Basque people

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This article is about the Basque people. For other meanings, see Basque.

The Basques are an indigenous people who inhabit parts of both Spain and France. They are predominantly found in an area known as the Basque Country, consisting of four provinces in Spain and three in France, located around the western edge of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Basques are known in local languages as:

  • euskaldunak ("Basque speakers") or euskotarrak ("ethnically Basque people") in Basque
  • Vascos in Spanish (or the older term Vascongados, which strictly speaking applies only to those Basques who live in the three provincias Vascongadas)
  • Basques in French
  • Bascos in Gascon

This article discusses the Basques as an ethnic group or, as some view them, a nation, rather than other ethnic groups living in the Basque areas. The coverage here of the history of the Basque region focuses on how it bears on the Basques as a people.

Total population: 7 million (est.)
Significant populations in: Spain

  Araba/Álava: 279,000
  Bizkaia/Vizcaya: 1,160,000
  Gipuzkoa/Guipúzcoa: 684,000
  Nafarroa/Navarra: 560,000

France: 730,000 (1993)
United States: 47,956 (1990)
Argentina: 3,600,000 have Basque origin (2004, est.)
Uruguay: 35,000 have Basque origin (2004, est.)

Language: Basque monoglots: Few.

Spanish monoglots: 1,525,000 (est.)
French monoglots: 654,000 (est.)
Basque + Spanish: 600,000 (est.)
Basque + French: 76,200 (1991)
other: ?

Religion: Predominantly Roman Catholic
Related ethnic groups: Welsh and Irish Celts


Etymology of the word Basque

The English word Basque comes from French Basque (pronounced /bask/), which itself comes from Gascon Basco (pronounced /ˈbasku/) and Spanish Vasco (pronounced /ˈbasko/). These, in turn, come from Latin Vasco (pronounced /wasko/), plural Vascones (see History section below). The Latin labial-velar approximant /w/ typically evolved into the voiced bilabial plosive /b/ in Gascon and Spanish, probably under the influence of Basque and Aquitanian (a language related to old Basque and spoken in Gascony in Antiquity). This explains the Roman pun at the expense of the Aquitanians (ancestor of the Gascons): "Beati Hispani quibus vivere bibere est", which translates as "Blessed Iberians [the Romans considered the Aquitanians akin to the Iberians], for whom living (vivere) is drinking (bibere)".

One frequent theory about the origin of Latin Vasco is that it derives from Latin boscus or buscus meaning "wooded area" (cf. Spanish bosque, forest). Thus Vascones would mean "those living in the wooded land". However, this fake etymology is now proven wrong, as Latin boscus/buscus only appeared in the Middle Ages, and is probably a corruption of classical Latin arbustus (meaning "planted with tree", from arbor, "tree"), possibly under the influence of Germanic busk or bosk (cf. English bush, German Busch), whose origin is itself unknown.

Another side of that theory sees Latin Vasco still meaning "of the wooded land", but this time coming from (modern) Basque basoko where baso- means forest, and -ko is the ending denoting possession/genitive. Besides the fact that basoko is a modern Basque word (it may have been quite a different word 2000 years ago), this etymology once popular among Basque people is now totally discredited by researchers.

To add to the mystery, several coins from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC were found in the north of Spain, bearing the inscription barscunes written in the Iberian alphabet. The place where they were minted is not certain but has been identified as Pamplona or Rocafort, the area where historians think the Vascones lived.

Today, it is thought that Latin Vasco comes from a Basque and Aquitanian root used by these people to call themselves. This root is eusk-, pronounced /ewsk/, which is indeed close from Latin /wasko/. There was also an Aquitanian people whose name the Romans recorded as Ausci (pronounced /awski/ in Latin), and which also seems to come from the same root.

In modern Basque, Basques call themselves euskaldunak, singular euskaldun, formed from euskal- (i.e. "Basque (language)") and -dun (i.e. "one who has"), so euskaldun literally means a Basque speaker. It should be noted that not all Basques are Basque speakers (euskaldunak), and not all Basque speakers are Basque (foreigners who learnt Basque are also euskaldunak). To remedy this inconvenience, a neologism was coined in the 19th century, the word euskotar, plural euskotarrak, which means an ethnically Basque person, whether speaking Basque or not.

