It seemed logical that they were representatives of an older layer of population settlement, but just how far back their roots went has been a topic of debate.

Mattias Jakobsson from Uppsala University in Sweden analysed the genomes of eight Stone Age human skeletons from El Portalón in Atapuerca, northern Spain.

These individuals lived between 3,500 and 5,500 years ago, after the transition to farming in southwest Europe.

The results show that these early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors to present-day Basques.

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One comment on “Ancient DNA cracks puzzle of Basque origins”

  • The key word here is “isolation.” We tend to think of isolation as a geographical or spatial phenomena but cultural isolation and strict endogamy can also contribute to genetic isolation. Being a scion of those early populations which maintained incorporating outside genetic intrusion into their populations, I’ve followed this argument ever since I was a graduate student in anthropology in the 1960s.

    There have been several biological studies on the striking profile of the Rh factor and other high occurrences that differ from our Indo-European nature but as a cultural anthropologist and linguist, I note that our language has long resisted being linked to any other and in spite of a plethora of borrowed words, the underlying syntactical structure is unique.

    I for one welcome the studies of Dr. Mattias Jakobssen for exposing a bit more light on the origins of my ancestors.

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