Paleolithic Ancestry of the Basques

Being a colonized nation by powerful French and Spanish neighbours for so long, Basques suffer from cultural cringe. One of the main features of this social pathology is the trend to overcompensate the cringe by mythicizing own History, which becomes the main support to claim the existence of a nation, well defined and different from the surrounding ones, when own language and culture have begun to decay. Of course, the powerful neighbours try to highlight the falsehood of those myths, and to keep their own ones as the prevailing History.

These initial remarks are quite pertinent and necessary, because the subject of this article leads us relentlessly to the middle of a battle field, where political motivation is almost always present, either in a rude or in a subtle manner. Besides, though cultural cringe has become more evident from the XIX century onwards, the ancestry of the Basques is a political issue at least since the Early Middle Ages, when Basques, same as other folks under the influence of Vikings, claimed the udal property of land, based on old ancestry against the feudal concept based on God’s and subsidiary royal property. Even if the issue has jumped from genealogies reaching Noah, to apparently purely scientific DNA data collections, a battle remains a battle.  I promise to do my best to stay as neutral and objective as possible.

The ancestry of Basques and their possible connection to the Palaeolithic hunters-gatherers of the Franco-Cantabrian area is thus an issue where we find two sides all across the last hundred years. On the Basque side, we find the claim that present Basques are the direct descendants of the mentioned hunters-gatherers and that therefore the latter spoke a kind of Proto-Basque, more or less close to the present Basque language. On the neighbours’ side (mainly Spanish), Basques can be anything except the descendants of the Franco-Cantabrian hunter-gatherers: Iberians, Berbers and lately, Neolithic colons coming from the Near East. The debate goes on, in implied unspoken terms of “older and more unique ancestry”versus “not so old not so unique ancestry”.

Let’s start from the minimal general consensus:

  1. Basques are of non-Indo-European origin and so is their language too.
  2. Basque language remains unclassified and unlinked to any other language.
  3. All the many attempts to understand Iberian writings based on Basque have failed.
  4. In Roman times Basque was spoken the rivers Garonne and Ebro, an area overlapping approximately that of the Franco-Cantabrian parietal art.
  5. A recent study of several DNA samples has n that there was merging of local hunters-gatherers with Near East Neolithic farmers, and that present Basques are the result of it.

Based on the former, Basque language could possibly have just two origins, either local Palaeolithic or Near East Neolithic, depending on whether that merging involved or not a full acculturation process, including language substitution.

Obviously Basques were not hunters-gatherers any more in Roman times, they had embraced agriculture long ago as everyone else around. And regardless the intensity of the mentioned merging, which still remains controversial, the merging itself seems beyond any doubt. So, can we agree that Basque language was the language brought by the Near East early farmers?

To start answering the question, we’ll first recall that genes, culture and language are three variables which don’t keep necessarily linked across History as it has been explained often. This means that linguistic substitution can’t be taken for granted based on just genetic merging evidence. Not even based on genetic merging plus culture transformation. This means that it’s possible to imagine that local hunters-gatherers could interact with newcomer farmers, merge with them, learn and gradually adopt their new technology and keep attached to their old language, which, of course, would have to adapt to the new way of life, losing and borrowing terms as it is usual.

It’s possible that it happened like that. But is it likely too? What data can we claim to support this hypothesis and what to support its opposite?

The main and I’d say only argument in favour of the Near East Farmer’s hypothesis is the fact that traditional Basque culture is 100% agricultural, as it should obviously be expected. There’s not a single debris left in Basque mythology, tradition or rites which suggests a Palaeolithic origin. Not even an echo, not even a smell of it. Nothing like that has been found so far, and I’d bet that this won’t change in the future. The “Spanish side” claims to ground their theory on DNA evidence, but that’s false. They start by ing undisputable DNA data, but then they tacitly take for granted that, as local hunter-gatherers became farmers, their language was replaced by the Near East colons’ one. Of course this is a hypothesis which can be defended, but it’s not fair to keep it unspoken and pretend that the claimed conclusion comes purely from data and is as undisputable as data are.