These Basque words all originate from the name the Basques use to call their language: euskara. Modern researchers have reconstructed the pronunciation and vocabulary of ancient Basque, and Alfonso Irigoyen proposes that the word euskara comes from the verb "to say" in ancient Basque, which was pronounced enautsi (modern Basque esan), and from the suffix -(k)ara ("way (of doing something)"). Thus euskara would literally mean "way of saying", "way of speaking". Evidence of this theory is found in the Spanish book Compendio Historial written in 1571 by the Basque writer Esteban de Garibay, who recorded the native name of the Basque language as "enusquera". However, as with most things related to Basque history, this hypothesis is not totally certain.

In the 19th century, the Basque nationalist activist Sabino Arana thought that there was an original root euzko from eguzkiko ("of the sun" presuming a solar religion). From it he created the neologism Euzkadi for his purported independent Basque Country. This theory is totally discredited today, the only serious etymology being from enautsi and -(k)ara, but the neologism Euzkadi, in the regularized spelling Euskadi, is still widely used in Basque and Spanish.


Origin of the Basques

The key sources for the early history of the Basques are the classical writers, especially Strabo, who in the 1st century AD reports that the north of modern-day Navarre and Aragon were inhabited by a people known as the Vascones (this is not the area of the modern-day autonomous community of the Basque Country (here "the present Basque Country"), but an area immediately east of it). Although the word Vascones is clearly related to the modern word "Basque", we do not know for sure if the Vascones were indeed the ancestors of the modern Basques, or whether they spoke an old form of the Basque language. Surviving place names and a few personal names tend to suggest they spoke old Basque, but we cannot be sure.

On the territory of the present Basque Country lived three different peoples: the Vardulli, the Caristi, and the Autrigones. Nobody knows if these three peoples were related to the Vascones, or if they spoke a language related to old Basque, as they have left no written records. Some researchers, based on the meager historical evidence we possess, think that they were Celtiberian peoples, speaking languages not related to old Basque, but we cannot be sure. In fact, the place where a Basque-related language is the best attested is Gascony, in the southwest of France, where the local Aquitanians spoke a language which is proven beyond doubt to be akin to Basque.

Later in the period of the Roman Empire, the Vascones seem to have moved west into what is the present Basque Country (while some also clearly stayed in Navarre), either absorbing or displacing the Vardulli, Caristi, and Autrigones, and from this emerged the Basque nation.

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 Homo neanderthalensis.

In any event, it is widely believed that the Basques have occupied a single region of Europe longer than any other identifiable ethnic group. There is also considerable evidence that the Basque language was once spoken over a much wider area than the modern day Basque country. The Middle Ages and the Reconquista extended the Basque territory beyond the limits of the Roman age.

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 later examples of 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 the Huns and the Avars.

Furthermore it is now believed the Indo-Europeans began their invasion of Europe from a position just north of, and between, the Black Sea and 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. It has been argued that a group of Caucasians could have joined the invasion of Europe by the Indo-Europeans who were departing just north of them. However, the relationship between Basque and the Caucasian languages is denied by authors such as Larry Trask who see no evidence of a connection (and most modern scholars agree with this view), leaving little evidence for this theory.

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 the Basque Country at this time. While traditions changed (for instance the building of dolmens slowly faded out) such changes often occur internally to a culture rather than through the arrival of immigrants.

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

The only archeological evidence for an invasion of the Basque Country dates some 40,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded Homo neanderthalensis. It is possible that the ancestors of the Basques first arrived in Europe at this time, but the archeological evidence is shaky. Another possibility is that a precursor of the Basque language may have arrived with the advance of agriculture, some 6,000 years ago. There is also an extended supposition, where some Basque mythological creatures called "jentilak" (these were huge and extremely strong humanoids who lived hidden in the forest) are thought to be related to the Neanderthal men, strengthening the theory of the Basques in the Cro-Magnon age. Note, though, that the myth of the Wild Man is not exclusively Basque.

The Basque people are widely thought to be descended from some of the earliest human inhabitants of Europe; their genetic markers also show a very strong relationship with the Celts. See e.g. [1]. The genetic markers shared in common between the Basque and Celts are suggestive of having passed through a genetic bottleneck during the peak of the last ice age, which would mean they were in Europe by at least about 17,000 years ago, and probably 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. For some authors, the Basque language also shows signs of dating back to the stone age, such as by having words for knife and axe that may come from the root word for stone [2]- suggesting that the language developed when knives and axes were made of stone. Luis Villasante has proposed Latinate etymologies though.

