Flavin's Corner

Shake N' Basque

Bran Mak Morn by Frazetta 

     I grew up believing the present-day Basques were the original inhabitants of all of Old Europe, the builders of the megaliths (including Stonehenge), and entered the historical record as the "Picts" of Scotland.  I've often told people those "short, swarthy" people got kicked out of the Isles by the Celts, moved to France, the Franks kicked them into Spain, and the Spanish have held them to one small region of the southeastern corner of the Bay of Biscay ever since. That's shaky speculation, embarrassingly dumb and potentially racist, more than a bit of fantasy, and can't even come close to being proved.  I don't recall exactly where or when I picked that silliness up, though I would guess reading Robert E. Howard's fictional tales of the Pict, Bran Mak Morn, as a kid, somehow contributed.  However, as I've come to appreciate, the "facts" are just as cool, if not more so, as the "fantasies." 

     The modern term "Basque" comes to us through the French from the late Latin "Vasco," an inhabitant of Vasconia, roughly the Navarra province in Spain.   Basques refer to their language as "euskara," thought by many to be derived from "Ausci," the name of the Aquitanian tribe of southwestern Gallia Transalpinia, or that area of ancient France which bordered Spain.  Recently a Basque philologist has argued for a derivation from a now lost verb *enautsi, meaning to "say."  The earliest extant reference to the "Ausci" is c. 56 BCE with Caesar's De bello gallico (3.27) and their defeat by Crassus, perhaps followed by Strabo's Geographica, c. 14-23 CE, and mention of the "Ouaskonous" of northern Spain, which may well be another name for the "Ausci," the ancient Basques themselves, or a related people (though Strabo's sources for the "Ouaskonous" were Polybius and Posidonius of the mid-second century BCE). Linguists now accept early "Ausci" inscriptions (written in Latin letters and dated between 1-200 CE) to be in a language closely related to, if not a dialect of, Basque. 

     Today the Basque region consists of a 30 mile deep section of land stretching a hundred miles from Bayonne in France, across the Pyrenees, to Bilbao in Spain.  Linguists categorize the Basque language as an isolate which has no discernible relationship with any other known language (though the Russian linguist, Sergei Starostin, has proposed a 'macro-family' he calls "Dene-Sino-Caucasian" and attempts to link Basque with Chinese, Sumerian, and Haida, a Native American people and language from southeast Alaska). Anthropologists regard the Basque as highly individualistic, point to a peculiar O type and Rh-blood factor which neither the neighboring French or Spanish share to any great degree, and characterize the Basque as the indigenous inhabitants of Iberia/Spain, and probably related to the populations of the rest of Old Europe before the gradual westward arrival of  Proto-Indo-Europeans between 4300 and 2800 BCE.  Some anthropologists go even further and suggest the Basques might be the direct, lineal descendants of Cro-Magnons from 30,000 or more years ago. 

     We'll probably never know for sure how long the Basques, as an identifiable cultural people, have been in Europe.  Maybe they were part of the initial stock of homo sapiens sapiens who entered Europe and competed (and perhaps mated) with the Neanderthals, or maybe they arrived at the start of the Neolithic in migratory waves, like the later Celts, from somewhere in the East or even from North Africa.  They probably contributed to the various megalithic structures in Iberia/Spain and may well have been related to the builders of Stonehenge.  They may even have been related to the "Picts" of Scotland, but we'll have to wait on a better understanding of "Pictish" ogham and the Celtiberian script to advance any fuller models.  What is known for sure is that the Basques survived the growth of ethnic Europe and, beginning around the 12th century, took to the sea to catch whales.  By the 1380s, the search for whales and cod had taken the Basques far from home, and it appears they were selling Canadian beaver-pelts in London.  Yup; the Basques, like the Norse as evidenced by the L'Anse Aux Meadows site in Newfoundland, had made it to the New World before Columbus!

Basque whalers, click pic for more 

     Analyzing British custom records from between 1380 to 1433, Robert Delort (University of Geneva, Switzerland) discovered that the Basques had been showing up at various British seaports and selling significant quantities of beaver pelts.  The extant descriptions of the sales indicate the pelts were sold in rolls similar to the way the Quebec Native Americans of Canada stored and traded them. Of particular relevance to the claim that the Basques beat Columbus to the New World by over a hundred years is the simple fact that beavers were nearly extinct in northern Europe at this time. 

     This claim for pre-Columbian contact between the Basques and the Quebec Native Americans is often overlooked by anthropologists and other professionals.  The linguist Peter Bakker (University of Aarhus, Denmark) has published extensively on unique "pidgin" languages which developed between the Old and New Worlds.  His work on the Eeyouch (Cree) and French pidgin of the 16th and 17th centuries is fascinating, but his efforts to detail the development of a similar pidgin between the Basques and various Native American languages (including Mi'kmaq, or Micmac, an eastern Algonquin dialect) are much more ...strained.  Bakker is limited to Giovanni Caboto's mention of a "new found lande" in 1497, an early Basque whaling presence sometime after 1517, and argues the development of the trading "pidgin" formed in an almost unbelievably short time, as he places the pidgin in use between 1540 and 1640.  Indeed, ...some simply do not believe it and point to the British customs records as uncovered by Delort to allow for a Basque presence in Canada years before the post-Columbian exploitation of the 
Canadian Maritimes. [Note: click here for an odd alternative which imagines the Basques in Canada many 1000s of years ago.] 

     The Basques remain the stuff of legend.  The preservation of their language, culture, and land has been a determined (and often bloody) affair and we must regard them with respect and awe.  As we come to better understand Neolithic migrations and megalithic technology (see the work of U. of Iowa's Prof. R. Frank) we may discover other wonderful accomplishments of the Basques. Facts are always preferable to shaky speculation and I'm sure the steadfast Basques would agree. 

[Note:  I'd like to thank Leigh Montgomery of The Christian Science Monitor for providing a photocopy of Evan Hadingham's "Europe's Mystery People," World Monitor, Sept., 1992, pp. 34-42.] 

heating up fish-sticks in the oven, 

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