The Basque Country and the Basque People

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Located in northcentral Spain live one of the most unique people in all of Europe. 

They have a language that is literally like no other, and even their genetics are unlike the people around them. 

In addition, they have a unique culture, a mysterious history, and just may have visited the Americas before Columbus. 

Learn more about the Basque people and the Basque Country and what makes them so unique on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

While anytime is a great time to visit Spain, in 2023, Spain will be honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of the great artist Pablo Picasso.

While exhibits of the life and works of Pablo Picasso will take place in 33 countries, the biggest celebrations will be taking place in his home country of Spain. 

There will be several events and exhibitions in his hometown of Malaga. 

The capital of Madrid will have eight different exhibitions including one at the Museo Reina Sofía, where his most famous painting, Guernica, is on display. 

Barcelona will have three exhibitions, including one at the Barcelona Picasso Museum. 

There will also be an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Museum of Fine Arts in A Coruña. 

If you are interested in visiting any of the Picasso 2023 events in Spain, just visit, or click on the link in the show notes. Once again, that is

The Basques are a cultural and linguistic group which are located in the Greater Basque Country, which is an area consisting of the Spanish Autonomous region of the Basque Country, part of the region of Navarre, and a small part of the French Basque country. 

Before I get into the history and culture of the Basque people, I should probably start with the biggest thing that the Basques are known for and the most significant thing that defines them: their language. 

The languages of the world can be roughly be broken into language families, where all the languages in the family have a common origin and many words and grammatical structures in common.

For example, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian are all Romance languages derived from Latin.

German, Dutch, and all the Scandinavian languages are all in the Germanic family.

Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian are all Slavic languages. 

All of those languages are further lumped together with languages from Northern India and Iran, known as Indo-European Languages. 

The Basque Language is not related to any of these languages. 

Basque is what is known as a language isolate, which basically means it is by itself in its own language family. 

The big question is how did a language, way over on the western end of the Eurasion land mass, surrounded by so many other very dominant languages, backed by large military empires, manage to survive and remain entact for thousands of years?

To understand that, we need to understand that deep history of the Basque people. 

Here I have to confess, that there is a lot we don’t know about the history of the Basques. However, there is one thing we do know, and it is yet another data point which shows just how unique the Basque people are: genetics. 

The genetic profile of Basque people is very similar to that of other Europeans, except there are parts of the Y-Chromosome DNA and mitochrondal DNA which are unlike anyone else. 

The current theory is that these genetic markers are the leftover from neolithic humans. Basically, the Basque people are genetically distinct from their neighbors and may be the closest genetic relatives to Cro-Magons or Neanderthals. 

If true, the genetics might explain the language and vice versa. 

One theory is that the Basques were living in a backwater of what is today somewhere in the British Isles during the ice age. Perhaps somewhere currently underwater. When the ice caps melted, they migrated to what is today the north coast of Spain. This is based on similarities to the Y-chromosome DNA with the Welsh and Irish. 

So, the reason why the language was kept separate was that the Basque people were separate from the rest of Europe for a long time, at least genetically speaking. 

This is just one theory of many, but whatever the truth is, there must be some reason why the Basques were kept linguistically and genetically separate. 

That being said, the first historical mentions of the Basque people go back to the first century, and the Roman historian Strabo spoke of a people called the Vascones, who were, in all probability, the Basques. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Basques managed to roughly keep as a separate ethnic entity, which was noteworthy as the Iberian Peninsula was attacked by Visigoths, Franks, and Moors. 

They were part of the general political ebb and flow throughout the centuries, They weren’t always one coherent political unit. There were various Basque fiefdoms that were established, and some of them were controlled by other kingdoms. 

I’m lumping together a whole lot of history here, but what I want to get across is that while the Basques were a separate ethnic group, they weren’t isolated during this time. They were a part of the political scrum, which was medieval politics in Europe. 

The Basques, given their location on the Atlantic, because exceptional at fishing and whaling. 

In particular, in the 14th and 15th centuries, they would often sail out to the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean for cod and whales. In fact, the European invention of the rudder was probably invented by the Basques.

In fact, one of the odd things about their fishing is that they would often come back from their expeditions with dried cod. The problem is that you can’t dry cod on a ship. 

That means they had to have landed somewhere to dry the fish. 

Moreover, very soon after Columbus landed in the Northern Hemisphere, the Basques had set up a whaling station in Labrador, not far from the location where early Vikings had established their early colony in Newfoundland.

That has led many people to theorize that the Basque fisherman and whalers may have arrived in North America before Columbus. 

If this is true, why didn’t they tell everyone about it? Here is the explanation which is usually given.

First, they were there to make money from fish. Unlike Columbus, they weren’t interested in establishing colonies, planting a flag, or claiming territory. They just needed to place to set up a temporary camp so they could do their business. 

