Basque language film: Loreak (Flowers)

Loreak_posterLoreak (Flowers in English) is the first Basque language film to be nominated for the Goya Award and the first Basque language film to be considered for an Oscar (in the Best Foreign Language film category). It was Spain’s selection for that Oscar, though it was, in the end, not nominated. However, these accolades highlight the reception this film has received.

Per Wikipedia, the plot of Loreak is:

Ane (played by Nagore Aranburu) is a woman in her early forties who does not feel fulfilled. Her life changes when she starts to receive bouquets of flowers at home anonymously, once a week. The lives of Lourdes (Itziar Ituño) and Tere (Itziar Aizpuru) are also altered by some mysterious flowers. A stranger leaves flowers every week in memory of someone who was important for them.

I have yet to see it, but Loreak is currently playing in various cities across the US (see their Facebook page for details), in the original Basque but with English subtitles. It is even in New Mexico, though I don’t think I’ll be able to see it this run.

If anyone does catch the film, please share your thoughts!

Gazta! A new cheese route in Euskadi!

mutiloa.jpgAnyone who has visited the Basque Country knows how important cheese is to the cuisine of the Basques. Idiazabal might be the most famous, but cheese is everywhere in Euskadi. Meals often end with a plate of cheese and membrillo.

Basque cheese was central to more than one of my visits to the Basque Country. During my first stay, in 1991, I visited my dad’s aunt, who lived outside of Munitibar. Her caserio was at the end of the road that wound up the side of the mountain. It was an old caserio, with the barn still occupied by animals. On the kitchen table was the biggest wheel of cheese I’d ever seen. My dad’s aunt and her family raised sheep for their milk and made their own homemade cheese. It had been many years since she had seen my dad and she insisted I take two small wheels of cheese back to the United States for my dad. How was I supposed to make it through customs with homemade cheese? The smell alone would give me away, but, more importantly, this was cheese made on a farm, with no controls. There was no way… Suffice it to say, I did get those blocks of cheese to my dad. How is a story for another day.

Years later, I was visiting the Basque Country with my whole family, the first time for my mom, my brothers, and my wife-to-be. My dad took us all to that same baserria and again there was a huge wheel of cheese sitting on the same table. While we were all sitting at the table, doing our best to be patient as my dad and his aunt traded stories in Basque, my future wife looked out the window and saw the herd of sheep, my dad’s cousin milking them. My future wife jumped at the chance to take her turn at the sheep, doing her part in making the next wheel of cheese.

My mom’s grandfather, Blas (who I’m named after), was from Mutiloa, Gipuzkoa, in the heart of the Goierri, the region where Idiazabal, so famous for that cheese, lies. I first went there with my friend Joseba Etxarri (director of the euskalkultura site), who found where my mom’s grandfather’s baserria was. As we tried to find the exact place, we stopped at a few houses and Joseba asked in Euskara if anyone knew where the Telleria caserio was. Of course they did, and they pointed us in the right direction, but every house seemed to have a master cheese maker and we had our share of wonderful cheese on the way to rediscovering my great-grandfather’s birth house.

logo-inicioAll of this leads to the most awesome new vacation idea. In that same Goierri region, including Idiazabal, a number of cheese makers in a variety of towns have established what I can only imagine is a unique trail. The “Idiazabal Cheese Route“, or Idiazabal Gaztaren Ibilbidea, is a 6 stage walk of about 100 kilometers through the Goierri. Along each stage, there is ample opportunity to taste some of the best cheese the Basque Country has to offer, along with sagardoa (hard cider) and the most amazing natural vistas. Paul Richardson of the Financial Times shares his experiences along the trail. It seems like a most amazing vacation idea, one I’ll have to try some day.

Making Dreams Come True: An Interview with Argia Beristain

11709776_10153547206780159_6103263036434097161_nI’ve known Argia Beristain for about 20 years now, having first met her during our joint activities in the Seattle Euskal Etxea. She has since moved back and forth between the two coasts of the United States and has been extremely active in promoting Basque culture, culminating in the Basque Soccer Friendly that was held in Boise, Idaho this past summer. 