Thousands of years in the same region

Regardless of which theories are correct, it is quite likely that the Basques arrived before the Indo-Europeans and thus that they are the oldest continuously surviving people inhabiting a particular location in Europe. It is believed that they have lived in or near their present location for thousands of years, a relatively small group of people surviving when many others were overwhelmed by invaders. A number of early Basque writers sought to explain this, in keeping with the academic fashion of their time, through speculation about racial superiority, but the endurance of the Basques can also be explained by good fortune: they happened to be in the right place over and over again.

Whether the Basques chose their easily defended home in the Pyrenees or were forced into it at some time in the past, it is common for mountainous regions, as for islands, to remain as bastions of an otherwise vanished culture or people. In a similar manner, for example, when the extensive Celtic cultures of Europe were overwhelmed by invaders, the only remaining areas speaking Celtic languages were Ireland and a number of remote mountainous or coastal bastions in Brittany, Scotland, Wales and so forth which still retain Celtic speakers to the present day. Despite the fact that new research has claimed that the Basque speaking populations may share genetic markers with populations of Celts in Ireland and Wales - [3], there is little reason to suppose that Indo-European Celtic languages are closely related to Basque. It may be the case that older British populations related to the Iberian population switched to Celtic, but we can only speculate on whether these ancient Irish and British speakers were using a precursor to Basque or some other language.

In any case, the Basque homeland is well suited to survival. Its low mountains are combined with dense forests and vegetation which make it impassable to outsiders en masse, but still temperate enough to support a large agricultural base—yet one where the soil is poorer than the surrounding plains, leaving the area a much less tempting target for invaders. Furthermore, 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. The Basques seem to have ended up in the best locale on the European continent for uninterrupted survival.

Roman rule

The north-west of Spain, including the Basque regions, was first reached by the Romans under Pompey in the 1st century BC, but not consolidated until the time of the Emperor Augustus. The looseness of Roman rule well suited the Basques, who retained their traditional laws and leadership. This 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.

A large Roman presence was situated in the garrison of Pompaelo (now Pamplona), a city founded by Pompey on the south side of the Pyrenees. The area to the north was conquered after a fierce campaign in which the Romans fought against the Cantabrians (see Cantabrian Wars). There are archaeological remains from this period of garrisons situated to protect the commercial routes all along the Ebro river and along a Roman causeway between Asturica and Burdigala.

The Basques were used by the Romans to guard their empire. For example, a unit of Vardulli was stationed on Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain for many years, and at some time earned the title fida (faithful) for some now forgotten service to the emperor. Even today, nationalist Basques look back on the Roman Empire as an ideal time, 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 survival of Basque culture was aided by the fact that the Basque Country 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 there. This isolation is no doubt what allowed Basque to survive and not be overwhelmed by Latin as other languages were.

Middle Ages

The history of the Basque Country 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. The Basque Country became a strategically important 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 outsiders. Both the Franks and Visigoths sent armies through the Basque Country repeatedly.

The rugged Basque territory is ideal for banditry and it is not surprising that the Basques could still survive despite oppressive neighbours. Just as in every time of persecution in their history, the Basques simply moved to the hills and held out there until the threat had gone.

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 Basque Country. 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 the Kingdom of Navarre) and the short-lived Muslim kingdom of the Banu-Qasi Muladis (indigenous converts), with its capital in Tudela, had an alliance with cross-marriages. However. the Basques did take part in the Reconquista. The frontier land of Alava was secured and the neighbouring kingdoms called Basques to colonize the new territories, mainly in La Rioja and parts of Castile. At one point, the kingdom of Navarre extended southwards beyond the Ebro river. In a later age, Basque mariners were to take part in the sea battles of the Castilian conquest of Andalusia.

Most of the western part of the present Basque Country (Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Álava) became from time to time part of the Kingdom of Navarre or the kingdom of Castile, in each case so long as the king pledged allegiance to their local laws or fueros.

Basques began hunting whales in the Bay of Biscay as early as the 9th century. At least six Basque towns incorporated whales or whaling into their coat of arms.

