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1st row: Sancho III, Elcano, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, Lope de Aguirre, Fausto Elhuyar
2nd row: Zumalacárregui, D'Abbadie, Gayarre, Sarasate, Pío Baroja, Balenciaga
3rd row: Oteiza, Cenarrusa, Chillida, Ibárruri, Garamendi, Atxaga

4th row: Eyharts, Miguel Indurain, Olazábal, Pasaban, Harinordoquy, Xabi Alonso
Total population
approximately 2-3 million worldwide
Regions with significant populations
         (people living in the Basque Provinces of Spain, not all of whom identify as Basque)

         (people living in the Basque Provinces of France, not all of whom identify as Basque)

 United States
57,793 (self-identifying as having Basque ancestry)[4]

The Basques (; Spanish: vascos; French: basques) are an indigenous ethnic group[5][6][7] who primarily inhabit an area traditionally known as the Basque Country (Basque: Euskal Herria), a region that is located around the western end of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and straddles parts of north-central Spain and south-western France.

The Basques are known as:

  • Euskaldunak in Basque (this ethnonym means "the speakers of the Basque language"; to refer to all the inhabitants of the Basque Country, the name euskal herritarrak is preferred)
  • Vasco in Spanish
  • Basque in French and English.
  • Basco in Gascon and Portuguese.


  • Etymology of the word Basque 1
  • History 2
  • Geography 3
    • Political and administrative divisions 3.1
    • Population, main cities and languages 3.2
  • Basque diaspora 4
  • Culture 5
    • Language 5.1
    • Land and inheritance 5.2
    • Cuisine 5.3
    • Cultural production 5.4
    • Music 5.5
    • Religion 5.6
      • Pre-Christian religion and mythology 5.6.1
    • Society 5.7
  • Sports in the Basque Country 6
    • Pelota 6.1
    • Rural sports 6.2
    • Bull runs and bullock games 6.3
    • Football 6.4
    • Rugby union 6.5
    • Professional cycling 6.6
  • Politics 7
  • Political conflicts 8
    • Language 8.1
    • Political status and violence 8.2
      • Political violence 8.2.1
  • Classification 9
  • Genetics 10
    • New genetic findings, 2015 10.1
  • Notable Basques 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • Readings 14
  • External links 15

Etymology of the word Basque

Barscunes coin, Roman period

The English word Basque may be pronounced or and derives from the French Basque (pronounced French pronunciation: ​), which is derived from Gascon Basco (pronounced /ˈbasku/), cognate with 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/ generally evolved into the bilabials /b/ and /β̞/ in Gascon and Spanish, probably under the influence of Basque and Aquitanian, a language related to old Basque and spoken in Gascony in Antiquity (similarly the Latin /w/ evolved into /v/ in French, Italian and other languages).

Several coins from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC found in the Basque Country bear the inscription barscunes. The place where they were minted is not certain but is thought to be somewhere near Pamplona in the heartland of the area that historians believe was inhabited by the Vascones. Some scholars have suggested a Celtic etymology based on bhar-s-, meaning "summit", "point" or "leaves", according to which barscunes may have meant "the mountain people", "the tall ones" or "the proud ones", while others have posited a relationship to a proto-Indo-European root *bar- meaning "border", "frontier", "march".[8]

In Basque, the 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. Not all Basques are Basque-speakers. Therefore, the neologism euskotar, plural euskotarrak, was coined in the 19th century to mean a culturally Basque person, whether Basque-speaking or not.

Alfonso Irigoyen claimed that the word euskara comes from an ancient Basque verb enautsi "to say" (cf. modern Basque esan) and the suffix -(k)ara ("way (of doing something)"). Thus euskara would literally mean "way of saying", "way of speaking". One item of evidence in favour of this hypothesis is found in the Spanish book Compendio Historial, written in 1571 by the Basque writer Esteban de Garibay. He records the name of the Basque language as enusquera. It may, however, be a writing mistake.

In the 19th century, the Basque nationalist activist Sabino Arana posited an original root euzko which, he thought, came from eguzkiko ("of the sun," related to the assumption of an original solar religion). On the basis of this putative root, Arana proposed the name Euzkadi for an independent Basque nation, composed of seven Basque historical territories. Arana's neologism Euzkadi (in the regularized spelling Euskadi) is still widely used in both Basque and Spanish, since it is now the official name of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.


Basque women in Bayonne
Monument to the Charters in Pamplona (1903)
Ulgor, earliest nucleus of the cooperative movement and MCC in Mondragon (1956)

Since the Basque language is unrelated to Indo-European, it has long been thought to represent the people or culture that occupied Europe before the spread of Indo-European languages there. A comprehensive analysis of Basque genetic patterns has shown that Basque genetic uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, about 7,000 years ago.[9]

It is thought that Basques are a remnant of the early inhabitants of Western Europe, specifically those of the Franco-Cantabrian region. Basque tribes were already mentioned in Roman times by Strabo and Pliny, including the Vascones, the Aquitani, and others. There is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that at that time and later they spoke old varieties of the Basque language (see: Aquitanian language).

