The "genetic singularity" of the Basque people

« previous post | next post »

Linguistically, Basque is generally thought of as an isolate with a very deep history.  Consequently, Basque people are also often presumed to have been genetically singular for thousands of years as well.  A new study, however, calls this presumption into question:

"Basque 'genetic singularity' confirmed in largest-ever study:  The new research shows that this difference only began to emerge 2,500 years ago as a result of centuries of isolation", by Manuel Ansede, El Pais (English) (4/1/21)

In terms of the findings of the original study, the contents of the subtitle of the article are more important than those of the title.

Here is the title of the original paper, the authors, highlights, and the summary:

"Genetic origins, singularity, and heterogeneity of Basques", by André Flores-Bello, Frédéric Bauduer, Jasone Salaberria, Bernard Oyharçabal, Francesc Calafell, Jaume Bertranpetit, Lluis Quintana-Murci, and David Comas, Current Biology (available online 3/25/21)

 

Highlights

Clear genetic singularity of Basques is observed at wide- and fine-scale levels
Basque differentiation might lie on the absence of gene flow after the Iron Ages
Genetic substructure correlated with geography and linguistics is detected

Summary

Basques have historically lived along the Western Pyrenees, in the Franco-Cantabrian region, straddling the current Spanish and French territories. Over the last decades, they have been the focus of intense research due to their singular cultural and biological traits that, with high controversy, placed them as a heterogeneous, isolated, and unique population. Their non-Indo-European language, Euskara, is thought to be a major factor shaping the genetic landscape of the Basques. Yet there is still a lively debate about their history and assumed singularity due to the limitations of previous studies. Here, we analyze genome-wide data of Basque and surrounding groups that do not speak Euskara at a micro-geographical level. A total of ∼629,000 genome-wide variants were analyzed in 1,970 modern and ancient samples, including 190 new individuals from 18 sampling locations in the Basque area. For the first time, local- and wide-scale analyses from genome-wide data have been performed covering the whole Franco-Cantabrian region, combining allele frequency and haplotype-based methods. Our results show a clear differentiation of Basques from the surrounding populations, with the non-Euskara-speaking Franco-Cantabrians located in an intermediate position. Moreover, a sharp genetic heterogeneity within Basques is observed with significant correlation with geography. Finally, the detected Basque differentiation cannot be attributed to an external origin compared to other Iberian and surrounding populations. Instead, we show that such differentiation results from genetic continuity since the Iron Age, characterized by periods of isolation and lack of recent gene flow that might have been reinforced by the language barrier.


The hypothesis that attachment to language difference may have influenced gene flow is interesting and deserving of further consideration.


Selected reading

"The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe " (1/6/09)
"Divergent histories of languages and genes " (2/21/10)
"Why is Basque an Ancient Language?" (1/3/07)
"The languages of the Caucasus " (8/25/08)


[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]



18 Comments »

  1. Scott P. said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 6:16 am

    This is an area that I have published on professionally. There are some problems with the 'isolation' hypothesis. First, most of the archaeological evidence suggests a strong Celticization from the 4th – 1st century BCE. This also extends to things like river names, which have Celtic roots. Second, epigraphic evidence from the Roman period indicates that the majority of the population had Celtic onomastics. As far as Basque goes, there is very, very little evidence of Basque south of the Pyrenees prior to the 5th century CE. There is some, so there were some present, but the evidence is very scant. This is in sharp contrast to Aquitaine where there is evidence of proto-Basque in names during the Roman period.

    So whatever the DNA links, linguistic evidence south of the Pyrenees suggests a largely Celtic-speaking population (that later also becomes more Latinate, of course). The hypothesis that I have supported in my work is that there was a Basque ethnogenesis in this region during the 6th-7th centuries CE, that saw the language become more prevalent. Whether this was accompanied by migration from Gaul is difficult to say at this point, but that is possible to a degree.

