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  Wikipedia: Basque

Wikipedia: Basque
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The Basques ("Euskaldunak") are an indigenous people who inhabit parts of both Spain and France. They are found predominantly in four provinces in Spain and three in France. This area is to be found around the western edge of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.

This article covers the Basques as an ethnic group or (in some people's view) nation, rather than covering all people who live in the Basque regions. Inevitably, it reiterates some of the same history that is covered elsewhere in writing about that reason. This article takes the particular perspective of viewing that history as it impinges on the Basques as a people.

Total population: 2.9 million (est.)
Significant populations in: Araba/Alava, Spain: 279,000
Bizkaia/Vizcaya, Spain: 1,160,000
Gipuzkoa/Guipuzcoa, Spain: 684,000
Elsewhere in Spain: XXXX
France (1993): 730,000
United States (1990): 47,956
Elsewhere in the world: XXXX
LanguageEuskara monoglots: few, if any.
Spanish monoglots: 1,525,000 (est.)
French monoglots: 654,000 (est.)
Euskara + Spanish: 600,000 (est.)
Euskara + French (1991): 76,200
other: XXXX
Related ethnic groups No other ethnic group is known to be related to the Basques.


Origin of Basques

The most important sources about the early history of the Basques are the classical writers, especially Strabo, who confirms that at about the birth of Jesus Christ the western part of the Pyrenees were inhabited by a people known as the Vasconnes. This is quite identifiable as one of a number of variations on the word Basque. Further evidence for these people being Euskara-speaking Basques is provided when lists of names and place names are considered.

The pre-history of the Basques before that time is necessarily conjectural. Among the theories in contention are:

  1. The Basques arrived as part of the Indo-European invasion of Europe, circa 2000 BC.
  2. The Basques arrived far earlier, when the Cro-Magnon invasion displaced the Neanderthals.

In any event, it is widely believed that the Basques have occupied a single region of Europe longer than any other identifiable ethnic group.

Did the Basques arrive with the Indo-Europeans?

One theory of the origins for the Basques has them arriving along with the Indo-Europeans four thousand years ago. There have been antecedents to such an event. During the Germanic migrations that swept Europe after the fall of Rome, for instance, almost all the tribes were Indo-Europeans, except for the Alans (also known as the Sarmatians) who it now seems were probably Turkish speakers.

Furthermore it is now believed the Indo-Europeans began their invasion of Europe from a position just north of the Caspian Sea. South of this region is the Caucasus, a small and mountainous region home to some thirty separate languages, from two separate language groups of which there are no other relatives. Similarities between Basque and the Caucasian language groups have been advocated on a number of occasions. Could a group of Caucasians have joined the invasion of Europe by the Indo-Europeans that was departing just north of them?

It is not impossible but there is little to no evidence for this and much against it. The relationship between Basque and the Caucasian languages is vociferously denied by authors such as R.L. Trask who see no evidence of a connection, and most modern scholars agree with this view.

A second argument against the idea of the Basques arriving sometime around the arrival of the Indo-Europeans is archeological. There is no evidence of a new group of people arriving in Basqueland at this time. While the traditions changed, for instance the building of dolmens slowly faded out, these changes seem far more like a single evolving society than a replacement by new groups of people.

Do the Basques date back to the Cro-Magnon invasion of Europe?

In fact the only evidence for an invasion of Basqueland dates from thousands upon thousands of years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded the Neanderthals. Could this have been when the Basques first arrived in Europe? The archeological evidence is shaky and it is difficult to assume there was never an invasion just because evidence for one has not yet been found.

Thousands of years in the same region

Even if the arrival of the Basques is postponed it is now quite likely that they arrived before the Indo-Europeans and thus that they are the oldest surviving people in Europe.

It is now believed by most scholars that the Basques have been in the same location for thousands of years, unmoved by any of the calamities of war, plague, or famine that destroyed all the other ancient civilizations of Europe. How could one small group of people survive when so many others were overwhelmed by the waves of invaders that have swept Europe? These questions can be dangerous and lead to speculation about racial superiority, a trap that a number of Basque writers have fallen into. In reality, however the reason the Basques have survived is mostly luck: they happened to be at the right place in the right time over and over again.