In the Early Middle Ages the territory between the Ebro and Garonne rivers was known as Vasconia, a vaguely defined cultural area and political entity struggling to fend off pressure from the Iberian Visigothic kingdom and Muslim rule to the south, as well as the Frankish push from the north. By the turn of the first millennium, the territory of Vasconia fragmented into different feudal regions, such as Soule and Labourd, while south of the Pyrenees the Castile, Pamplona and the Pyrenean counties of Aragon, Sobrarbe, Ribagorza (later Kingdom of Aragon), and Pallars emerged as the main regional entities including Basque population in the 9 and 10th century.

The Kingdom of Pamplona (a central Basque realm), later known as Navarre, underwent a process of feudalization and was subjected to the influence of its much larger Aragonese, Castilian and French neighbours. Castile deprived Navarre of its coastline by annexing key western territories (1199-1201), leaving the kingdom landlocked. The Basques were ravaged by the War of the Bands, bitter partisan wars between local ruling families. Weakened by the Navarrese civil war, the bulk of the realm eventually fell before the onslaught of the Spanish armies (1512-1524). However, the Navarrese territory north of the Pyrenees remained beyond the reach of an increasingly powerful Spain. Lower Navarre became a province of France in 1620.

Nevertheless, the Basques enjoyed a great deal of self-government until the French Revolution (1790) and the Carlist Wars (1839/1876), when the Basques supported heir apparent Carlos V and his descendants. At either side of the Pyrenees, the Basques lost their native institutions and laws held during ancient regime.

Since then, despite the current limited self-governing status of the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarre as settled by the Spanish Constitution, a significant part of Basque society has attempted higher degrees of self-empowerment (see Basque nationalism), sometimes by acts of violence. Labourd, Lower Navarre, and Soule were integrated into the French department system (starting 1790), unaltered to date.


Political and administrative divisions

Mountains of the Basque Country
Leitza, in Navarre, Basque Country

The Basque region is divided into at least three administrative units, namely the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarre in Spain, and the arrondissement of Bayonne and the cantons of Mauléon-Licharre and Tardets-Sorholus in the département of Pyrénées Atlantiques, France.

The autonomous community (a concept established in the Spanish Constitution of 1978) known as Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa or EAE in Basque and as Comunidad Autónoma Vasca or CAV in Spanish (in English: Basque Autonomous Community or BAC),[10] is made up of the three Spanish provinces of Álava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa. The corresponding Basque names of these territories are Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, and their Spanish names are Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa.

The BAC only includes three of the seven provinces of the currently called historical territories. It is sometimes referred to simply as "the Basque Country" (or Euskadi) by writers and public agencies only considering those three western provinces, but also on occasions merely as a convenient abbreviation when this does not lead to confusion in the context. Others reject this usage as inaccurate and are careful to specify the BAC (or an equivalent expression such as "the three provinces", up to 1978 referred to as "Provincias Vascongadas" in Spanish) when referring to this entity or region. Likewise, terms such as "the Basque Government" for "the government of the BAC" are commonly though not universally employed. In particular in common usage the French term Pays Basque ("Basque Country"), in the absence of further qualification, refers either to the whole Basque Country ("Euskal Herria" in Basque), or not infrequently to the northern (or "French") Basque Country specifically.

Under Spain's present constitution, Navarre (Nafarroa in present-day Basque, Navarra historically in Spanish) constitutes a separate entity, called in present-day Basque Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa, in Spanish Comunidad Foral de Navarra (the autonomous community of Navarre). The government of this autonomous community is the Government of Navarre. Note that in historical contexts Navarre may refer to a wider area, and that the present-day northern Basque province of Lower Navarre may also be referred to as (part of) Nafarroa, while the term "High Navarre" (Nafarroa Garaia in Basque, Alta Navarra in Spanish) is also encountered as a way of referring to the territory of the present-day autonomous community.

There are three other historic provinces parts of the Basque Country: département, while these demands have gone unheard by the French administration.

Population, main cities and languages

Olentzero in Gipuzkoa, Basque Country

There are 2,123,000 people living in the Basque Autonomous Community (279,000 in Alava, 1,160,000 in Biscay and 684,000 in Gipuzkoa). The most important cities in this region, which serve as the provinces' administrative centers, are Bilbao (in Biscay), San Sebastián (in Gipuzkoa) and Vitoria-Gasteiz (in Álava). The official languages are Basque and Spanish. Knowledge of Spanish is compulsory according to the Spanish Constitution (article no. 3), and knowledge and usage of Basque is a right according to the Statute of Autonomy (article no. 6), so only knowledge of Spanish is virtually universal. Knowledge of Basque, after declining for many years during Franco's dictatorship owing to official persecution, is again on the rise due to favourable official language policies and popular support. Currently about 33 percent of the population in the Basque Autonomous Community speaks Basque.

Navarre has a population of 601,000; its administrative capital and main city, also regarded by many nationalist Basques as the Basques' historical capital, is Pamplona (Iruñea in modern Basque). Only Spanish is an official language of Navarre and the Basque language is only co-official in the province's northern region, where most Basque-speaking Navarrese are concentrated.