In this interview, I ask Argia about the planning and organization of the Basque Soccer Friendly, her experiences being part of four very different Basque communities in the United States, and her favorite places in the Basque Country.

Buber’s Basque Page: Last summer (July 18), you saw the culmination of a lot of your blood, sweat and tears over the last year or so in the Basque Soccer Friendly, which brought both Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana to Boise to play an exhibition soccer match. What was this experience like? What was the most gratifying part of organizing this amazing event? What challenges surprised you the most?

Argia Beristain: The experience of planning, organizing and executing the Basque Soccer Friendly was an exhausting emotional roller coaster. There were so many times along the way that new obstacles were placed in front of us and many thought “oh there’s no way they can overcome this” and we refused to give up and somehow overcame each and every one of them. You can call it tenacity or stubbornness I guess but it was a passion of mine to make sure that I personally tried everything I could to make it a reality. We had worked so hard, I knew I would never forgive myself for turning back and not doing absolutely everything I could think of to keep the project moving forward.

11892257_10206785476549746_1339441297480742596_nThe most gratifying part of organizing this amazing event has to be seeing how so many people’s dreams came true, not only my own or my Aita’s which was personally motivating all along the way. The overall feeling/vibe on the Basque Block and at the game was pure happiness — it’s so great to know I helped bring that happiness to the community. To point to one specific moment though, it would have to be when I saw an interview my husband, Keegan, did with the local newspaper that was recorded and posted online after Athletic Club’s arrival in Boise. I could not have done any of the work on this without his endless support, he held me up and gave me encouragement every single step of the way. But at that moment, seeing his own personal excitement and satisfaction that all of our hard work had paid off and that our team was actually arriving in Boise, Idaho thousands of miles away from the Basque Country was beyond gratifying.

Of all the challenges that surprised me throughout the process, the most staggering element is just how expensive putting on an event like this really is. Even with Athletic Club waiving their appearance fee, the cost of Tijuana’s appearance fee, flying both teams to Boise, hotels, food, transportation, on top of all of the expenses associated with use of Albertsons Stadium, signage and the major budget needed for the installation of the sod, it all adds up very quickly. That doesn’t even include marketing or merchandise which we had committees of amazing volunteers dedicating hundreds of hours to in-kind. We all knew it was going be expensive and, quite honestly, our budget projections from a year ago are not that far off, but when you step back and look at everything including all of the “in-kind” our sponsors gave us to support the game, it’s truly staggering how much money is needed to pull this thing off.

Buber’s Basque Page: What was the history of this project? When did it first get discussed? Who else had been involved in bringing this event from the concept stage to final fruition?

Argia Beristain: This history of this project starts at Jaialdi 2010 with Mayor Dave Bieter, John Bieter, and representatives from the Province of Bizkaia enjoying a nice dinner and a good amount of wine while dreaming up ways to make Jaialdi “even bigger next time”. Their conversation started focusing in on sports and ultimately it was suggested that a team from the Basque Country should come and play a game in Boise. Then a couple years later, John Bieter pulled together some people on the Boise State campus to see if they agreed it was a good idea in April 2013. That June, I moved to Boise and even before my furniture arrived, I received a call from Dave Lachiondo, Associate Director for Basque Studies at Boise State, asking me if I wanted to be involved since my background was in non-profit fundraising and we’d inevitably need to raise quite a bit of money to make this possible. From that point we formed a small committee and people joined and left the committee at various stages based upon our needs for the next year or so.

20018_1582353802017575_4348328858576978449_nEventually, at the core there was John Bieter (Basque Studies), Bill Taylor (Idaho Youth Soccer Association) and myself as Directors to lead the way. I worked hand-in-hand with Bill Taylor on all things soccer related (teams, FIFA Agents, equipment, field, etc.) then for all things sponsor and donor related, John and I worked together. We were quite the team. All along John was there to ride the up and downs of this event with me every step of the way. It helped that we could also go and meet with Mayor Dave Bieter when we needed some additional help opening doors along the way.