The Basques either chose their easily defended home in the Pyrenees or, what is more likely, were forced into it at some time in the past. It is quite common for mountainous regions to remain as bastions of an all-but-vanished group of people. When the Celts of Europe were overwhelemed by the Germanic hordes from Asia and the Roman Empire from the south, the only areas left speaking Celtic languages were the isolated island of Ireland and a number of mountain bastions, most of which still retain Celtic speakers to the present day, or at least into modern times. These regions include Brittany in the northwest of France as well as Scotland and Wales in the British Isles. In these regions the Celtic language survived fifteen hundred years of isolation.

The Basque homeland is quite well suited to survival. Its low mountains are combined with dense forests and heavy vegetation to make the region almost impassable to outsiders (although this didn't stop the Way of Saint James, connecting Santiago de Compostela to mainland Europe), but still temperate enough to support a large agricultural base. Despite this growth, the soil is of much lower quality than the surrounding plains in Spain and France leaving the area a much less tempting target for invaders. For invaders bent on plunder the Basque areas have few reserves of precious metals, especially in comparison to the gold reserves to the west in Spain or to the wealth in Gascony just to the north of Basqueland. The Basques seem to have ended up in the best locale for uninterrupted survival on the continent.

The first two known invasions the Basques survived were those of the Indo-Europeans and then the Celts. These two invasions occurred in prehistory and the secret of the Basque survival is only hinted at by limited archeological evidence.

Roman rule

For the next invasion of the region, however, there is much written evidence. The Romans entered the Iberian peninsula after their defeat of Carthage in the Punic wars. Roman rule quickly spread from the Carthaginian settlements along the Mediterranean coast through the rest of the peninsula. The northwest, including the Basque regions, were conquered by Pompey, after whom the large Basqueland city of Pamplona is named, in the first century BC.

The looseness of the Roman federation well suited the Basques, who retained their traditional laws and leadership within the Roman Empire. The poor region was little developed by the Romans and there is not much evidence of Romanization; this certainly contributed to the survival of the separate Basque language.

The lack of a large Roman presence was encouraged by the passivity of the Basques. Roman military records show that there was never a need to fight insurrections in the Basque country. Basqueland never needed Roman garrisons to control the populace, unlike the surrounding Celtic areas.

On the contrary, Basques were used by the Romans to guard their empire. There is a great deal of evidence for a Vasconne cohort. This cohort spent many years guarding Hadrians Wall in the north of Britain. Also at some time in its history it earned the title fida or faithful for some now forgotten service to the emperor.

There is some evidence for other Basque units serving in the empire as well. Even today, nationalist Basques look back on the Roman Empire as an ideal time when, claiming that even though there was no Basque independence, the Basques still had almost total internal control. As well as their lack of exposure to Roman garrisons, the Basque survival was also aided by the fact that Basqueland was a poor region. It had no unused cropland that could be used to settle Roman colonists and it had few commodities that would interest the Romans. Only a small number of Roman traders would have come to Basqueland. This isolation is what allowed the Basque language to survive and not be overwhelmed by Latin as occurred in so many other regions of the Empire.

If the Roman Empire had continued, however, there is a good chance the Basque language would have vanished. During the Roman period the territory where Basque was spoken slowly shrank and, by the end of the period, it seems Basque had become limited to rural regions, while the major cities such as Pamplona were Romanized.

Middle Ages

The history of Basqueland darkens, however, with the arrival of the Germanic peoples and the collapse of the Roman Empire. Rather than being an isolated area in the centre of a large empire, the Basques were placed at the border between the warring Visigothic and Frankish kingdoms. Basqueland became a very strategically important piece of territory desired by both sides.

At the same time, the Basques lost their lifestyle, which was dependent on trade with the Roman Empire. These two changes transformed the Basques from being one of the most docile people in Europe into a group of dedicated warriors bent on survival. There are scattered reports from this period of presumed Basque brigands (in Latin, bagaudae) in Aquitaine and Spain stealing those things which they used to be able to trade for.