Approximately a quarter of a million people live in the French Basque Country. Nowadays Basque-speakers refer to this region as "Iparralde" (Basque for North), and therefore to the Spanish provinces as "Hegoalde" (South). Much of this population lives in or near the Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz (BAB) urban belt on the coast (in Basque these are Baiona, Angelu and Miarritze). The Basque language, which was traditionally spoken by most of the region's population outside the BAB urban zone, is today losing ground to French at a fast rate. The French Basque Country's lack of self-government within the French state is coupled with the absence of official status for the Basque language in the region. Attempts so far to implement an actual bilingualism in local administration have met frontal refusal from French officials.

Basque diaspora

Basque festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Basque festival in Winnemucca, Nevada

Large numbers of Basque have left the Basque Country for other parts of the world in different historical periods, often for economic or political reasons. Historically the Basque were often employed in sheepherding and ranching, maritime fisheries and merchants around the world. Millions of Basque descendants (see Basque American and Basque Canadian) live in North America (the United States and Mexico; Canada, mainly in the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec), Latin America (in all 23 countries), South Africa, and Australia.

Miguel de Unamuno said: "There are at least two things that clearly can be attributed to Basques: the Society of Jesus and the Republic of Chile.[11] Chilean historian Luis Thayer Ojeda estimated that 45 percent of immigrants to Chile in the 17th and 18th century were Basque.[12] Over 2.5 million Basque descendants live in Chile; the Basque have been a major influence in the country's cultural and economic development.

A large wave of Basques emigrated to Latin America. Substantial numbers also settled elsewhere in North (the U.S.). In addition to Chile in Latin America, they settled in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Basque place names are to be found, such as New Biscay, now Durango (Mexico), Biscayne Bay, Sacatepequez, Antigua and Jalapa, Jalapa (Guatemala), Aguerreberry or Aguereberry Point in the United States, and the Nuevo Santander region of Mexico.[13] Nueva Vizcaya was the first province in the north of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) to be explored and settled by the Spanish. It consisted mostly of the area which is today the states of Chihuahua and Durango.

In Mexico most Basques are concentrated in the cities of Monterrey, Saltillo, Reynosa, Camargo, and the states of Jalisco, Durango, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila. The Basques were important in the mining industry; many were ranchers and vaqueros (cowboys), and the rest opened small shops in major cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puebla. In Guatemala, most Basques have been concentrated in Sacatepequez Department, Antigua Guatemala, Jalapa for six generations now, while some have migrated to Guatemala City.

The largest of several important Basque communities in the United States is in the area around Boise, Idaho, home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, host to an annual Basque festival, as well as a festival for the Basque diaspora every five years. Reno, Nevada, where the Center for Basque Studies and the Basque Studies Library are located at the University of Nevada, is another significant nucleus of Basque population. Elko, Nevada sponsors an annual Basque festival that celebrates the dance, cuisine and cultures of the Basque peoples of Spanish, French and Mexican nationalities who have arrived in Nevada since the late 19th century.

Texas has a large percentage of Hispanics descended from Basques who participated in the conquest of New Spain. Many of the original Tejanos had Basque blood, including those who fought in the Alamo alongside many of the other Texans. Along the Mexican/Texan border, many Basque surnames can be found. The largest concentration of Basque who settled on Mexico's NorthEastern "frontera", which include the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, also settled along Texas' Rio Grande River from South Texas to West Texas. Many of the historic hidalgo, or noble families from this area, had gained their titles and land grants from Spain and Mexico; they still value their land. Some of North America's largest ranches, which were founded under these colonial land grants, can be found in this region.

California has a major concentration of Basques, most notably in the San Joaquin Valley between Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield. The city of Bakersfield has a large Basque community and the city boasts several Basque restaurants, including Noriega's which won the 2011 James Beard Foundation America's Classic Award. There is a history of Basque culture in Chino, California. In Chino, two annual Basque festivals celebrate the dance, cuisine, and culture of the peoples. The surrounding area of San Bernardino County has many Basque descendants as residents. They are mostly descendants of settlers from Spain and Mexico. These Basque in California are grouped in the group known as Californios.

Basques of European Spanish-French and Latin American nationalities also settled throughout the western U.S. in states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Many Basques and people of Basque ancestry live outside their homeland in Spain, France and other European countries.

In Spain, nearly 4.4 million persons have a Basque surname. But of these only 19% reside in the Basque Country and the rest, more than 3.5 million Spanish with Basque surname, reside outside.[14][15]


Cover of the first Basque language book, written by Bernard Etxepare
Classification of population according to cultural identity: Do you consider yourself Basque?   1 - Yes
2 - Yes, in some ways   3 - No
4 - Don't know / Don't answer


The identifying language of the Basques is called Basque or Euskara, spoken today by 25%-30%[16] of the region's population. An idea of the central place of the cultural terms in Basque nationalist politicians is given by the fact that, in Basque, Basques identify themselves by the term euskaldun and their country as Euskal Herria, literally "Basque speaker" and "Country of the Basque Language" respectively. The language has been made a political issue by official Spanish and French policies restricting its use either historically or currently; however, this has not stopped the teaching, speaking, writing, and cultivating of this increasingly vibrant minority language. This sense of Basque identity tied to the local language does not exist in isolation. It is juxtaposed with an equally strong sense of national identity tied with the use of the Spanish and French languages among other Basques. As with many European states, a regional identity, be it linguistically derived or otherwise, is not mutually exclusive with the broader national one. For example, Basque rugby union player for France, Imanol Harinordoquy, has said about his national identity:
I am French and Basque. There is no conflict, I am proud of both. . . . I have friends who are involved in the political side of things but that is not for me. My only interest is the culture, the Euskera language, the people, our history and ways.[17]