During the Late Middle Ages, the Basque towns were divided in clashes among families, later polarized in two bands (Agramont and Beaumont in Navarre, Oñaz and Gamboa in Biscay). Local nobility built towerhouses, nowadays razed by fires and kingly decrees. (Compare with the earlier Italian Guelphs and Ghibellines).

From the Renaissance Era to the 19th Century

The Gernika oak is a symbol of Basque freedoms.
The Gernika oak is a symbol of Basque freedoms.

As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Basque lands came to be divided between France and Spain. Most of the Basque population ended up in Spain, a situation which persists to this day. The Navarrese and the Basques from Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Álava were able to keep a large degree of self-government of their provinces in Spain and France, functioning practically as separate nation-states: the fueros gave each Basque province separate local laws, taxes and law courts. The Basques, serving under the Spanish flag, were renowned mariners, and at the end of the 16th century, taught Dutch sailors how to use the harpoon for whaling. 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 Protestant Reformation made some inroads, supported by Jeanne d'Albret, queen of Lower Navarre. In the 16th century, around Bayonne, a Basque-speaking bourgeoisie induced the printing of Basque-language books, mostly with Christian themes. Protestantism was however persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition, and, in the Northeast, the Protestant Navarrese king converted to Roman Catholicism and became king Henry IV of France.

The self-government of the northern Basque provinces came to an end with the French Revolution, which centralized government and abolished all of the various local privileges granted by the ancien régime. Some Basques were pushed to counter-revolutionary positions while others actively participated, even writing a Basque constitutional project by Basque revolutionary Garat. It brought the Basque Country to the Convention War (1793), with all Basque territories being nominally French for a time. 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 (see Battle of Vitoria). It all ended with the August 31, 1813 burning of San Sebastian;

Political Spain in 1854, after the first Carlist War
Political Spain in 1854, after the first Carlist War

In Spain, with some irony, through the various civil wars of the 19th century the fueros were upheld by the traditionalist and nominally absolutist Carlists and opposed by the victorious constitutional forces. The southern Basque provinces and Navarre made up the backbone of the (Carlist) upheavals, which sought to give the crown of Spain to the male heir Carlos (and, later, to the heirs of his line), who promised to defend the Basque foral System.

Very much Christianized at that time, and fearing that, under modern liberal uniformizing constitutions they would lose their self-government or Fueros, Spanish Basques massively joined the traditionalist army, which was mostly paid by the provincial governments of the Basque provinces. The forces of the Isabeline Army on the other hand had a vital participation of British (whose Irish legion (Tercio) was virtually annihilated by the Basques on the Battle of Oriamendi), French (also with an important Algerian legion), and Portuguese legions and those governments support against the Basques. During the First Carlist War, as the differences between the Apostolic (official) and the Navarrese (Basque basis) parties inside the Carlist rebel band grew, 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 further upheaval, the Second Carlist War, which ended in a 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.

Thus the same wars that brought relative liberty to most of Spain abolished most (but not all) of the traditional liberties of the Basques. However, the Spanish Basque provinces retained the widest autonomy in peninsular Spain, but far less than they had previously experienced.

However, the advance of Spanish customs from the Basque borders to the French border formed a new protected market in Spain for the incipient Basque industry.

Modern history

The new markets encouraged the replacement of the old forges by modern blast furnaces, that processed the local iron ore instead of sending it to Britain. The mining and the iron industry required workers, first among Basque peasants, later from the surrounding Navarre, Castile, Rioja, and farther away in Galicia and Andalusia. The awful conditions of these workers (Biscay had one of the highest mortality rates in Europe) prompted the diffusion of leftist ideologies.

The end of the 19th century witnessed the appearance of the new Basque nationalism which came 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 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 from Biscay and Guipúzcoa 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"—literally "Nationals", usually rendered in English as "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, roughly halfway through the war, the troops of the Autonomous Basque Government surrendered in Santoña to the Italian allies of General Franco on condition that the Basque heavy industry and economy was left untouched, beginning one of the hardest periods of Basque history in Spain. For many leftists in Spain this event is known as the Treason of Santoña. After the war, Franco began a dedicated effort to consolidate Spain as a uniform nation state. Franco's regime introduced severe laws against all Spanish minorities, not least the Basques, in an effort to suppress their cultures and languages. Considering Biscay and Guipúzcoa as "traitor provinces", he abolished the remains of their autonomy, but Navarre and Alava maintained small local police forces and some tax self-government.