    The Basque linguistic frontier is historically very fluid. I am currently working in northern Burgos, where there is a strong stratum of Basque place names dating to the 10th-12th centuries, though no Basque is spoken here today. The same pattern can be found in La Rioja.

    I find there is a tendency, particularly among Basque nationalists, to adopt the view that ethnicity = language = blood (which in modern terms often = DNA). But I strongly warn against an essentialist POV that equates DNA to a 'race' or even to language. Humans are much more variable than any such simple equation can capture.

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 6:33 am

    Sabino Arana created a xenophobic ideology centered on the purity of the Basque race and its alleged moral supremacy over others, anti-Liberal Catholic integrism, and deep opposition to the migration of Spaniards to the Basque Country.

  3. AntC said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 7:16 am

    Thank you @Scott, fascinating!

    Burgos, where there is a strong stratum of Basque place names dating to the 10th-12th centuries

    How can you date those names?/Did those places have names before that date?/In what language(s) were the earlier names? Did the Basque names not in turn get erased by Castilian?

  4. DJL said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 9:27 am

    @Scott P.

    No doubt that Basque nationalists will draw that equation, as nationalists of many stripes have done in the past, but one would hope that some of the results of the modern study of nationalism (I especially have Gellner and Hobsbawm in mind here) would have influenced at least some strands of linguistics as to avoid such a simplistic view of human nature. Is that not the case?

  5. Scott P. said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 9:48 am

    How can you date those names?/Did those places have names before that date?/In what language(s) were the earlier names? Did the Basque names not in turn get erased by Castilian?

    I'm not the linguist (my background is in archaeology), but from talking to my collaborators one can see the placenames appearing in medieval documentation. They aren't there in the Roman period. Many of the names have been 'Castilianized' but they don't have any Romance roots that make sense. Some are pretty obvious: "Vizcainos" (the people from Vizcaya), or Bascuñana, are exonyms referring to those who settled there.

    Other names appear to have Berber or Arabic origins, so there is a toponymic palimpsest that one has to gradually make sense of. Generally, though, it's rare to have a documented 'earlier' name to compare with (many of these villages were likely

  6. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 9:55 am

    Patterns of genetic differentiation and the footprints of historical migrations in the Iberian Peninsula

    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2018/03/12/250191.full.pdf

  7. David Marjanović said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 10:01 am

    (many of these villages were likely

    Scott P., please try again.

    Maybe you used <? Everything following that sign is interpreted as an HTML tag, and if no such tag exists, it's summarily deleted by the software here. I use an HTML trick to write it: &lt; (…and that I had to spell with &amp;).

  8. Lugubert said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    David M.,

    A few days ago, I encountered

    There are two kinds of people. Those who can extrapolate from incomplete

  9. maidhc said,

    April 5, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    From a quick investigation, I gather there was an Aquitanian language, spoken until the early Middle Ages, known to be a relative of Euskara. And in the Iberian peninsula, as well as Celts, there were speakers of an Iberian language, which lasted until the Roman invasion. Iberian is known to be non-IE, but otherwise something of a mystery.

    Too simplistic?

  10. JPL said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 1:38 am

    @David Marjanovic

    A guess: "… original settlements …."?

  11. Scott P. said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    Yes, original settlements. Nothing after that. Not sure how it dropped out.

    And in the Iberian peninsula, as well as Celts, there were speakers of an Iberian language, which lasted until the Roman invasion.

    I would be cautious there. The current hypothesis, is that there were no 'Celts' in Iberia, nor a 'Celtic migration,' of which there is little evidence in the archaeological record, but a process of 'Celtization' in situ, that involved adopting Celtic languages. Exactly what occurred is hotly debated (though outside my area). So are those 'Celts'?

    There is also ample evidence of non-Celtic Indo-European languages in western Iberia, in addition to those you mention.

