Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Science Innovation

The Basque Country has always been known for its industriousness, from master shipbuilding and navigation to the steel industry that made Bilbao so famous. Transitioning into the 21st century, the Basque Autonomous Community has pushed hard to establish a more modern base to the economy, including investing in and promoting basic science. One of the more visible consequences of that push are the Cooperative Research Centers.

Image from CIC nanoGUNE’s Facebook page from an article in the journal Science showing how graphene — atomically thin layers of carbon — can be used to bend light.
  • The CICs — Centros de Investigación Cooperativa or Cooperative Research Centers — are research labs that each focus on a particular scientific domain. The goal is to bring together researchers in a given area to enhance the scientific productivity of the group as a whole. Originally, there were seven such centers around the Basque Autonomous Community (the provinces of Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba) focusing on research in areas such as batteries, nanotechnology, and biomedicine. Today, four CICs are still going strong.
  • CIC nanoGUNE, located in Donostia, was founded in 2006 with the mission of promoting nanotechnology, both fundamental science and the transfer of ideas and technology to industry. Nanoscience is the science of the very small: from 0.1 to 100 nanometers. At this scale, matter starts to behave differently, with quantum mechanical effects becoming ever more important. The goal of nanoscience is to harness those effects to develop new materials for use in our every day lives.
  • CIC bioGUNE is located in Bilbao and has the goal of developing more precise and specialized medicines. They do this by exploring the interface between chemistry and biology with a focus both on host-pathogen interactions and the metabolism of cells. Their scientific activities “concentrates on discovering the molecular bases and mechanisms of disease to create new diagnostic and prognostic methods, promoting the development of advanced therapies.”
  • CIC biomaGUNE is another bio-focused center, this one located in Donostia. However, biomaGUNE focused more on biomaterials, the intersection between materials science and biology. They have a diverse portfolio of scientific activities, ranging from bionanoplasmonics and glycotechnology to various experimental facilities that focus on characterization of these materials.
  • CIC energiGUNE is focused on energy materials. Located in the Alava Technology Park outside of Vitoria-Gasteiz, they are developing new materials for energy storage. Think of batteries. But energiGUNE is studying other types of energy storage as well, including supercapacitors and thermal storage devices. The ultimate goal is to develop new materials that can help us distribute the energy that powers our modern world.
  • Three other centers, CIC marGUNE, CIC tourGUNE, and CIC microGUNE, were part of the original initiative to create these centers of excellence but seem to have been closed. marGUNE was focused on manufacturing while tourGUNE was dedicated to tourism and mobility of people. microGUNE was focused on microtechnology.

Basque Fact of the Week: Paulino Uzcudun, the “Basque Woodchopper”

My dad’s favorite sport to watch was boxing. I never asked him why (so many questions were never asked…) but I always assumed that it was because, of the sports on our American TV, boxing was the most straightforward, something he didn’t have to grow up with to understand, unlike American football. However, I recently learned about Paulino Uzcudun and now I wonder if maybe my dad had known about him and that is where is love of boxing came from…

Paulino Uzcudun, the “Basque Woodchopper.” Photo from Wikipedia.
  • Paulino Uzcudun was born in the Gurutze baserria in the town of Errezil, Gipuzkoa, in 1899. Even as a child, he was known for his immense strength. When his father died, he left home, eventually becoming a butcher in Donosti. In his youth, he became known as an excellent aizkolari, or woodchopper, hence his eventually boxing nickname.
  • In 1923, after completing his military service, he went to Paris to begin his professional boxing career. During his career, he became heavyweight champion first of Spain, in 1924, and then latter of Europe, in 1926. He began boxing in the United States in 1927.
  • He had many memorable bouts during his career, facing off with heavyweight champions including Max Baer (who he beat) and Primo Carnera (who he lost to twice). Perhaps the pinnacle of his career occurred in Yankee Stadium on June 27, 1929. Uzcudun lost a semi-final bout for a chance at the world title, losing in points after 15 rounds, to the German Max Schmeling, who later won the title. He would go on to fight Schmeling two more times, drawing once and losing their last bout.
  • The newspaper writer Grantland Rice wrote these stanzas about Uzcudun in 1929, emphasizing Uzcudun’s stocky and rugged stance:
This axman from the Pyrennees 
Is tougher than his native trees. 
And no man yet has made [him] run, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun. 

He has a large and hairy paw, 
They break their fists upon his jaw; 
For socking rock is not much fun, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun. 