As a result of state language promotion, school policies, the effects of mass media and migration, today virtually all Basques (except for some children below school age) speak the official language of their state (Spanish or French). There are extremely few Basque monolingual speakers: essentially all Basque speakers are bilingual on both sides of the border. Spanish or French is typically the first language of citizens from other regions (who often feel no need to learn Basque), which maintains the dominance of the state tongues of both France and Spain. Recent Basque Government policies aim to change this pattern, as they are viewed as potential threats against mainstream usage of the minority tongue.[18]

The Basque language is thought to be a genetic language isolate. Thus Basque contrasts with other European languages, almost all of which belong to the broad Indo-European language family. Another peculiarity of Basque is that it has been spoken continuously in situ, in and around its present territorial location, for longer than other modern European languages, which have all been introduced in historical or prehistorical times through population migrations or other processes of cultural transmission.[19]

However, popular stereotypes characterizing Basque as "the oldest language in Europe" and "unique among the world's languages" may be misunderstood and lead to erroneous assumptions.[20] Over the centuries, Basque has remained in continuous contact with neighboring western European languages with which it has come to share numerous lexical properties and typological features; it is therefore misleading to exaggerate the "outlandish" character of Basque. Basque is also a modern language, and is established as a written and printed one used in present-day forms of publication and communication, as well as a language spoken and used in a very wide range of social and cultural contexts, styles, and registers.

Land and inheritance

The Aranguren baserri in Orozko, converted from a fortified tower
The Lizarralde baserri (Bergara)

Basques have a close attachment to their home (etxe(a) 'house, home'), especially when this consists of the traditional self-sufficient, family-run farm or baserri(a). Home in this context is synonymous with family roots. Some Basque surnames were adapted from old baserri or habitation names. They typically related to a geographical orientation or other locally meaningful identifying features. Such surnames provide event those Basque whose families may have left the land generations ago with an important link to their rural family origins: Bengoetxea "the house of further down", Goikoetxea "the house above", Landaburu "top of the field", Errekondo "next to the stream", Elizalde "by the church", Mendizabal "wide hill", Usetxe "house of birds" Ibarretxe "house in the valley", Etxeberria "the new house", and so on.[21]

In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favour survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually are inherited by either eldest male or female. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family. The wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way while the less affluent had only one asset to provide to one child. However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family. Unlike England with the strict primogeniture where the eldest son inherited everything and did not provide for others. Even though they were provided for in some way siblings had to make their livings by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas. Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.

A widespread belief that Basque society was originally matriarchal is at odds with the current, clearly patrilineal kinship system and inheritance structures. Some scholars and commentators have attempted to reconcile these points by assuming that patrilineal kinship represents an innovation. In any case, the social position of women in both traditional and modern Basque society is somewhat better than in neighbouring cultures, and women have a substantial influence in decisions about the domestic economy. In the past, some women participated in collective magical ceremonies. They were key participants in a rich folklore, today largely forgotten.


Basque cuisine is at the heart of Basque culture, influenced by the neighboring communities and the excellent produce from the sea and the land. A 20th-century feature of Basque culture is the phenomenon of gastronomical societies (called txoko in Basque), food clubs where men gather to cook and enjoy their own food. Until recently, women were allowed entry only one day in the year. Cider houses (Sagardotegiak) are popular restaurants in Gipuzkoa open for a few months while the cider is in season.

Cultural production

Artzaiak eta inudeak festival, Donostia, Basque Country.

At the end of the 20th century, despite ETA violence (ended in 2010) and the crisis of heavy industries, the Basque economic condition recovered remarkably. They emerged from the Franco regime with a revitalized language and culture. The Basque language expanded geographically led by large increases in the major urban centers of Pamplona, Bilbao, and Bayonne, where only a few decades ago the Basque language had all but disappeared. Nowadays, the number of Basque speakers is maintaining its level or increasing slightly.


Basque dance


Traditionally Basques have been mostly Roman Catholics. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, Basques as a group remained notably devout and churchgoing. In recent years church attendance has fallen off, as in most of Western Europe. The region has been a source of missionaries like Francis Xavier and Michel Garicoïts. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was a Basque. California Franciscan Fermín Lasuén was born in Vitoria. Lasuén was the successor to Franciscan Padre Junípero Serra and founded 9 of the 21 extant California Missions along the coast.

A sprout of Protestantism in the continental Basque Country produced the first translation of the new Testament into Basque by Joanes Leizarraga. After Henry III of Navarre converted to Catholicism to become king of France, Protestantism almost disappeared.

Bayonne held a Jewish community composed mainly of Sephardi Jews fleeing from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. There were also important Jewish and Muslim communities in Navarre before the Castilian invasion of 1512-21. The Banu Qasi, a muladi dynasty descended from Count Cassius, even ruled a small predominantly Muslim Basque emirate in the Ebro valley for over two centuries.