Therefore, if hunters-gatherers merged with Near East farmers, and ended adopting farmer’s way of life, beyond the question of that merging’s extent, language is the key to determine whether present Basques should be linked also to Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer culture or just to Neolithic Near East farmer’s culture. So, how likely is that present Basque comes from hunters-gatherers’ language? Let’s see what reasons we can find in favour of this possibility.

1.- Though language replacement has been widely and consciously practiced (mainly) by the Indo-European cultures which constitute our present context, this shouldn’t lead us to believe that such a thing existed in Neolithic times. Conquering, colonizing and imposing conqueror’s language as a weapon to extinguish local resistance are quite modern tactics which most likely didn’t exist or were not even imagined in Neolithic times.

2.- Basque remains an isolate language. An older date of arrival of the Basques to their present country makes it easier to explain this isolate language status. It’s more likely to be an isolate language If it was linked to  Palaeolithic  hunters-gatherers issued from Asian migrations which took place 40.000 years ago than if it was linked to Near East farmers who spread all across Europe the new and successful agricultural way of life, just 7.000 years ago.

The former two points are obviously not conclusive. They’re useful just to help put things in context and calibrate the likeliness of the contending hypothesis. The third point doesn’t exceed that scope, but it’s supported by a pretty large collection of archaeological data.

3.- There’s plentiful indisputable archaeological evidence ing a very slow and gradual transition to farming among Basque hunters-gatherers. We have sites where people remain stubbornly attached to old hunter gatherer life style in a date as recent as 5.200 B.P, on the Atlantic side, but also sites on the Mediterranean side, with better conditions for farming way of life, where 700 hundred years after the first cattle evidence, they keep getting more meat from hunting than they do from cattle; and we even have what we should call a Ceramic Mesolitic, that is, sites which the use of ceramics in a hunter-gatherer economy, without any sign of farming. The whole picture s a context of a certain reluctance, which lasts for more than one thousand years and which cannot be explained by isolation or ignorance. It rather looks like if those hunter-gatherers did know the farmer way of life and took from it what they found useful, but remained on their old own way of life, either because it provided them food enough, or because there was an ideological reluctance at a certain extent, or for both reasons at the same time. In any case the picture doesn’t fit too well with the language replacement hypothesis, which we could imagine linked to a quick and complete desertion of the old way of life together with the full adoption of the new one.

Beyond this Kingdom of Likeliness that we’ve visited across the former points, we only have the language as a last possible source of evidence to elucidate the issue. We have already advanced that Basque is an isolate language, and therefore, compared linguistics won’t give us any clues to draw it closer to either hypothesis. But language remains the most unconscious level of culture, and when every other field has been deserted, it is the only sanctuary where, because of its deep unconsciousness, we can dream to find some fossils of the dismissed old fashion culture. Thus, we only have the slippery ground of etymologies left, so difficult to reach agreements and so prone to non-scientific politically oriented debate.

4.- Several etymologies and place names have been claimed to the link Basque language and Palaeolithic culture or to back up the hypothesis of a Basque substrate in Western Europe. The presence of the root aitz (rock) in many Basque (or even European) names for cutting tools and the proposals of professor Theo Venneman for some place and river names all across Western Europe are among the most popular ones. Unfortunately they all remain highly controversial and little can be hoped about a future agreement on that field. Not to say that even if such an agreement was reached one day, it wouldn’t help to answer our question, because stone made cutting tools are as Neolithic as they are Palaeolithic, and because any Basque-like linguistic substrate in Europe could be claimed to be issued from the same Near East farmers who spread agriculture everywhere. And logic would be this time in their favour because it’s more likely to have kept the newer than the older. What we need to be able to stablish a Palaeolithic link with Basque is not just a linguistic fossil looking old.  We need more than that; we need an old fossil, which cannot be Neolithic. And of course, it has to be a non-controversial one. Does such a thing exist? Well, it could be.