He has a chest built like a cask, 
This heavy, thick-set, burly Basque, 
Who grins to see his claret run, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun.
  • Paulino’s last fight, in 1935, was with Joe Louis, the famous “Brown Bomber”. Louis was a brutal fighter and Uzcudun was at the sunset of his career. Louis stopped Uzcudun in the 4th round with blows that Columnist Jim Murray later described: “Louis knocked Uzcudun’s gold teeth in so many directions, the ring looked as if somebody had stepped on a railroad watch.” It was the first time, in his 70 professional fights, that Uzcudun had been knocked off his feet.

Thanks to Eneko Sagarbide for introducing me to Paulino.

Primary sources: Some Like it Hot, by Mike Casey; Wikipedia; Arozamena Ayala, Ainhoa. UZCUDUN, Paulino. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: Félix Erausquin, a Champion Thrower

Basques like to lift and carry heavy things. Basques like to cut up logs. Basques like to pull on ropes. And some Basques like to throw things. Perhaps the best thrower of things in Basque history was Félix Erausquin Erausquin. Born in Zeanuri, Bizkaia in 1907, Erausquin was one of the most decorated athletes of his time.

Félix Erausquin, image from the blog Atletismo e Historia.
  • In his prime, Erausquin was champion of Spain in multiple sports that involved throwing objects. From 1932 to 1957, he won a total of 27 championships in shot put, discus, Basque bar, and the javelin. He is only one of only four athletes (the other three being García Tuñón, Ignacio Izaguirre and Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo) who held Spanish titles in 3 out of 4 of the throwing events.
  • He was set to attend the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, but due to political upheavals ongoing in Spain at the time, he was unable to go. His first international competition didn’t come until 1948, when he competed in the London Olympics in discus, finishing 14th out of 28 at an age of 41. He continued to compete into his 70s and won the senior World Championship in discus in 1979. At an age of 72, he threw it 39.44 meters.
  • He is perhaps most famous for developing an entirely novel way of throwing the javelin, a style that became known as the Erausquin style. Based on how he threw the Basque bar, in this new technique, the thrower spun around, giving extra heft to the javelin. In 1956, when he was 48 years old, he set a new Spanish record in the javelin with relative ease using his new technique. Also using this new style, Migual de la Quadra Salcedo beat the world record and, for the first time, threw the javelin more than 100 meters. However, within a year regulations were changed to ban this new technique, because of the dangers it posed by inexperienced throwers facing the audience as they spun. None of the records using the Erausquin style became official.
  • Palanka jaurtiketa, or metal bar throwing and often referred to as barra vasca, is a traditional Basque rural sport inspired by miners in which a heavy metal bar (8-25 kg or 17-55 pounds) is thrown as far as possible. While multiple throwing techniques exist, one is to turn or spin as it is thrown.
  • Erausquin was also an accomplished boxer and his large hands led to the nickname “la coz de mula” or “mule kick.” His hands were so large that, when he played the piano, he had to use the sides of his fingers or he’d hit two keys at the same time.

Thanks to Eneko Sagarbide, Félix’s great nephew, for educating me about Félix.

Primary sources: García Martínez de Murguia, José María. ERAUSQUIN ERAUSQUIN, Félix. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at:; Wikipedia.

Basque Fact of the Week: Trees in Basque Politics and Religion

The tree of Gernika is easily the most famous tree in the Basque Country. Once the gathering site where important decisions were made and kings had to take oaths to preserve Basque liberties, it has remained an icon and cultural symbol of the Basque people. However, it is not the only important tree in the country. Trees are intertwined in the politics, history, and culture of the Basques from pre-historic times.

The painting El Árbol Malato (1882) by Mamerto Seguí. From the blog of Félix Mugurutza.
  • The tree of Gernika is only one of several trees that served as gathering points for politics. In Bizkaia alone, there are at least four other trees where meetings were held and sovereigns received. The people of Encartaciones met under the oak of Abellaneda while those of the Duranguesado met under the oak of Gerediaga. According to the Fueros of Bizkaia, the people were to receive the Lord of Bizkaia under the tree of Aretxabalagana.
  • Living in such a mountainous and wooded terrain, the Basques clearly had a close relationship with trees. This is exemplified by a phrase recorded by Basque priest, musician, writer and academic Resurrección María de Azkue at the beginning of the 20th century: “Guk botako zaitugu eta barkatu isuzu” (“we will cut you down; forgive us”).
  • While not a lot is known about pre-historic Basque beliefs, mostly because they didn’t write much down, a little comes to use from the times of Aquitaine. The Aquitaines are now thought to be a cultural ancestor to the modern Basques. In inscriptions left in what is now Gascony, they mention a number of gods related to trees. These include Sexarbori (six trees in Latin), Fagus (beech in Latin), Abellion (apple tree in Gaulish), Areix(o) (oak in Basque), Artahe (evergreen oak in Basque) and Leheren (pinein Basque). Not much is known about these deities.
  • Trees are also connected to the legends of the Basque Country. For example, way back in the 9th century, the Basques, under the leadership of the mythical Jaun Zuria, were fighting the Leonese army. In the battle of Padura, they chased the Leonese to Luyando, in Araba. There they stuck a sword in a tree and promised to follow Jaun Zuria there whenever needed. That tree, Árbol Malato (in Basque, Malato Zuhaitza) or Árbol Gafo, marks the boundary of the Lordship of Bizkaia.