Along the way we found an amazing designer, Paul Carew, and other marketing professionals like Jason Hamilton who helped steer us in right direction. By January 2015, we formed a volunteer marketing committee that met weekly with Paul (all things brand related, logos, signage, merchandise, etc.), Jason Hamilton (managed our tv commercials and relationship with hispanic tv and our media partner, KTVB), Drew Lorona (social media and email campaigns), Ana Overgaard (production of videos as needed), Keegan Dougherty (website, live stream, online store and retail space manager) and myself. It was a fun but small group of amazing individuals who all wanted to see the game happen and be the best event it could be. I joked at one point that I was going to stop coming to marketing meetings because I always left there with a lot more work to do. But all kidding aside, they were awesome and the event’s success can be attributed directly to them. When you step back and think about how volunteers pulled off this major event, it’s inspiring.

Another major person behind the scenes for the Basque Soccer Friendly was Fred Mack of Holland & Hart, our legal team. An event like this requires very detailed team, vendor and sponsor contracts, as well as an elaborate agreement with Boise State University. Fred joined our team “pro bono” in March 2015 and suddenly everything started moving much more smoothly.

Add to that our Volunteer Director Daniel Brunham and the numerous amazing volunteers that he coordinated to support our events leading up to the game, retail store and install/removal of the field and it’s clear to see it took quite a team.

On the Basque Studies side, we also could not have done it without John Ysursa. He was there to support John Bieter, Keegan and I with anything we needed help with from painting the retail location walls, filling shifts as “Johnny Retail”, installing/removing the sod, storing our merchandise, you name it. Whenever we needed anything, we always knew we could count on Y.

All in all, it was a small group of individuals committed to making this game a success. Some of us have been on the team for 2 years, most 6-9 months but at the end of the day, we all gave endless hours that in my opinion paid off by a successful event.

11695786_1588319494754339_462829284359832730_nBuber’s Basque Page: Originally, the Basque Soccer Friendly was going to be during the same week as Jaialdi, but it got moved due to Athletic Bilbao’s making it to the Europa League competition. I heard more than one person say that, in the end, this was a good thing as dealing with the sod during Jaialdi would have been a nightmare. How did you feel about the change in time?

Argia Beristain: Moving the date of the game was the last thing we wanted to do but, in the end, we know everything happens for a reason and for this first time event we can honestly say we think it worked out best this way. There are countless stories of friends, family and soccer fans from throughout the United States, Mexico and the Basque Country who had plans to come to the game on the 29th during the week of Jaialdi who were not able to go with the date change to the 18th. We can’t help but think that we would have had a lot more than 22,000 in the Stadium if it had been during Jaialdi; however, from the logistics and event experience for Athletic Club Bilbao’s side of things, it was definitely better off on the 18th.

For example, logistically no one in Boise had ever been through the process of installing the sod over turf and we relied heavily upon our volunteers to help with the plastic event decking and tarp installation and removal portions of that process. That equaled a lot of hours of hard work and it was hard enough to find enough dedicated volunteers who were willing to pitch in. If it had been during Jaialdi when many of the local Basque community is already busy putting on the various Jaialdi events, it would have been even more difficult to accomplish this major volunteer effort that took multiple days of physical labor. Another logistical issue beyond the already full hotels throughout Boise during Jaialdi is the busses that were needed for the teams. With the demand for busses that Jaialdi puts on the local community with shuttles from hotels, performer shuttles, etc., I don’t think there are physically enough busses in the greater Treasure Valley area to meet the needs of Jaialdi and the soccer teams at the same time.