Nowadays, according to one single opinion poll, only slightly more than 50% of Basques profess some kind of belief in God, while the rest are either agnostic or atheist. The number of religious skeptics increases noticeably for the younger generations, while the older ones are more religious.[22]

Pre-Christian religion and mythology

Anboto mountain is one of sites where Mari was believed to dwell
Sorginetxe dolmen next to the stream and cave Lezao, home to legends featuring mythological character Mari

Christianisation of the Basque Country has been the topic of some discussion. There are broadly speaking two views. According to one, Christianity arrived in the Basque Country during the 4th and 5th centuries but according to the other, it did not take place until the 12th and 13th centuries. The main issue lies in the different interpretations of what is considered Christianisation. Early traces of Christianity can be found in the major urban areas from the 4th century onwards, a bishopric from 589 in Pamplona and three hermit cave concentrations (two in Álava, one in Navarre) were in use from the 6th century onwards. In this sense, Christianity arrived "early".

Pre-Christian belief seems to have focused on a goddess called Mari. A number of place-names contain her name and would suggest these places were related to worship of her such as Anbotoko Mari who appears to have been related to the weather. According to one tradition, she traveled 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. One of her names, Mari Urraca possibly ties her to an historical Navarrese princess of the 11th and 12th century, with other legends giving her a brother or cousin who was a Roman Catholic priest. So far the discussions about whether the name Mari is original and just happened to coincide closely with the Christian name María or if Mari is an early Basque attempt to give a Christian veneer to pagan worship have remained speculative. At any rate, Mari (Andramari) is one of the oldest worshiped Christian icons in Basque territories.

Mari's consort is Sugaar. 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.

Legends also speak of many and abundant genies, like witches, priestess of Mari), and so on. Basajaun is a Basque version of the Woodwose. This character is probably an anthropomorphism of the bear. 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 superstition. 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.

Ioaldunak dancers of Navarre.

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.

Senior Basque women during the 16th century; the attire was forbidden on Pierre de Lancre's intervention in the Basque Country (1609-1612)


Historically, Basque society can be described as being somewhat at odds with Roman and later Western European societal norms.

Strabo's account of the north of Spain in his Geographica (written between approximately 20 BC and 20 AD) makes a mention of "a sort of woman-rule—not at all a mark of civilization" (Hadington 1992), a first mention of the—for the period—unusual position of women. "Women could inherit and control property as well as officiate in churches. Combined with the issue of lingering pagan beliefs, this enraged the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps leading to one of the largest witch hunts in the Basque town of Logroño in 1610".[23]

This preference for female dominance existed well into the 20th century:

...matrilineal inheritance laws, and agricultural work performed by women continued in Basque country until the early twentieth century. For more than a century, scholars have widely discussed the high status of Basque women in law codes, as well as their positions as judges, inheritors, and arbitrators through ante-Roman, medieval, and modern times. The system of laws governing succession in the French Basque region reflected total equality between the sexes. Up until the eve of the French Revolution, the Basque woman was truly ‘the mistress of the house', hereditary guardian, and head of the lineage.[24]

Although the kingdom of Navarre did adopt feudalism, most Basques also possessed unusual social institutions different from those of the rest of feudal Europe. Some aspects of this include the elizate tradition where local house-owners met in front of the church to elect a representative to send to the juntas and Juntas Generales (such as the Juntas Generales de Vizcaya or Guipúzcoa) which administered much larger areas. Another example was the fact that in the medieval period most land was owned by the farmers, not the Church or a king.[19][25]

Sports in the Basque Country

Rivalry and betting in a wood-chopping contest (1949)


The great family of ball games has its unique offspring among Basque ball games, known generically as pilota (Spanish: pelota). Some variants have been exported to the United States and Macau under the name of Jai Alai.

Rural sports

Trainerilla in the Bilbao estuary
Barrenatzaileak in Barakaldo.

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

Bull runs and bullock games

The encierro (bull run) in Pamplona's fiestas Sanfermines started as a transport of bulls to the ring. These encierros, as well as other bull and bullock related activities are not exclusive to Pamplona but are traditional in many towns and villages of the Basque country.


The largest symbol of Basque identity in football is Athletic Bilbao. While there are other clubs within the Basque Country, such as Real Sociedad, Deportivo Alavés and CA Osasuna (the only club in La Liga that has a Basque name — osasuna means "health"), Bilbao's cantera policy has meant the club refuses to sign any non-Basque players.[26]

Rugby union

Rugby union is a popular sport among French Basques, with major clubs Biarritz Olympique and Aviron Bayonnais traditional powerhouses in the premier division of French Rugby (the Top 14). Biarritz regularly play Heineken Cup matches, especially knockout matches, at Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian. Games between the Basque clubs and Catalan club USA Perpignan are always hard fought.

Professional cycling

Cycling is popular and the Euskaltel-Euskadi professional cycling team, partly sponsored by the Basque Government participated in the UCI World Tour division until 2014. Known for their orange tops and hill-climbing ability, their fans were famous for lining the famous Pyrenean climbs in the Tour de France, in support of their compatriots.

Each April the week-long Tour of the Basque Country showcases the beautiful rolling Basque countryside.