The backlash against these actions created a violent Basque separatist movement. The armed group responsible for most of the attacks is known as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), meaning "Basque land and Liberty". Franco's death and the end of his regime saw an end to most repression and the creation of an autonomous Basque region in Spain, but not an end to sepratist violence, which as of 2005 has resulted about 850 deaths in the intervening 30 years. Between 1979 and 1983, the Basque Country and surrounding areas were granted extensive autonomy by the Spanish government. This autonomy includes an elected parliament, police force, educational system, tax system, etc.

Navarre was offered the opportunity to join the autonomous Basque Country, but chose the status of a separate autonomous region.

Geography and distribution

The current autonomous Basque area of Spain, known as "Euskadi" in Basque, "País Vasco" in Spanish, "Pays Basque" in French and the "Basque Country" in English, is composed of three provinces or territories: Araba/Álava, Bizkaia/Vizcaya and Gipuzkoa/Guipúzcoa (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 Sebastián (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 feeling among the population of the adjacent Spanish autonomous community and province of Navarre, and in nearby parts of France — see Basque Country for more information. There is at least some ethnic Basque presence in many countries of the Americas, including Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and a community in Idaho, eastern Nevada, south Texas, and throughout California who first came over to herd sheep.

The destination of the majority of Basque emigrants was Argentina, with Basque culture contributing much to Argentine culture. There are Basque cultural centres in most large cities, as well as pelota courts and Basque language schools. Many places have been given Basque names, including the main international airport, Ezeiza. Several of Argentina's Presidents have been of Basque descent, including Irigoyen, Aramburu and Urquiza, not to mention other figures, notably Che Guevara. There are an estimated 15,000 surnames in Argentina of Basque descent.

Chile also received many Basque emigrants. For example, Augusto Pinochet is of Basque descent.

The largest community of Basques in North America exists in the greater Boise area. Boise is home to the Basque Museum & Cultural Center. The area around the center includes a variety of stores and restaurants featuring Basque culture in a so-called "Basque block." The current mayor of Boise, David H. Bieter is Basque. Another large community of Basques live in the Central Valley of California, primarily in the city of Bakersfield. In Bakersfield you will find several Basque restauraunts and the Basque hall, which annually holds a major Basque picnic. Many early immigrants went to Bakersfield for the agricultural and sheep herding opportunites. Another area is in the deep of South Texas along the Rio Grande River. The area surrounding the Rio Grande River near the current Texas Starr County, Zapata County, and Hidalgo County as well as areas within the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Tamulipas, Spanish surnames of Basque descent show up as Spanish Land Grant owners in historical documents. Most of these grants were used for ranching and agriculture in much the same way sheep herding was used in the Basque land. This part of Texas boasts some of the largest ranches in Texas today. Some of these surnames ,such as the surname Garza, show up in many political ballots as well as hold high offices in politics. One of the richest families in the world and of Mexico carries this Basque surname. One city with a Basque name in Mexico, San Pedro Garza García, has the highest per income capita in all of Latin America and Mexico. In the Caribbean, Basque descendants exist in the hills of Esperón in the province of Habana, where many originally settled during the Spanish colonial period.

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 enjoys an extensive cultural and political autonomy. Many schools in the region use Euskara as the primary language of education. According to the BBC "over 90% of Basque children are now enrolled in Euskara schools."


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 the Basque Country. 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.

The fueros on inheritance favoured the unity of the inherited land (in contrast to Galician minifundia) so, until the Industrial Age, poor Basques (usually the younger sons) emigrated to the rest of Spain or France and the Americas. Saint Francis Xavier and Conquistadores 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.

See also: Basque music


See also Basque language.

As of 2004, virtually all Basques speak the dominant language of their respective countries. Besides Spanish or French, about a quarter of Basques speak their own ethnic Basque language, referred to, in that tongue, as Euskara, which is not only distinct from French and Spanish, but apparently unrelated to every other language, both modern and historical, in Europe and the world.