Then, as for Athletic Club’s experience and our community’s access to the team, I don’t think they would have been able to have the freedom to visit the Basque Block, the Basque Museum and the Basque Center, Basque Soccer Friendly store and have autograph signings as they were able to if it had been during Jaialdi. With the game on the 18th, they were able to spend the entire afternoon on the 17th playing Pala in the Fronton, checking out the museum and boarding house, enjoying a meal at the Basque Center, playing FIFA at the Basque Soccer Friendly store and visiting the Ikastola. The team gave the Boise community unprecedented access by making all players available for autographs so we split them into groups at the Basque Center, the Basque Soccer Friendly store and the Ikastola. Each location had lines around the block with Basques and non-Basques alike eager to meet them and get their autographs. They were so gracious and stayed until they signed for everyone which gave them a real opportunity to meet the Basque diaspora and greater Boise community which resulted in so many dreams made true. Now, if it had been during Jaialdi, they would have seen even larger crowds on the Block and a lot more in the Stadium I’m sure, however they would have been mobbed and we would not have been able to have the autograph signings and they would not have had the freedom to explore the Basque Block or visit with distant family like they did.

Buber’s Basque Page: You’ve now been part of Basque communities in Seattle, Washington DC, and Boise, and grew up in the Las Vegas Basque community. What do you see as the big differences in these different clubs/communities and the commonalities?

Argia Beristain: Wow, that’s a good question. My experiences working in support of the Basque Communities in Las Vegas, Seattle, Washington, DC and now Boise have all been very different and are dependent upon the demographics of the communities, yet it always comes down to a few dedicated volunteers who are willing to give so much of themselves to keep the clubs or projects going.

In Las Vegas, our biggest challenge is that the original Basque immigrants who started the Lagun Onak Las Vegas Basque Club are getting older and unable to sustain the club forever. The heart of the club at the beginning and today are the pelotaris or Jai Alai players who used to play professionally on the Las Vegas Strip until 1980 when the casinos closed the frontons. At that time many of the players stayed to become card dealers for the casinos and what was originally a group of Jai Alai friends became an organized Basque Club in 1980. This however was the last major immigration of Basques to the Las Vegas valley and many of the children of these pelotaris and dedicated Basques are either not interested in maintaining or preserving their Basque Culture or they have moved away. As a result, as the founders of the Basque Club enter their 70s it’s difficult for them that all of the activities of the club and organization of the events fall solely upon their shoulders.

In Seattle, as you know, there isn’t quite that distinct time that you can point to when most of the Basque immigrants came to the area. Instead, the major hurdle that I see for the Seattle Basque Community is just how vast the area is and how spread out all of the Basques are. In this continuously evolving cultural society there are many demands on us as individuals and families from social engagements to soccer practice, dance classes, etc. — it’s helpful if the Basque component is convenient too, which isn’t always possible for all of the Basques throughout Washington.

Now Washington, DC is completely different as the majority of our members are in their 30s and 40s yet were born in the Basque Country and are in DC working for maybe only a few years. A few of the Basque Americans who have grown up in Boise, Elko, Chicago, etc. have moved there too and are members of the club however the biggest hurdle is conveying the need or necessity to preserve or celebrate our Basque Culture to those who “being Basque” is compulsory because they grew up in the Basque Country and thats just how they lived. It’s interesting to note that of the 5 current Board of Directors for the Washington, DC Euskal Etxea, 4 of us are Basque Americans and there is just 1 who was born in the Basque Country yet our membership base is heavily Basque Country born. Now, at different times we have had other Basque Country born Board members but as the club gets older and faces more challenges, it appears the Basque Americans who have grown up in other Basque Diaspora communities are the ones pushing the hardest to keep it going in DC.

11813462_1592530124333276_7437631682627407954_nThen there’s Boise. I think the best thing going for the Boise Basque Community is it’s numbers and the sheer volume of Basques that have immigrated to Idaho throughout the years. With there being so many generations of Basques and Basque Americans who have grown up celebrating Basque culture and having Basque culture celebrated by the greater Boise community it makes it, in my opinion, easier to perpetuate. It’s cool to be Basque in Boise. At the end of the day, the work and responsibility still only falls on a few dedicated volunteers no matter where you live; however, with such a large population to pull from in Boise/Treasure Valley, you’re more likely to find those people willing to help. Furthermore, the burden placed upon one person is less when there are more people willing to teach euskal dantza, euskera, mus, briska, movie night, etc. and one when one person gets tired, overwhelmed or needs to handle the soccer practice car pool instead, there is more of a chance to find someone else in the Basque community to pick up where they left off rather than the effort halting completely.