  12. Rodger C said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 6:56 am

    a process of 'Celtization' in situ, that involved adopting Celtic languages

    This kind of hypothesis always mystifies me. In the absence of Berlitz schools, why would Celtic languages have been adopted without the incursion of some Celtic speakers, at least a warrior aristocracy, to give the language prestige?

    By the way, you refer to "Aquitaine." Ancient Aquitania is later Gascony. Medieval Aquitaine was to the northeast of that.

  13. Jerry Packard said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    While genes are technically independent of language, the genetic data has been valuable in pursuing linguistic hypotheses. For example, as I point out in my upcoming book, in addition to the linguistic evidence, the absence of a close relationship between the Chinese and Japanese people is also supported by the genetic evidence, which invariably shows that Japanese populations pattern genetically with northern Asian groups rather than with Chinese groups.

    Reference: Di, D., and Sanchez- Mazas, A. 2011. “Challenging Views on the Peopling History of East Asia: The Story According to HLA Markers.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145: 81– 96.

  14. z said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    The way I read it, the claim is simply that "lack of recent gene flow […] might have been reinforced by the language barrier." This is not a new hypothesis and I fail to see why it should be controversial. In a situation where who gets to reproduce with whom is mostly determined by arrangements between two farming families, you expect that differences in language and religion will act as powerful barriers to such arrangements. Things are different in situations where gene flow has other causes, be they peaceful (e.g. the establishment of political alliances between groups larger than individual families, peaceful migration) or violent (e.g. war, invasion, conquest).
    I don't know if "attachment to language" needs to play any role in this. It is just a matter of being able to communicate with your neighbors from across the hills or not.
    Re "cultural Celtization". This hypothesis may need to be revised in the light of new ancient DNA data showing massive male-led genetic replacement in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula at the time. The question is how to reconcile this fact with the lack of evidence in the archeological record and with the survival of Basque and Iberian.

  15. Scott P. said,

    April 6, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    This kind of hypothesis always mystifies me. In the absence of Berlitz schools, why would Celtic languages have been adopted without the incursion of some Celtic speakers, at least a warrior aristocracy, to give the language prestige?

    Well 'some Celtic speakers' is the sort of hypothesis that one will likely never find evidence of (what would that evidence consist of?). The question is whether there was a mass migration of Celtic speakers, the alternative (and for a long while dominant) hypothesis.

    Examples like the prevalence of French-speaking among the 18th-century Russian and Prussian aristocracy, or English in modern India, indicate that you don't need large population movements to explain the spread of a language.

    By the way, you refer to "Aquitaine." Ancient Aquitania is later Gascony. Medieval Aquitaine was to the northeast of that..

    I considered using 'Aquitania', but didn't want to inject excessive jargon.

  16. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    Well 'some Celtic speakers' is the sort of hypothesis that one will likely never find evidence of (what would that evidence consist of?).

    Linguistic evidence, of course. Besides shifting your position (from "no 'Celts' in Iberia" to no mass migration), you're treating archeological evidence as if it were evidence tout court. This is an attitude one sometimes meets among dirty-knuckled archeologists who scorn soft-handed linguists ("WE deal in REAL THINGS, you know!), but um, this isn't Potsherd Log.

  17. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    As for French in Russia, etc., this was an entirely different sociolinguistic situation, which could hardly have happened in a state-free society.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2021 @ 9:24 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Random note re: Basque, I remember reading that natively the name of the language ("linguanym"?) derives the demonym rather than vice versa, and so Wikipedia has it:

    "In Basque, people call themselves the euskaldunak, singular euskaldun, formed from euskal- (i.e. "Basque (language)") and -dun (i.e. "one who has"); euskaldun literally means a Basque speaker."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_language#Names_of_the_language

    I can't think of parallel cases offhand.. but funnily a Chinese child one asked me “Nǐ shì Zhōngwén rén háishì Yīngwén rén 你是中文人還是英文人?” ("Are you a Chinese language person or an English language person?") :D

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment