The largest study carried out to date, with DNA samples from almost 2,000 current and ancient individuals, has confirmed "the genetic uniqueness of the Basques" in Europe, according to its authors. The research, led by biologist David Comas , confirms that this uniqueness is not due to an extraordinary origin, but simply to greater isolation since the Iron Age, some 2,500 years ago. "The Basques are not Martians", underlines Comas, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology of Barcelona.
The origin of the Basques has fascinated the scientific community since the 19th century. The French anthropologist Paul Broca sneaked into the Zarautz cemetery one night in 1862 to steal skulls with which to study the presumed peculiarities of what was then considered a primitive race. Juan José Ibarretxe, president of the Basque Government until 2009, proclaimed that the Basque people "have existed for 7,000 years" to promote their separatist project. And the then president of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Xabier Arzalluz, stated in 2000 that the Basques were "the oldest inhabitants of Europe", with "their own roots" since prehistory.
Reading the human genome paints a very different, as detailed by the Basque geneticist Íñigo Olalde . Around 7,000 years ago, groups genetically very similar to the Neolithic populations of farmers and ranchers in Anatolia came to the Iberian Peninsula and mixed with its inhabitants, hunters and gatherers from the Mesolithic, the pre-Neolithic stage. A population with an ancestry that was 80% Neolithic and 20% local Mesolithic remained, according to Olalde, whose team from Harvard University reconstructed the genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula in 2019. Some 4,500 years ago, groups descended from the Yamnaya culture began arriving, the nomads who left the steppes of present-day Russia about five millennia ago. The resulting population had 40% of this foreign ancestry and 60% of what already existed. This is the common genetic substrate of all the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, including the Basques.
Representation with colors of the genetic structure in the Basque Country, with green symbolizing the Basque ancestry and blue and red, the mixture with the surrounding populations. André Flores-Bello
Olalde believes that the new study, in which he has not participated, confirms that the Basques are "genetically different" from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, but not so much. “Decades ago it was said that the Basques were the continuation of the hunter-gatherers and then it turned out that it was totally a lie. Then it was said that they were a continuation of the Neolithics that came later and it has also been seen to be false ", explains the geneticist.
The new study, published this Thursday in the specialized journal Current Biology , suggests that language could act as a" cultural barrier ”that facilitated the isolation of the Basques since the Iron Age, for example, during the stages of Roman or Muslim rule. David Comas' team has analyzed the DNA of 190 people whose four grandparents were born in the same area. The results show different genetic repertoires even within the Basque Country itself, concentrated in small regions that coincide with the historical distribution of the various dialects of Basque. Comas's hypothesis is that the language was a barrier to contact with the surrounding towns, but it was also an internal obstacle due to the existence of incomprehensible dialects for the neighbors themselves. The current Basque standard, called batúa, was not established until 1968.
The history of Basque genetics is full of contradictory results. One of the co-authors of the new study, Jaume Bertranpetit , already directed another investigation in 2010 that reached the opposite conclusion: that the Basques did not present a genetic singularity. "Without a doubt, our previous work is not right," admits Bertranpetit, also from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology. His group then used genetic analysis techniques that are rudimentary today. "We have seen that the approximation was too little fine to detect small differences between populations", explains.
Researcher David Comas, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology of Barcelona.UPF
Biologist Ana María Aransay regrets the political use of genetic studies. “I am interested in historically isolated populations because, due to inbreeding, they have unique variants of diseases. There is a type of Parkinson's that, in fact, has a name in Basque: Dardarin . Politics interests me zero, ”says Aransay, from the CIC bioGUNE biomedical research center, in Derio (Bizkaia). The biologist's team responded in 2010 to Bertranpetit with another study that assured that there was indeed a Basque genetic singularity.
The Mexican biologist Cristina Valdiosera , from the University of Burgos, already showed in 2015 that the Basques are not as old as previously thought . His research lowered its presumed age to about 5,000 years. Íñigo Olalde's team at Harvard reduced it even more in 2019, until reaching those 2,000 or 2,500 years that David Comas's study now confirms. Valdiosera sums it up like this: “The rest of the Iberian populations began to differ from the Basque populations from the Iron Age onwards because they began to have genetic influences from other populations, such as Muslim or Roman. It is the Basques who are frozen in time. ”
David Comas, born in Barcelona in 1969, already dedicated part of his doctoral thesis in the 1990s to the genetics of the Basques. He has seen his research used politically for more than two decades, from all sides. “The differences that we observe can be magnified or minimized. The headline of the news may be that there is a genetic uniqueness of the Basques, that the Basques are different, but it can also be noted that the genetic substrate is the same as that of the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, that the Basques are the same ”, Bromea Comas.
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