I wouldn’t trade my experiences in any of the communities for anything and I think that what it means to me to be “Basque” and the type of volunteer that I am today is a result of all of the experiences I’ve had in these various Basque communities.

Buber’s Basque Page: The next big event in Basque cultural space in the US looks to be the 2016 Folklife Festival, put on by the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I understand you were involved in making this event happen. What can you tell us about the event?

Argia Beristain: Yes, I’m very excited about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that will present Basque Culture on the National Mall in DC in June/July 2016. Mark Bieter and I have been meeting with the folks from the Smithsonian since 2006 to make this dream come true. With the help of the Basque Government’s Aitor Sotes and more recently Ander Caballero and the recent addition of the representatives from the Province of Bizkaia, it’s finally happening!

Every summer the Smithsonian presents a living museum featuring cultures from around the world and 2016 is the 50th Anniversary of the festival. The Washington, DC Euskal Etxea is helping connect the Smithsonian with local vendors and contacts to have authentic Basque food, cider, wine and more. Most of the performers will probably come from the Basque Country but it’s expected that a number of them will be from the Basque American Diaspora as well. The Smithsonian team is working directly with NABO on that selection process as we speak. It’s exciting stuff! I hope Basque Americans make an effort to get to DC this summer to see it, it’s sure to be a once in a lifetime moment for our culture and language.

Buber’s Basque Page: Now, a few questions about the Basque Country itself. What is your favorite spot in the Basque Country?

Argia Beristain: My favorite place in the Basque Country is Ondarru (Ondarroa). Specifically the port and beach area. I have fond memories of waking up early as little kid and sitting on my Amama’s patio to watch the fishing boats come in during the early morning. As I got older, I’ve enjoyed sitting at Moby Dick enjoying a txikito with my kuadrilla along the beach. Ondarru is so beautiful and the people are uniquely Ondarrutarra. I love that.

Buber’s Basque Page: What is your favorite Basque food?

Argia Beristain: My favorite Basque food would be comfort food my family makes. Like my Itxiko Miren’s zapu (fish) or her soup. My aita’s paella or when he makes tongue (only ever in a red sauce). Once while I was living in DC and pregnant and unable to travel to visit family, I asked my aita to ship me some of his paella (frozen of course) and his tortilla patata. I’ve never received a gift that made me feel so comforted and close to family even though I was 2,500 miles away from all of them in Las Vegas and 3,800 miles away from Ondarru.

Buber’s Basque Page: What is your favorite Basque fiesta?

Argia Beristain: My favorite fiesta is Ondarruko Jaixak in August celebrating Andra Mari but a close second would be Madalenas in Elantxobe, Bermeo…..

Buber’s Basque Page: Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?

11755196_1589935321259423_5857486168369343882_nArgia Beristain: As it’s been a few months now since the game in July, I’ve had some time to reflect on just how amazing it is that it all came together and we actually brought Athletic Club Bilbao to Boise, Idaho! On top of that, we covered the iconic blue turf at Boise State University and introduced high level professional soccer/futbol to a traditionally American Football community. Lastly, even though we had to move the game away from Jaialdi and lost a lot of the Basque community’s ability to attend, we still had 22,000 people fill the stadium. It’s amazing to me when I stop and reflect on all of that. I’m proud of the fact that we pulled it off and it was a great success.

The Basque Soccer Friendly is truly a testament to remaining positive, not giving up and doing whatever it takes to reach a dream/goal. I hope to have more opportunities to pour myself into a project like this in the future.

Buber’s Basque Page: Eskerrik asko Argia!