Most of the confrontations with the Basques were, however, instigated by the outsiders. Both the Franks and Visigoths sent armies through Basqueland repeatedly during their long-running war. While there are few records, armies of the day rarely treated the inhabitants of the lands they were passing through well. The Basqueland was probably repeatedly plundered for foodstuffs and fodder to maintain the armies.

The rugged Basque territory is ideal for banditry and it is not surprising that despite the oppresion by their neighbhours the Basques could still survive. Just as in every time of persecution in their history the Basques simply moved to the hills and held out there for many years.

The Basques also proved during this period that, despite the lack of central authority, they could protect their homeland when the need arose. After Charlemagne's Franks invaded northern Spain, they returned home and en route pillaged the Basqueland, stripping it of any wealth they could find. The Basques, however, intercepted the Frankish army while it made its way through a mountain pass. Despite poor weaponry and fewer fighters the Basques destroyed much of the Frankish force. The Battle of the Roncesvalles Pass was the only major defeat Charlemagne suffered in his long career. These events were immortalized in the French-language Chanson de Roland, an important piece of medieval verse.

The Basques did not similarly mobilise against the Islamic invaders who, just a few years earlier, had seized most of the Iberian peninsula. Although Christians, Basques did not resist the Muslim advance; it was stopped only by Frankish troops in Poitiers. Later, the Christian kingdom of Pamplona (later Navarre) and the short-lived Muslim kingdom of the Banu-Qasi, with capital in Tudela, had a typical feudal alliance with cross marriages.

Although there was a Kingdom of Navarre, the bigger part of the current territories of the Basque country (Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava) were never part of it. Instead, they were independent feudal territories whose assemblies chose to be united with the kingdom of Castile, so long as the king pledged alliegence to their local laws or fueros.

From the Renaissance Era to the Nineteenth Century

The Basque lands were eventually divided between France and Spain after the Middle Ages, with most of its population ending up in Spain, a situation which persists to this day. The Navarrese and the Basques from Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava were able to keep a huge degree of self-government of their provinces in Spain and France, functioning practically as separate nation-states. The Basques, serving under the Spanish flag, were renowned mariners. Spanish ships with many Basque sailors were some of the first Europeans to reach North America, and many early European settlers in Canada and the United States were of Basque origin.

The self-government of the northern Basque provinces came to an end with the French Revolution. The Basques were pushed to counter-revolutionary positions. Later on, when the Napoleonic Army invaded Spain, it had almost no trouble in keeping the southern Basque provinces loyal to the occupier, and the southern Basque Country was the last part of Spain kept by the French because of this lack of resistance.

In the 19th century the southern Basque provinces and Navarre made up the backbone of traditionalist and absolutist (Carlist) Spanish upheaval, which sought to give the crown of Spain to the male heir Carlos. Very much christianized at that time, and fearing that, under modern liberal uniformizing constitutions they would lose their self-government, Spanish Basques massively joined the traditionalist army, which was basically paid by the provincial governments of the Basque provinces. As the differences between the Apostholic (official) and the Navarrean (Basque basis) parties inside the Carlist rebel band grew up, the latter signed an armistice which included the promise by the Spaniards of keeping Basque self-government. As this promise was not accomplished fully, there was a second Carlist upheaval, which ended in similar way. Ultimately, the Basque provinces and Navarre lost most of their autonomous power, but retained control over fiscal laws and collections with Ley Paccionada, a power they still retain in modern day Spain in the form of fiscal Conciertos with the national government in Madrid.

Modern history

The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the appearance of the new Basque nationalism which come with the foundation of the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV), in which Christian-Democratic ideas were mixed with racism against Spanish immigrant workers who were seen as perverting the purity of the mythical Basque race. The party asked for independence or at least a huge autonomy.

In 1931 Spain became a Republic and soon Catalonia (the next most ethnically distinct region inside Spain, also with a strong independence movement) was given self-government. However, the Basques had to wait until the Spanish Civil War was already under way to be granted the same rights.