While there is no independent Basque state, Spain's autonomous community of the Basque Country, made up of the provinces of Álava (Araba), Biscay (Bizkaia) and Gipuzkoa, is primarily a historical consequence and an answer to the wide autonomy claim of its population.

Navarre has a separate statute of autonomy, a contentious arrangement designed during Spanish transition to democracy (the Amejoramiento, an 'upgrade' of its previous status during dictatorship). It refers back to the kingdom status of Navarre (up to 1841) and their traditional institutional and legal framework (charters). Basque, the original and main language of Navarre up to the late 18th century, has kept family transmission especially in the northern part of Navarre and central areas to a lesser extent, designated as Basque speaking or mixed area in Navarrese law. Questions of political, linguistic and cultural allegiance and identity are highly complex in Navarre. Politically some Basque nationalists would like to integrate with the Basque Autonomous Community.

The French Basque Country today does not exist as a formal political entity and is officially simply part of the French department of Pyrénées Atlantiques, centered in Béarn. In recent years the number of mayors of the region supporting the creation of a separate Basque department has grown to 63.87%.[27] So far, their attempts have been unsuccessful.

Political conflicts


Both the Spanish and French governments have, at times, suppressed Basque linguistic and cultural identity. The French Republics, the epitome of the nation-state, have a long history of attempting the complete cultural absorption of cultural 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, the Spanish government reversed the advances of Basque nationalism, as it had fought in the opposite side of the Spanish Civil War: cultural activity in Basque was limited to folkloric issues and the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, the Southern Basque Country within Spain enjoys an extensive cultural and political autonomy. The majority of schools under the jurisdiction of the Basque education system use Basque as the primary medium of teaching. However, the situation is more delicate in the Northern Basque Country within France, where Basque is not officially recognized, and where lack of autonomy and monolingual public schooling in French exert great pressure on the Basque language.

In Navarre, Basque has been declared an endangered language, since the anti-Basque and conservative government of Navarrese People's Union opposes the symbols of Basqueness,[28] highlighting a Spanish identity for Navarre.

Basque is also spoken by immigrants in the major cities of Spain and France, in Australia, in many parts of Latin America, and in the United States, especially in Nevada, Idaho, and California.[29]

Political status and violence

A republican mural in Belfast showing solidarity with Basque nationalism.

Since its articulation by Sabino Arana in the late 19th century, the more radical currents of Basque nationalism have demanded the right of self-determination and even independence.[30] Within the Basque country, this element of Basque politics is often in balance with the conception of the Basque Country as just another part of the Spanish state, a view more commonly espoused on the right of the political spectrum. In contrast, the desire for greater autonomy or independence is particularly common among leftist Basque nationalists. The right of self-determination was asserted by the Basque Parliament in 2002 and 2006.[31] Since self-determination is not recognized in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, a wide majority of Basques abstained (55%) and some even voted against it (23.5%) in the ratification referendum of December 6 of that year. However, it was approved by clear majority overall in Spanish (87%). The autonomous regime for the Basque Country was approved in a 1979 referendum but the autonomy of Navarre (Amejoramiento del Fuero: "improvement of the charter") was never subject to a referendum but only approved by the Navarrese Cortes (parliament).

Political violence


As with their language, the Basques are clearly a distinct cultural group in their region. They notably regard themselves as culturally and especially linguistically distinct from their surrounding neighbours. Some Basques, especially in Spain, are strongly nationalist, identifying far more firmly as Basques than as citizens of any existing state. Others are not, feeling as much Basque as Spanish.[32] Many Basques regard the designation as a "cultural minority" as incomplete, favouring instead the definition as a nation, the commonly accepted designation for the Basque people up to the rise of the nation-states and the definition imposed by the 1812 Spanish Constitution.

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 neighbours 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. The prevailing belief amongst Basques, and forming part of their national identity, is that their language has continuity with the people who were in this region since not only pre-Roman and pre-Celtic times, but since the Stone Age.


Basque peasants ploughing

In 1920, H. G. Wells referred to the Mediterranean race as the Iberian race. He regarded it as a fourth subrace of the Caucasian race, along with the Aryan, Semitic, and Hamitic subraces. He stated that the main ethnic group that most purely represented the racial stock of the Iberian race was the Basques, and that the Basques were the descendants of the Cro-Magnons.[33] In 1994, in his book The History and Geography of Human Genes, population geneticist L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza stated that "there is support from many sides" for the hypothesis that the Basques are the descendants of the original Cro-Magnons.[34]

Even before the development of modern genetics based on DNA sequencing, Basques were already noted for distinctive genetic patterns, such as possessing the highest global apportion of the Rh- blood type (35% phenotypically, 60% genetically). Additionally, the Basque population has virtually no B blood type, nor the related AB type. They have a high rate of O blood group but this is probably due to isolation.