The Basque language is thus an isolated language, although the Spanish language has greatly influenced Euskara, particularly in the vowel set. An alternative theory states that it was actually Basque's simplified vowel set that influenced the development of Spanish from Vulgar Latin.

This unique and isolated language has attracted the interest of a great many linguists trying to discover its history and origin.

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.


Most Basques are practicing Roman Catholics. The region has been a source of missionaries like Francis Xavier and Michel Garicoïts. Also, Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was a Basque. A sprout of Protestantism in the continental Basque Country produced the first translation of the new Testament into Basque by Joannes Leyçarraga. After the king of Navarre converted to Catholicism to be king of France, Protestantism almost disappeared. Bayonne held a Jewish community composed mainly of Sephardi Jews fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Pre-Christian religion and mythology

There is strong evidence of a previous religion, reflected in countless legends and some enduring traditions. This pre-Christian religion was apparently centered on a superior female genie: Mari. Her consort Sugaar also seems to bear some importance. This chthonic couple seem to bear the superior ethical power and also the power of creation and destruction. It's said that when they gathered in the high caves of the sacred peaks, they engendered the storms. These meetings typically happened on Friday nights, the day of historical akelarre or coven. Mari was said to reside in mount Anboto, periodically she crossed the skies as a bright light to reach her other home at mount Txindoki.

Another divinity seems to be Urtzi (also Ost, Ortzi: sky) but it seems to have been imported, as legends do not speak of him. Nevertheless his name appears in weekdays, months names and metereological events. In medieval times, Aymeric Picaud, a French pilgrim, wrote on the Basques, saying: et Deus vocant Urcia ("and they name God as Urci-a"; the -a being the Basque nominative or suffixed article).

There is also Anbotoko Mari, a goddess whose movements affected the weather. According to one tradition, she travelled every seven years between a cave on mount Anboto and one on another mountain (the stories vary); the weather would be wet when she was in Anboto, dry when she was in Aloña, or Supelegor, or Gorbea. It is hard to say how old this legend is; despite the pagan elements, one of her names, Mari Urraca, ties her to a possibly historical Navarrese princess of the 11th and 12th century and other legends give her a brother or cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest.

Legends also speak of many and abundant genies, like jentilak (equivalent to giants), lamiak (equivalent to nymphs), mairuak (builders of the cromlechs or stone circles, literally Moors), iratxoak (imps), sorginak (witches, priestess of Mari), etc. Basajaun is a Basque version of the wild man. There is a trickster named San Martin Txiki ("St Martin the Lesser"). It has been shown that some of these stories have entered Basque culture in recent centuries or as part of Roman superstitio. It is unclear whether neolithic stone structures called dolmens have a religious significance or were built to house animals or resting shepherds. Some of the dolmens and cromlechs are burial sites serving as well as border markers.

The Jentilak ('Giants'), on the other hand, are a legendary people which explains the disappearance of a people of Stone Age culture that used to live in the high lands and with no knowledge of the iron. Many legends about them tell that they were bigger and taller, with a great force, but were displaced by the ferrons, or workers of ironworks foundries, until their total fade-out. They were pagans, but one of them, Olentzero, accepted Christianity and became a sort of Basque Santa Claus. They gave name to several toponyms, as Jentilbaratza.


The Basque Country has also contributed many great sportsmen, primarily in football (soccer), cycling, jai-alai, and rugby.

The main sport in the Basque Country, as in the rest of Spain and France, is football. The top teams Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Alavés are a fixture in the Spanish national league. Athletic Bilbao has a policy of hiring only Basque players, or players who have grown and trained in Basque clubs of lower categories.

Cycling as a sport is very popular in the Basque Country. Cycling races often see Basque fans lining the roads wearing orange, the corporate color of the telco Euskaltel, coining the term the orange crush during the Pyrenees stages of the Tour de France. Of course, this is not to be mistaken with the orange of the fans from the Netherlands.

The Navarrese cyclist Miguel Induráin (now retired) was the first to win the Tour de France five consecutive times, and has also won the Giro d'Italia and the World Cycling Championship in the discipline of individual time trial. Fellow Basque cyclist Abrahán Olano has won the Vuelta a España and the World Cycling Championship.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi cycling team is a commercial team, but also works as an unofficial Basque national team and is partly funded by the Basque Government. They are emerging as a strong contender in the Tour de France, with riders such as Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia and David Etxebarria leading the charge.