Basque Fact of the Week: Tree Carvings of the Sheepherders

People, particularly boys and young men, have an almost uncontrollable impulse to leave their mark on their surroundings. Whether the graffiti that decorates the hearts of large cities or the now-preserved etchings of Spanish conquistadors on the rocks of El Morro, we have to show others we’ve already been there. The same is true of the lonely Basque men who wandered the back country of the American West with their flocks of sheep, though their canvas was the aspen trees that dotted the landscape.

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe contemplating a carving on an aspen. Photo from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
  • Basque arborglyphs, as carvings in trees are called, have been found all over the western United States, stretching north-south from Washington state to Texas and east-west from North Dakota to California. Wherever Basque shepherds found themselves in groves of aspens, they made their mark on the soft bark of the trees.
  • No one has done more to study these arborglyphs than Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a former professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Joxe has written extensively about the arborglyphs, most prominently in his book Speaking Through the Aspens.
  • The carvings span topics and themes from simply recording names to renderings of people (including female forms in various states of undress) and animals to ruminations on life. Often, they complained about the work and loneliness: Joxe and his colleagues have found carvings saying that the camp tender was a “lazy donkey with a sombrero,” “Sheep, you are killing me,” and “If [sheepherder] life is what these damn oldtimers told me it was, my balls are carnations.”
  • The trees also served as a way to communicate. Herders would carve messages that others would follow up on. For example, on one tree, one herder wrote “Wine and women both are good.” Several years later, another responded “Yes, but they are hard on your pocket.”
  • Of course, carving into trees isn’t a uniquely Basque activity. Irish sheepherders also made their marks on the aspens and everyone is familiar with the lovers who carve their initials onto trees. However, tree carvings go back much further. Both Native Americans and the Maori carved onto the surfaces of trees, marking astronomical events or recording their ancestry.

Primary source: Carving Out History: The Basque Aspens by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, in Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2001.

Basque Fact of the Week: Old Basque Documents in the Americas

The Basques, in their never-ending quest for new fishing and whaling grounds, pushed ever west, encountering Iceland, Greenland, and ultimately what would become Canada. At the same time, they were a large part of the Spanish conquistadors that pushed through South and Central America. It thus should come as no surprise that some of the oldest documents in the Basque language come from the Americas or that some of the oldest documents in the Americas are Basque.

The back page of Domingo de Luça’s will. Image from Canada’s History.
  • The oldest letter in the Basque language was written by Juan Zumarraga Laritz, the first bishop of Mexico, where he ultimately died. Zumarraga was born in 1468 in Durango, Bizkaia. As bishop, he was very influential in the development of the Catholic Church in Mexico. He made ultimately vain attempts to protect the native peoples against the abuses of Spanish authorities. He is also credited with making chocolate a popular drink for Europeans.
  • He wrote his letter, dated 1537, to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz of Abadiño, Bizkaia. Kattalin was the lady of the castle of Muntsaratz, and Zumarraga was trying to arrange a marriage between his nephew and Kattalin’s daughter, Mari Inigez. While much of the letter is in Spanish, at some point, the bishop began writing in Basque. As described by Joxe Mallea Olaetxe, there are a number of reasons Zumarraga might write in Basque. There were sentimental reasons to write in his first language. But, more importantly, he was trying to smuggle silver from Mexico to Bizkaia and wanted to avoid scrutiny as much as possible. And so, he wrote in the “forgotten language,” as he called it.
  • Much further north, in Newfoundland, Basques were also active on the coast, fishing and hunting whales. The dangers of this journey and the occupation itself meant many Basques spent their last days on the Canadian coast. This was the case for Joanes de Etxaniz (1584), the inspiration for Guillermo Zubiaga’s Joanes comic; Juanes de Larrume (1577); and Domingo de Luça (1563). Each left behind their will and de Luça’s will, discovered some 450 years later by Dr. Michael Barkham, is now thought to be the oldest civil document we have that was written in Canada.
  • De Luça got sick not long after arriving in the Americas. Knowing how ill he was, he dictated his will and requested that he be buried in “this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.” He left everything to his wife, María Martín de Aguinaga of Hondarribia. He also laid out the debts he owed and those that were owed him, in an effort to reconcile his accounts after his death.
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