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The Basque Country and Navarre - Background information
Whether from studying the scant available evidence of anthropology, archaeology or the Basque language, the only conclusion that can reasonably be drawn is that the precise origins and date of arrival of the people now known as the Basques are both unclear. Few peoples can claim such obscurity of origin. Evidence, though somewhat patchy, shows that the Basque territories were certainly occupied around 250,000 years ago. Cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic period, such as can be found in the caves of Santimamiñe in Bizkaia or those of Istaritz in Basse-Navarre, provide more solid traces of human occupation in the Basque territories, but this dates back only 15,000 years, to around 13,000BC. The ethnicity of the artists is not clear, however, and no-one can say with certainty that they were the ancestors of the present-day Basques.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe dates from the 10th century © Mike I Martinez De Osaba, Shutterstock
The discovery and analysis of skull fragments from a Cro-Magnon man, dating back to around 9000bc, have been used by some to claim that the current inhabitants of the Basque Country have the same distinctive skull formation as their 11,000-year-old ancestors, and from that conclusion to assert that the Basques have been in continuous occupation of these lands to the west of the Pyrenees ever since then. Some commentators point out that this evidence is far too weak to form such bold conclusions with anything approaching certainty; some suspect that those assertions are being gladly adopted by those with some political axe to grind. (Of course, merely disputing such claims invites accusations of taking the opposite political stance.) Menhirs and dolmens attest to mountain-dwellers in the wider Aquitaine region around 5000BC, and Celtic people left traces here when they arrived in the first millennium bc. Without doubt, people did live here in ancient times, but were they Basques? No-one knows.
What’s more, did they speak Basque, or even a language from which it derived? A study of a people’s language and its connections to other tongues can often give strong evidence as to the origins of its speakers but, as is well-known, euskara – the Basque language – is virtually without relation to any other. True, its undisputed status as a non-Indo-European language might suggest that the Basques were safely installed in their current homelands long before the Indo-European influx of peoples during the Bronze Age, but the counter-theory suggests that they were more likely to have been a part of those migrations and that their ‘isolation’ only commenced after they took up residence in their current corner of the European continent.
While the origins of the Basques will doubtless continue to interest historians and excite those who wish to establish them as the ‘oldest and most original of European inhabitants’, (or, to argue the opposite case), for the purposes of a travel guide and from the perspective of a curious visitor, it will have to be sufficient to leave the matter unresolved. Instead, we can be satisfied with what exists today: a unique and rich culture which has its origins somewhere in the mists of time. The Basques are certainly different, we just don’t know from where the difference originates.
The region’s river estuaries, inland wetlands and mountains of every shape and size guarantee that seasoned or amateur birdwatchers alike will find something of interest on a visit to the Basque Country, where nearly 350 avian species have been recorded. Nor does Navarre disappoint in this respect, either, with its topographical diversity – stretching from the high Pyrenees to the semi-desert of the Bardenas Reales – providing great bird-spotting opportunities.
Those with an interest in reptiles will find several snake species such as the ladder snake (Rhenechis scalaris), Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) and Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus), the last of these growing up to 2m and being one of Europe’s longest.
Neither a visit to the Basque Country nor a trip to Navarre will reward you with many mammal encounters. It’s not that they’re not present, just that they sensibly keep out of sight. Starting with the rarest, the last female Pyrenean brown bear was shot in 2004, although attempts have been made to introduce examples of the species from Slovenia, with mixed results. Equally invisible is the Iberian wolf, systematically eliminated from most of Spain during the Franco dictatorship but with some reported sightings in the west of Bizkaia province. It is generally more easily seen in neighbouring Castile and León.
A little more common are deer, beech marten, fox, red squirrel, European mink and European wildcat, all present in various parts of the region. In the dense forests, wild boar are numerous but well concealed and much sought after during hunting season. The Bidasoa River harbours a population of otters.
Globally, there are estimated to be an astonishing 18 million people of Basque descent, six times more than the current population of the region itself. Much of the spread of the Basques around the world can be attributed to the fishing and whaling traditions, with a significant number of descendants in New Brunswick and Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Today, more than eight million people in South and Central America can claim Basque origins. In particular, many citizens of Argentina, Chile and Mexico trace their roots to the Basques, their ancestors having left at various times to work as shepherds, farmers and miners. There are about 60,000 people of Basque ancestry in the USA. Many reside in Boise, Idaho, Nevada and other places in the American West. The University of Nevada at Reno has a very active Basque Studies department, producing many English-language publications on Basque history and culture.
In terms of character, the Basques have a reputation for industriousness and innovation, as well as having a love of independence and freedom. Some also characterise them as being forthright, direct and determined – and stubborn! If a Basque gives you his word, it is said to be his bond.