My Goodbye to My Dad

I gave the eulogy at my dad’s funeral on Wednesday, December 2. I’m posting my words here to honor his memory.
IMG_4582Pete – dad – was my inspiration. Like many of you here today, or your parents or grandparents, he gave up everything he knew, everything he grew up with, to build a better life. He came to what must have seemed the most desolate place on earth, especially compared to the vibrant green mountains and fiestas of the Basque Country. He left all of that behind to start a new life, a life that left him the hills around Silver City with nothing more than one fellow sheepherder and a dog to keep him company for months at a time. From this new beginning, he found a new life.

In his way, dad was a great man. He came from the most humble beginnings on a small farm in the heart of the Basque Country. He worked hard every day, eventually building his own business. He wasn’t always successful. Everyone he talked to knew about his “deep shit hole.” But, his work ethic was an inspiration. Though he never went to school – he actually ran from the priests that had come to take him to the seminary back in the Basque Country – he made sure that me and my brothers Tony and David had the opportunity he had passed on, to give us an even better life than he had.

Dad never gave me much life advice. At least with me, he was a man of few words. The one thing he did tell me was that he wanted me to have a job with an air conditioner. He had worked so many hours in the heat of the sun and the cold of the winter that he hoped I wouldn’t have to do the same. So, in his own way, he encouraged me to follow my dreams, to strive for more, and to be the best man I could become. I owe him a debt greater than he ever realized.

As for many Bascos forged in the ruins of the Spanish Civil War and tempered in the lonely and barren hills of the American West, dad had a rough and gruff exterior. He wasn’t an emotional man. Once in a while, his temper would flair up. But, hidden beneath that rough exterior was the most generous heart, a heart that was generous even before it was replaced by a younger model. His door was always open, a sol y sombra always ready for any visitor. And, more often than not, they would leave with a bag of peppers, a chunk of jamon, or a package of chorizo. Remembering the harsh days when he was in the back hills of Idaho and Oregon, he took the next generation of sheepherders, now from Peru, under his wing and helped them navigate life in their new home. He lived for his family and friends, and his home was always open to all of them.

Dad worked hard every day, until his health got in the way. In 1997, after a series of heart attacks, he had a heart transplant that gave him a new lease on life. As he liked to say, he got a new engine, but the chassis needed a lot of work.

And little by little, that chassis began to fail him. A long series of problems, rivaled only by the number of pills he took every day, slowly took away his strength. While his mind was sharp and alert to the end, his body slowly deteriorated. This was a new struggle, as his physical strength was the basis of everything he did. All he knew and did was about work, about physical labor, and that was taken away. He never had any hobbies that didn’t involve physical labor, and this challenge was probably as great as any of the others.

But, with the constant and loving support of his wife Monica, he fought on. Together, they got nearly 20 years out of that heart and, because of it, he got to see so many things. He got to see his mom and brothers come visit him from the Basque Country, and me and my brothers got to see where our argumentative sides really came from. For me, some of my most precious memories are being able to take him back to Spain, the first time we had gone together, and drive him around his old stomping grounds. We visited so many distant cousins, it seemed that the whole Basque Country had to be related to us somehow. I didn’t understand most of what I heard, but I could tell that dad enjoyed reliving his childhood adventures with all of those old friends.

Because of the time he and mom eked out of that new heart, he got to see all of his sons graduate from college, he got to see them all marry the most beautiful women, and he got to see all of them start their own families. That twinkle in his eye, the way he would stick out and bite his tongue, his smile – all of these live on in his grandchildren. He is a part of them and through them he continues to live on. His grandchildren are his greatest legacy.

Pete – dad – is gone. He will be missed. But he will never be forgotten. He lives on in the hearts of everyone he knew. If that isn’t the sign of a great man, I don’t know what is.

Goian bego, Aita. Maite zaitut.

Goian bego, Aita.

IMG_4582Pedro “Pete” Uberuaga Zabala

In the early morning of Thursday, November 26, 2015 – Thanksgiving Day – Pete passed away while sleeping peacefully in his home in Homedale, Idaho.