Basques fought on both sides in the Spanish Civil War, with Basque nationalists and leftists siding with the Second Spanish Republic, and the Navarrese Carlists siding with General Francisco Franco's insurgent forces (who were known in the rest of Spain as "Nacionales" or "Nationalists", a very misleading phrase in Basque terms). Today, some Basque nationalists claim that the Spanish Civil War was a war of Spain against the Basques, despite there having been Basques on both sides. There is no question, though, that one of the greatest atrocities of this war was the bombing of Guernica, the traditional Biscayne capital, by German planes. Much of the city was destroyed and a great deal of Basque history was erased.

In 1937 the troops of the Autonomous Basque Government surrendered in Santoña to the Italian allies of General Franco, beginning one of the hardest periods of Basque history in Spain. After the war, Franco began a dedicated effort to turn Spain into a uniform nation state and introduced severe laws against all Spanish minorities in an effort to suppress their cultures and languages.

The backlash to these actions created a violent Basque separatist movement that as of 2000 has resulted in the deaths of about 800 people over the past 30 years. The terrorist group responsible for most of the violence is known as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or ETA. The end of the Franco regime saw an end to the suppression and a creation of an autonomous Basque region in Spain. ETA continues its actions, however, fighting for full independence and socialism.


The current autonomous Basque area of Spain, known as "Euskadi" in Euskara, "País Vasco" in Spanish and the "Basque Country" in English, is composed of three provinces or territories: Araba/Alava, Bizkaia/Vizcaya and Gipuzkoa/Guipuzcoa (in each case, this is the Euskara name followed by the Spanish name). There are 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Country: Araba, 279,000; Bizkaia, 1,160,000; and Gipuzkoa, 684,000. The most important cities are: Bilbo/Bilbao (in Bizkaia), Donostia/San Sebastian (in Gipuzkoa) and Gasteiz/Vitoria (in Araba). Both Euskara and Spanish are official languages. Knowledge of Spanish is virtually universal; 27 per cent of the people speak the Basque language, but this number is increasing for the first time in many centuries.

There is also a substantial Basque population in the adjacent Spanish autonomous community and province of Navarre, and in the nearby parts of France. There is at least some ethnic Basque presence in many countries of the Americas, including a contingent in Idaho who first came over to herd sheep.

Issues of Persecution

Both Spain and France have, at times, tried to suppress Basque linguistic and cultural identity. France, the epitome of the nation state, has 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, Spain actively attempted to suppress nearly all signs of nationality or ethnicity, going so far as to ban public use of Euskara.

Today, the Basque Country within Spain has a great deal of cultural autonomy, and even a significant amount of political autonomy. Many schools in the region use Euskara as the primary language of education.


There are interesting social differences between the Basques and their neighbours. The Basque people have an unusually close attachment with their homes. A person's home is their family in Basqueland. Even if one does not still live there and has not for generations a Basque family is still known by the house in which it once lived. Common Basque surnames could translate as "top of the hill", or "by the river" all relating to the location of their ancestral home. This is interesting evidence for considering the Basques to be the only people who have always had a fixed and stable abode.

Though matriarchality has been sometimes attributed to Basque society, today it seems clear that the actually known familiar structure is patrilinear, being the top position given to the father, as in neighbour cultures. Nevertheless there are some signs that this could have not always been that way. Also it must be said that the social position of women has always been rather better than in neighbour countries.

In spite of this, until the Industrial Age, poor Basques (usually the younger sons) have emigrated to the rest of Spain or France and the Americas. Saint Francis Xavier and Conquistadors like Lope de Aguirre were Basque.

Despite ETA and the crisis of heavy industries, the Basques have been doing remarkably well in recent years, emerging from persecution during the Franco regime with a strong and vibrant language and culture. For the first time in centuries, the Basque language is expanding geographically led by large increases in the major urban centres of Pamplona, Bilbao, and Bayonne, where only a few decades ago the Basque language had all but disappeared. The opening of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is widely seen as a symbol of a linguistic and cultural revival.


As of 2004, virtually all Basques speak the dominant language of their respective countries. About one quarter also speak Euskara.