5.- As it has recently been published, the Basque kinship term giharreba meaning “parent in law” can be easily analysed as “relative of the flesh” in a, so far, finally, undisputed etymology. The reason why this discovery comes so late was given by Goethe in its famous "Man erblickt nur, was man schon weiß und versteht" (we only see what we already know and understand). None of the most prominent linguists who have studied the Basque kinship vocabulary for the past two centuries had read Claude Levy-Strauss’ famous “The Elementary Structures of Kinship”, where the theory of bone and flesh is explained. However they knew that arreba means “sister of brother”, and they struggled in vain for years trying to understand what role could play arreba within giharreba. Today, the etymology of giharreba appears crystal clear to anyone who previously knows the term “relatives of the flesh”, but without that previous knowledge no one would even imagine such an interpretation for that word.

But what are the consequences of this single data? Why is it important that the Basque term for “parent in law” means literally “relative of the flesh”?

The theory of bone and flesh states that considering a new born baby, its bones have been put in by the father, and that those bones have been covered with flesh by the mother. It further explains that the bones are produced by the sperm, which can still be found inside them (the marrow) and that the flesh is created by the blood, which is typically produced by women (menstrual). This theory is not just a tale, more or less fantastic, but the theoretical explanation of a kinship and marriage , baptised by Lévy-Strauss as “generalised exchange”, found all across Central and East Asia, within many aboriginal tribes, documented by travellers and anthropologists from as early as  XVIIIth century up to the past XXth

Beyond the Palaeolithic flavour of the tale itself with its bone, marrow, sperm, flesh and blood, we have two undisputable facts: First, the map with the registered occurrences cannot be explained either from agricultural or Indo-European expansion. Secondly, these occurrences include folks which never ever practised agriculture up to present times, like the Nivkh or Gilyak people of Sahalin Island. The map below s the approximate area of the registered occurrences of the flesh and blood theory in either explicit or debris form. It’s not precise and it has no value beyond the purpose of ing that those occurrences have been collected at least in Siberia, among Russian Mongols and Turks, in China, in Tibet, in Indian Assam and in Basque Country.

 How far should we go back in time in order to meet the cultural wave which left this kind of map? Lévy-Strauss mentions the possibility of linking it to the Indo-Europeans, based on some echoes he thinks to recognize in some Roman texts about the Germans (no mention of bone or flesh though), but both the map we above and the great works of professor Georges Dumézil on the Indo-Europeans myths and culture, beyond any doubt that this blood and flesh theory has nothing to do with Indo-European. To organise society from the ground of kinship and marriage rules is a question which doesn’t interests Indo-Europeans at all. And based on the study of the Basque mythology inherited from Near East farmers, I’d say that it isn’t either within the latter interest scope. It seems quite clear to me that kinship organisation and marriage rules is a matter which belongs to Palaeolithic world. Not just because we find that the only reference about it in Basque culture has sheltered itself in the depth of language unconsciousness while being surrounded by plentiful Neolithic mythology, rites and traditions; but also because kinship organisation and marriage rules has been found to be the main social issue among the tribes who kept themselves leaving in stone-age by the time they were studied by anthropologists.

If we accept that Basques’ ancestors had already adopted the theory of bone and flesh by the time they came to dwell to the Gulf of Biscay, we’ve finally got the so controversial Palaeolithic link of the Basque language, except if we think that, when Basques got in touch with the Near East farmers, they took the theory with them while quitting all the rest of their language and culture, which seems hard to imagine. If it’s not accepted, those who don’t will have to provide a hypothesis to better explain the map above and how the bone and flesh theory arrived to be once present in the Basque kinship vocabulary.

The corresponding “relatives of the bone” can’t be recognised in present Basque kinship vocabulary, and even if there’s some intuition of where it could be, I won’t even mention it, as I only want to publish well-grounded and undisputed etymologies. However, there is another echo of the same theory in the expression hezur berriak izanliterally “to have new bones” meaning being pregnant, often pronounced in diminutive form hexur, so that there’s no doubt it’s referring to the foetus’ bones.

In any case, from now on we can consider the questions of the origin of Basques as linked to the question of assigning a date to the bone and flesh theory, which carries the issue to a completely new field with many potential participants.