Pete was born on June 1, 1944 in Gerrikaitz (Munitibar), Bizkaia, Spain, to Teodoro Uberuaga and Feliciana Zalaba. He was the eldest of 8 children.

When he was 18 years old, he followed his three uncles to the United States on a three-year contract to herd sheep in the hills around Silver City, looking for opportunities to better his life. During a second three-year contract, he was introduced to his future bride, Monica (nee Telleria) Uberuaga, by her father, Jose “Joe” Telleria, in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

They soon relocated to Homedale, where they started their family and Pete began his long career as a truck driver, primarily hauling hay to local dairies. While the days were long and often took him far from home, he enjoyed interacting with the various people on his routes. He had many stories of taking his truck down treacherous roads in horrible weather and of his many attempts – not all successful – in evading weigh-station masters. He began his career working for Felix Anchustegui though eventually struck out on his own to be his own boss, living his version of the American dream. His dream culminated in his sons being able to go to college.

In 1997, after suffering a series of heart attacks, Pete was lucky enough to receive a heart transplant. His family always joked how the new heart – from a young woman – had made him a kinder, gentler man. And, he got a lot of years out of that heart and got to see a lot of special events – all of his sons graduating college, getting married, and having kids of their own. Eventually, while he fought a long and brave fight, he succumbed to multiple complications, dying in his sleep at his home with his family.

Pete was preceded in death by his parents, Feliciana Zabala and Teodoro Uberuaga, and three of his brothers, Santiago, Jose, and Antonio.

Pete is survived by his wife, Monica, his sons Blas, Tony, and David, and their wives Lisa, Christmas, and Shelley, and his grandchildren Teodoro, Estelle, Rose, and Kepa, his brothers Martin and Jose Luis, and his sisters Rosario and Begona.

New insights into the origins of the Basques

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.28.02 PMA few months back, a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) (Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques) caused quite the stir on the Basque portion of the internet. The paper examined the genetics of various populations, including Spanish, Italian, Russian, and, of course, Basque, and compared those genetics to determine where the Basques came from. Many reports had sensational headlines like Cave DNA unravels riddle of the Basque people, Ancient DNA cracks puzzle of Basque origins, Basques Linked to Ancient Iberian Farmers, Basque ancestors were farmers, Mystery of Basque origins solvedScience Seeks Answers to Riddles of the Mysterious Basques, and Unusual ‘relic language’ comes from small group of farmers isolated for thousands of years.

To the best of my understanding, what the paper claims is that the Basques are most closely related to European farmers from the Atapuerca region of northern Spain. My interpretation of the previous theory was that the Basques were a remnant of the paleolithic populations of Europe, the hunter/gatherer Cromagnon peoples effectively. What this new paper says is that, no, the Basques are more closely related to farmers that arrived in the region during the Neolithic or Chalcolithic periods of time, not the earlier Mesolithic period.

However, the Basques still exhibit genetic differences with their neighbors, such as the French and the Spanish. Rather than being isolated since stone age times, the authors of this study attribute these differences to more recent isolation. After the farmers spread through Europe, the ones that would eventually become the Basques were isolated from the Caucasian/Central Asian and North African populations and the later Moorish influence in Spain. While their neighbors intermixed with these populations, they did not.

The paper also claimed that this shed light on the origins of the Basque language. At least to me, that isn’t so clear. While the genetic history of a people might correlate to some degree with language, it is not an absolute connection and the language that those farmers-who-became-Basques spoke could easily, it seems to me, have even older roots. While these new genetic studies provide valuable new insight into the history of the Basques from a population point of view, they can’t directly inform the linguistic history. The paper admits this, saying that the farming populations that migrated to the area and mingled with the local hunter-gatherer populations to form what would ultimately be the Basques “could have” spoken some non-Indo-European language, but what it was, they don’t know. And they may have brought it with them, or it could have been there already.

That said, I am certainly not a geneticist and I would love to hear from people who are actually in the field and might be able to provide even more detailed commentary on this paper. It seems to have fascinating and important implications, but I would certainly like to know more.

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