Although they are genetically distinctive in some ways, the Basques are still very typically European in terms of their Y-DNA and mtDNA sequences, and in terms of some other genetic loci. These same sequences are widespread throughout the western half of Europe, especially along the western fringe of the continent.[35][36][37]

The distinctiveness noted by studies of 'classical' genetic markers (such as blood groups) and the apparently "pre-Indo-European" nature of the Basque language has resulted in a popular and long-held view that Basques are "living fossils" of the earliest modern humans who colonized Europe.[38] However, studies of the Y-chromosome found that on their direct male lineages, the vast majority of modern Basques have a common ancestry with other Western Europeans, namely a marked predominance of Haplogroup R1b.[39][40]

Initially Haplogroup R1b was theorised to be that a Palaeolithic marker, introduced when Europe was repopulated after the Last Glacial Maximum, about 25,000 years ago.[41] As such, Basque populations were used as proxy representatives for the "Palaeolithic component" in admixture studies that tried to quantify the extent of Neolithic diffusions. Such studies concluded that the main components in the European genomes appear to derive from ancestors whose features were similar to those of modern Basques and people of the Near East (or Western Asia), with average values greater than 35% for both these parental populations, regardless of whether molecular information is taken into account or not. The smallest degree of both Basque and Near Eastern admixture is found in Finland, whereas the highest values are, respectively, 70% "Basque" in Spain and roughly 60% "Near Eastern" in the Balkans.[42] This theory encountered inconsistencies even prior to most recent chronological re-evaluations. That R1b should be a Palaeolithic marker was an ad hoc assumption suggested by Semino et al. (2000) and propagated by subsequent scholars without further analysis. Higher resolution STR analysis of R1b lineages from other western European populations (e.g. Italy[43] or Britain)[39] show that their populations appear to derive from the Basque ones.

More recent studies instead propose that R1b spread through Europe from southwest Asia in the Neolithic period or later, between 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.[44][45][46][47] According to Myres and others (2010): "The coalescent estimate for the Y-STR network tree of 245 M269*+L23(xM412) chromosomes is 10 270±1680 years Before Present (BP)", which would coincide with the Neolithic Expansion from Anatolia.[46] Another study by Cruciani and others (2010) has confirmed that there is a clear dichotomy between the Western-Eastern branches of R1b1b2. According to Cruciani and others. (2010):

The overall frequency pattern of the R1b1b2 sub-haplogroups here analyzed is compatible with several scenarios, including mutation surfing on the wave of advance of an expanding population or local bottlenecks and re-expansion from refuge areas. Preliminary time expansion estimates for haplogroups R1b1b2g (8.3ky; 95%CIs 5.8–10.9ky) and R1b1b2h (7.4ky; 95%CIs 5.3–10.2ky), based on 7STRs analyzed on 24 and 27 males respectively, are compatible with both Neolithic and post-glacial expansion/s within Europe. The majority (58.7%) of R1b1b2 chromosomes from Europe were found to be ancestral for both U106 and U152 (paragroup R1b1b2*) and showed a frequency cline from western to eastern Europe. Further studies are needed to refine the R1b1b2 phylogeny and fully disclose the micro-evolutionary events underlying the present frequency distribution of R1b1b2 sub-haplogroups.[48]

The first theory nevertheless still has proponents. Morelli et al. have recently attempted to defend an older, Palaeolithic chronology for R1b1b2(R-M269):

A recent network analysis of the R-M269 Y chromosome lineage has purportedly corroborated Neolithic expansion from Anatolia, the site of diffusion of agriculture. However, the data are still controversial and the analyses so far performed are prone to a number of biases. In the present study we show that the addition of a single marker, DYSA7.2, dramatically changes the shape of the R-M269 network into a topology showing a clear Western-Eastern dichotomy not consistent with a radial diffusion of people from the Middle East. We have also assessed other Y-chromosome haplogroups proposed to be markers of the Neolithic diffusion of farmers and compared their intra-lineage variation—defined by short tandem repeats (STRs)—in Anatolia and in Sardinia, the only Western population where these lineages are present at appreciable frequencies and where there is substantial archaeological and genetic evidence of pre-Neolithic human occupation. The data indicate that Sardinia does not contain a subset of the variability present in Anatolia and that the shared variability between these populations is best explained by an earlier, pre-Neolithic dispersal of haplogroups from a common ancestral gene pool. Overall, these results are consistent with the cultural diffusion and do not support the demic model of agriculture diffusion.[49]

Autosomal genetic studies have confirmed that Basques share:

  • close genetic ties to other Europeans, especially with Spaniards, who have a common genetic identity of over 70% with Basques.[36]
  • homogeneity amongst both their Spanish and French populations, according to high-density SNP genotyping study done in May 2010,[36] and;
  • a genomic distinctiveness, relative to other European populations.[50]

Several ancient DNA samples have been recovered and amplified from Palaeolithic sites in the Basque region. The collection of mtDNA haplogroups sampled there differed significantly compared to their modern frequencies. The authors concluded that there is "discontinuity" between ancient and modern Basques.[51]

Thus, while Basques harbour some very archaic lineages (such as mtDNA Hg U8a),[52] they are not of "undiluted Palaeolithic ancestry", nor are they ancestral to large parts of western Europe. Rather, their genetic distinctiveness is a result of centuries of low population size, genetic drift and endogamy.

