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The Basque People: Who Are the Basques?

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Daniella Levy

The Basque People: Who Are the Basques?

MyHeritage offers some valuable historical record collections that center around Basque heritage: marriage, baptism, and death records from the Vitoria diocese, Catholic parish records from the Bilbao diocese, and marriage, baptism, and death records from Navarre.

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But who are the Basques, anyway? If these records are located in Spain, why do the names in the collections contain sounds not typical to the Spanish language?

The ancient origins of the Basques

The Basque people may be the oldest culture not only in Spain, but in Europe. They are thought to have descended from Neolithic farmers long before the Roman invasion of the Iberian peninsula, and they maintained their distinct language, identity, and culture largely due to their geographic isolation — the area in which they live is largely rough, mountainous terrain.

Aramaio Valley in the Basque Country, Spain
Aramaio Valley in the Basque Country, Spain

The Basque language is of particular interest to linguists because it is so unique. The language is unrelated to any other language on earth, including all those in the Indo-European language family. Historians believe it is descended from Aquitani, an ancient language spoken in the region at around 200 B.C.E. This would make it the oldest language in Europe. Unfortunately, only around 28% of modern Basques still speak it, for reasons we’ll explore later on.

Where are Basque people from?

When we speak of the Basque Country, it’s important to distinguish between the historic territories where the Basque people lived and the autonomous community in modern Spain often referred to as “Basque Country.”

What is Basque? Basque Country community in modern Spain
The Basque Country community in northern Spain, not to be confused with the historical Basque Country

The Basque people lived in a region that stretches between modern-day northern Spain and southern France. It contained 7 historical provinces. Only 3 of those provinces (Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa) are included in the modern-day Basque Autonomous Community, which is one of the 17 autonomous communities in modern Spain. Another of the 17 autonomous communities is Navarre, which is also a historic Basque province. Navarre was actually a Basque kingdom in the Middle Ages, but it was assimilated into Castile in 1515, joining what would eventually become a unified Spain.

A history of oppression

Unfortunately, living as a minority within Spain hasn’t always been easy for the Basques. While they did enjoy autonomy under Castile, their self-government was abolished in 1839, and this sparked a movement among Basques to fight for autonomy and independence. Following the Spanish Civil War, under Franco’s dictatorship, the Basque culture and language were harshly repressed. It is likely that a combination of this repression and assimilation with the Spanish-speaking and French-speaking populations around them led to the endangerment of the Basque language. Today, concerted efforts have led to a revival, and the number of Basque speakers is rising.

The historic Basque capital of Guernica is unfortunately best known as one of the most devastating casualties of the Spanish Civil War, immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting depicting the event. Due to its cultural significance to the Basques and the fact that it was a symbol of Basque identity, General Franco gave his allies — Hitler and Mussolini— a chance to try out a new war tactic on Guernica two years before they launched World War II. On April 26, 1937, German and Italian planes bombed the city relentlessly, reducing it to rubble and leaving thousands of casualties. Picasso — a native of Málaga in southern Spain who spent most of his adult life in France — painted Guernica to tell the story of the bombing. It is considered one of the most important works of art depicting the horrific nature of war.

Basque culture

The Basques have been Catholic Christians for centuries, but their festivals and beliefs have roots in the ancient pagan religions of their ancestors. They have a strong history of folk dance and music, played on traditional instruments such as the txistu and xirula (types of flutes) and the trikixa (a kind of accordion).

Due to the mountainous terrain, farming was relatively difficult, and the Basques thrived largely on harvest from the dramatic Atlantic coasts bordering their land. This gave birth to a rich maritime culture and a traditional cuisine that incorporates a lot of seafood. Salted cod in particular is an important cultural food.

Salted Fillet of Cod for sale at a Spanish Basque food market. Salt Cod has been produced for at least 500 years, as it was a means of preserving fish prior to refrigeration.
Salted fillet of Cod for sale at a Basque market. Salt cod has been produced for at least 500 years

There is also a traditional Basque sport called jai alai, a fast-paced game that involves bouncing a hard ball against a wall with a curved wicker instrument.

Researching Basque ancestors

Is there a Basque surname in your family tree? Are you aware of any ancestral roots in the region? Check out MyHeritage’s collections of historical records from the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarre:

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