What they discovered was just some land where they could sleep, dry fish, and store supplies. That was all it was to them. 

Also, they didn’t tell anyone about it because they didn’t want to give away their prime fishing spots. They had every incentive to keep it a secret. 

There are estimates that the Basques might have arrived in Newfoundland as early as 1375, over 100 years before Columbus. 

Unlike much of Spain, the Basques were never conquered by the Moors and were not part of the Caliphate, which controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula for 700 years.

The Basques did eventually find themselves between two very powerful empires, France and Spain

When modern Spain was established after the Reconquestia under Ferdinand and Isabella, most of the Basque population found themselves under the Spanish crown in exchange for generous autonomy and trade rights. 

Basque autonomy began to wane in the late 18th century when Spain began to restrict their trade rights, and it became even worse after the French Revolution when the new French Republic tried to nationalize everything and eliminate all ethnic groups into one common French nationality.

This period also saw mass Basque immigration to the new world. Large numbers of Basques were responsible for much of the migration to Spanish colonies. As many as 40% of the Spanish colonists who moved to Chile were Basque and Basque names can be found in streets and cities all over Latin America. 

One of the largest Basque communities in the United States is in Boise, Idaho, and much of the Hispanic population in Texas is of some Basque descent.

This period, beginning with the French Revolution, saw increased resistance by the Basque to both French and Spanish efforts to eliminate Basque culture and language. 

This came to a head after the Spanish Civil War when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco attempted to ban all non-Spanish languages in the country. 

This led to decades of violence from extremist independence groups. In particular, a group known as the ETA, which stood for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which is Basque for “Basque Country and Freedom”. They engaged in a series of bombings between 1968 and 2010. 

In 2018, they announced that they had disbanded after the 2010 ceasefire ended all operations. 

Since the end of the Franco regime, the Basque language had seen a resurgence. It is now taught in schools, is frequently used in signage,  and almost a third of the population in the Basque Country can speak the language, even if it isn’t their primary language. 

Likewise, the Basque Country has also been given a great deal of autonomy by the Spanish government which was one of the big reasons why Basque independence movements have died out. 

So what is Basque country like today? What are the elements of Basque culture which makes it different than the rest of Spain? 

Lets start with food. 

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Basque country might be the best region for food in Spain. In particular the city of San Sebastian right on the French border is in my, and many people’s opinion, the best food city in Europe. 

Tapas is one of the most popular types of food in Spain. The Basque country has their own version of tapas known as pintxos.  Pintxos can be found at pretty much every bar in the Basque Country. 

What makes pintxos different from most tapas is that they are served on a piece of bread, usually a slice of a baguette, and usually two other ingredients on top. These could be meat and cheese, or tomato and eggo, or whatever. 

There is a particular Basque wine which is extremely good and you can almost never find it anywhere outside the Basque country because they don’t export it. It is a white wine called Txakoli, and I can attest that its one of the best wines I’ve ever had. I often use Txakoli to test sommilers when I go to a fancy restaurant. 

Likewise, the Basque region is known for having some of the best ciders in the world. I’ve actually found some Basque ciders outside of Spain, but they are hard to find. It is my go-to beverage whenever I’m in Spain, and if you ever find yourself in the Basque Country, I’d suggest visiting a cideria if you can. 

Basques have their own sports. The most popular Basque sport is called Pelota. It is played with a ball and a curved wicker basket which is used to catch and throw against a wall. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the basis for the game known as Jai alai. 

Jai alai is the world’s fastest game, with the highest speeds ever recorded for a ball at 305 km/h or 190 mph.

The most popular professional Basque football team is Athletic Bilbao. They have been in the Spanish premier league known as La Liga since its inception 93 years ago and have never once been relegated.

What makes the team unique is that they only have Basque players. Despite the huge handicap, this gives them in recruiting, they have won the Copa del Rey eight times, second only to Barcelona. 

One of the most popular Basque cultural events is probably one that you’ve heard of but didn’t know was Basque. The running of the bulls in Pamplona. 

Pamplona is technically in the region of Navarre, but it is culturally a Basque city. In fact, before the running, a song and prayer are always said in Basque. 

There are several attractions I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention as well. 

The first is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It is a Frank Ghery designed building, and it is one of the top modern art museums in Europe. 

The other is the Santa Maria Cathedral in the city of Vittoria. In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral was the inspiration for the Ken Follett novel, The Pillars of the Earth, which is about the construction of a medieval cathedral. It was also turned into a miniseries in 2010. 

As you can probably tell, the Basque people and the Basque region are really fascinating. Whether it is language, genetics, history, wine, or football, there is something about the Basques that sets them apart from everyone else in Europe.