Besides Spanish or French, a minority of Basques speak their own ethnic language, Euskara, which is not only distinct from French and Spanish, but utterly different from every other language in Europe and the world. Most Europeans speak an Indo-European tongue, with some Finno-Ugric and Turkic (also known as Altaic) speakers in the east.

The Basque language, however, is believed to be an isolated language, utterly distinct from every other known present-day or historical language in the world, although the Spanish language was greatly influenced by Euskara, particularly in the vowel set.

This unique and isolated people has attracted the interest of a great many linguists and historians trying to discover how and when it came to be where it is. The other non-Indo-European languages in Europe, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Turkish, were all brought in by invaders from Asia during recorded history. The Indo-European languages were introduced in the same way a few millennia earlier. When could the Basques have arrived?

The answer to this important question is still not known but the number of possibilities has been narrowed down. The first time we find Basque in writing is the late Middle Ages, which is not, however, evidence of their late arrival, for the Basques were already very well established by this point. Less direct evidence must thus be considered.

Recent studies have shown that the Basque language is but the remnant of a common language that was spoken in the Iberian peninsula and Northern Africa.


Most Basques are practicing Roman Catholics.


While there is no independent Basque state, Spain's Basque Country provinces of Araba/Alava, Bizkaia/Vizcaya and Gipuzkoa/Guipuzcoa are primarily Basque in character and have a great deal of cultural automony. Similar remarks apply to the Spanish province of Navarre.

The political party EAJ/PNV - "Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea" in Euskara, "Partido Nacionalista Vasco" in Spanish, "Basque Nationalist Party" in English is a moderate nationalist political party from the Basque region of Spain.

The political party Batasuna ("Unity"), based mainly in Spain but with a French presence, is generally presumed to be associated with the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

The earliest university in the Basque Country was the University of Oñate, founded 1540 in Hernani and moved to Oñate in 1548. It lasted in various forms until 1901. [1] In 1868 there was an unsuccessful effort to establish a Basque-Navarrese University, thwarted by the hostility of the Spanish Central government. The first modern Basque university was the Basque University, founded November 18, 1936 in Bilbao in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. It operated only briefly before the defeat by Franco's forces. [1].

Several universities, originally teaching only in Spanish, were founded in the Basque region in the Franco era. One of those, the University of Bilbao, has now evolved into the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea / Universidad del País Vasco / University of the Basque Country.

There are numerous other significant Basque institutions in the Basque Country and elsewhere. Most Basque organizations in the United States are affiliated with NABO (North American Basque Organizations, Inc.).


As with the Basque language, the Basques are generally considered to be an isolated ethnic group.

Applicability of the term "ethnic group" to the Basques

The Basques a clearly distinct ethnic group in their native region. They are culturally and (especially) linguististically distinct from their surrounding neighbors, and the (controversial) claim has often been made that they are comparably genetically distinct as well. Many Basques, especially in Spain, are strongly, even violently, nationalist, identifying far more firmly as Basques than as citizens of any existing state. Indeed, the only question would seem to be whether the term "ethnic group" is too weak, and whether one should favor the term "nation."

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 neighbors 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.


As part of the invention of the Basque national myth, the Iberian idea of the "limpieza de sangre" ("cleanliness of blood") was adapted by Sabino Arana, founder of the nationalist party PNV, who propagated the idea that Basque people were genetically distinct and even superior to neighbouring people. One can find such racist arguments in Sabino Arana's writings. This idea still surfaces occasionally in the Basque nationalist community and some (questionable) evidence has been given to support it.

Notably, investigations of Basque blood types that have found that there are far more Basques with type O blood than in the general European population. Basques also have a comparatively lower chance of being either type B or type AB.

Other genetic as well as linguistic studies have linked the Basque population and language with Northern Africa's Berber stock; there are also claims of linguistic evidence to this effect (see the section on language). Genetic studies have shown that key genetic variability is not higher among the Basque population than among the rest of Spain's population when compared with Northern African test groups.

See also


External links

A basque is also an article of clothing.


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Modified by Geona