In France, rugby (especially rugby union) is another popular sport with the Basque community. In Biarritz, the local club is Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque, the name referencing the club's Basque heritage. They wear red, white and green, and supporters are known to wave the Basque flag in the stands. They also recognize 16 other clubs as "Basque-friendly". The most famous Biarritz & Basque player is the legendary French fullback Serge Blanco, whose mother was Basque. Michel Celaya captained both Biarritz and France. Current French number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy is also a Biarritz & Basque player.

Aviron Bayonnais is another top club with some Basque ties, but Biarritz is by far the most prominent.

Pelota and Jai Alai are Basque versions of the European game family that includes real tennis and squash. Basque players, playing for either the Spanish or the French teams, dominate international competititions.

Mountaineering is favoured by the mountainous character of Basque terrain and nearness of the Pyrenees. Juanito Oiarzabal (from Vitoria), holds the world record for number of climbs above 8,000 meters with 21.

One of the top basketball clubs in Europe, TAU Baskonia, is located in the Basque city of Vítoria/Gasteiz.

In recent years surfing has taken root in the Basque shores in spite of the cold Atlantic waters, and Mundaka and Biarritz have become spots on the world surf circuit.

Traditional Basque sports

There are several sports derived by Basques from everyday chores. Heavy workers were challenged and bets placed upon them. Examples are:

  • trainera (oar boat) regattas: from fishermen rowing to market with their catch.
  • sokatira: tug-of-war.
  • harri jasoketa: stonelifting, from quarry works.
  • aizkolaritza and trontzalaritza: tree hacking and log sawing.
  • segalaritza: grass scytheing.
  • dema or stone block pulling, from construction works:
    • idi probak with couples of oxen.
    • asto probak with donkeys.
    • zaldi probak with horses.
    • gizon probak with couples of sportsmen.
    • From 2000, in Valle de Trápaga-Trapagaran, Vizcaya, snails are being used to compete at stone pulling. These contests imitate some features of the traditional sports (as shape and paintings of the stones) but lack human physical intervention (human effort is important in shows with oxen, horses and donkeys).
  • shepherd dog competitions.
  • txinga erute: carrying of weights, one in each hand, representing milk canisters.
  • ram fights.
  • zipota, a French Basque martial art, similar to savate.
  • barrenador competitions: drilling stone blocks with a metal bar, only in the former mining areas of West Biscay.

The world-famous run of the bulls in Pamplona's fiestas Sanfermines started as a transport of bulls to the ring. Bullfights are also popular in the Basque Country in spite of the unsuitability of the terrain for bull raising and a lack of local matadors.


While there is no independent Basque state, Spain's autonomous community of the Basque Country, made up of the provinces of Araba/Álava, Bizkaia/Vizcaya and Gipuzkoa/Guipúzcoa, is primarily Basque in character and has a great deal of automony. Similar remarks apply to the Spanish autonomous community of Nafarroa/Navarra.

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. In March 2003, Batasuna was permanently banned in Spain by means of a controversial law approved by the Spanish parliament for the control of the activities of political parties.

The Socialist Party of the Basque Country is the local branch of PSOE. The mining and industrial areas of Biscay were one of the birthplaces of Spanish socialism.

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. [4] In 1868 there was an unsuccessful effort to establish a Basque-Navarrese University, thwarted by the hostility of the Spanish Central government. The Jesuits founded the University of Deusto in Bilbao by the turn of the Century. The first modern Basque public 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. [5].

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.

The Basques are clearly a distinct ethnic group in their native region. They are culturally and especially linguistically 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 Basque national identity, the Iberian idea of the "limpieza de sangre" ("cleanliness of blood") was adopted 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 and immigrants, pejoratively referred as "Maketos". Such arguments are considered racist from a modern point of view, but the idea still surfaces occasionally in a certain racialist current inside the Basque nationalism.

Because of this, research of the genetics of Basques is prone to be interpreted with political intentions, while in the Spanish side it has brought to a total denial of any existing genetic study or even the proper validity of any genetic study in humans.

Investigations of Basque blood types have found that there are 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. The Basques have a high incidence of the Rhesus negative blood type, also common in several North African Berber tribes.

See also


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