New genetic findings, 2015

In 2015, a new scientific study of Basque DNA was published which seems to indicate that Basques are descendants of Neolithic farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming genetically isolated from the rest of Europe for millennia. [53] Mattias Jakobsson from Uppsala University in Sweden analysed genetic material from eight Stone Age human skeletons found in El Portalón Cavern in Atapuerca, northern Spain. These individuals lived between 3,500 and 5,500 years ago, after the transition to farming in southwest Europe. The results show that these early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors to present-day Basques. [54]

The official findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States America. [55] "Our results show that the Basques trace their ancestry to early farming groups from Iberia, which contradicts previous views of them being a remnant population that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups," says Prof. Jakobsson. [56]

Notable Basques

Among the most notable Basque people are Juan Sebastián Elcano (led the first successful expedition to circumnavigate the globe after Ferdinand Magellan died mid-journey); Sancho III of Navarre; and Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, founders of the Society of Jesus. Don Diego de Gardoqui Arriquibar (1735-1798) was Spain's first Ambassador to the United States. Miguel de Unamuno was a noted novelist and philosopher of the late 19th and the 20th century.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Totoricagüena, G. Identity, Culture, and Politics in the Basque Diaspora (2003) p.59 University of Nevada Press
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ ""La Compañía de Jesús y la República de Chile son las dos grandes hazañas del pueblo vascongado", solía decir don Miguel de Unamuno". Miguel de Unamuno used to say "The Company of Jesus and the Republic of Chile are the two great achievements of the Basque people."
  12. ^ William A. Douglass, Jon Bilbao (2005). Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, University of Nevada Press. p.81. ISBN 0-87417-625-5
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ X. Aierdi Urraza, Routes to linguistic and cultural integration for immigrants in the Basque Autonomous Community
  19. ^ a b TRASK, Robert Lawrence: History of Basque. New York/London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-13116-2
  20. ^ J.C. Moreno Cabrera, Misconceptions about Basque
  21. ^ MITXELENA, Koldo, Apellidos vascos (fifth edition), San Sebastián: Txertoa, 1997.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Hadingham 1992. Note that Logroño is not a Basque town, but it was the see of the diocesis covering Zugarramurdi in 1610. The Spanish Inquisition rarely acted against witches, devoting most of its attention to Judaizers, Moriscos and Protestants.
  24. ^ Gimbutas, M. The Living Goddesses University of California Press: 2001
  25. ^ Collins, R. The Basques Blackwell: 1986
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ Resolution of the General Assembly of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, 13 September 2003 (Helsinki), on the situation of the Basque language in the Autonomous Community of Navarre. Reported in MERCATOR Butlleti 55: "Speakers of a regional or minority language should have the right to use their language in private and public life. Contrary to these principles, local authorities from Iruña/Pamplona (capital city of the Autonomous Community of Navarre in Spain) have been implementing a series of reforms to the Autonomous Community legislation limiting the use of the Basque language. Basque is the only endangered language in the Autonomous Community of Navarre..."
  29. ^ TRASK, Robert Lawrence (1997), The history of Basque, Routledge, p. 1.
  30. ^ Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb. 2012. Spain. Steven L. Denver (ed.), "Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures, and Contemporary Issues", Vol. 3. Armonk, NY: M .E. Sharpe, pp. 674-675.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Euskobarómetro series, Evolución de la identidad nacional subjetiva de los vascos, 1981-2006. "As Basque as Spanish" shows 33% of the citizens of the Basque Autonomous Community in late 2006. Archived May 9, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ Wells, H. G. The Outline of History New York: 1920, Doubleday & Co., Volume I, Chapter XI "The Races of Mankind," Pages 131-144 See Pages 98, 137, and 139
  34. ^ ^ Cavalli-Sforza, L. Luca; Menozzi, Paolo; and Piazza Alberto. The History and Geography of Human Genes Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 280
  35. ^
  36. ^ a b c
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^ a b
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^ from:
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^ B. Arredi, E.S. Poloni and C. Tyler-Smith, The Peopling of Europe, in M. Crawford (ed.) Anthropological Genetics: Theory, Methods and Applications (Cambridge University Press 2007)
  46. ^ a b
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^ Ancient DNA Elucidates Basque Origins. Researchers find that the people of northern Spain and southern France are an amalgam of early Iberian farmers and local hunters. By Bob Grant | September 9, 2015,
  54. ^ Ancient DNA cracks puzzle of Basque origins, BBC, 7 September 2015.
  55. ^ Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques, September 9, 2015,
  56. ^ Ancient genomes link early farmers to Basques,, September 7, 2015.


  • The Basques, the Catalans and Spain, Daniele Conversi, 2000, ISBN 1-85065-268-6.
  • The Basque History of the World, Mark Kurlansky, 1999, ISBN 0-8027-1349-1.
  • The Oldest Europeans, J.F. del Giorgio, A.J.Place, 2006, ISBN 980-6898-00-1.
  • Ethnologue report for France for population statistics in France.
  • Euskal Herria en la Prehistoria, Xabier Peñalver Iribarren, 1996, ISBN 84-89077-58-4.
  • Gimbutas, Marija, The Living Goddesses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

External links

  • Basque Autonomous Government
  • 8 Probintziak. Non profit association working with the basques in the world
  • Oroitzapenak Voices From Basque America, University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.
  • Basque Digital Collection, University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections
  • Sheepherders of Northern Nevada, University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections
  • Basque Posters, University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections
  • Voices from Basque America University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
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