Friday, February 19, 2010

Basques are not as bizarre as all that

When I first arrived in France, I was amused to find people advising me, apparently in a serious manner, that the best way by far to learn French was in bed. And that's how I soon became a serious language student. For a long time, in this spirit, I've had a theory that the ideal way in which to acquire a certain understanding, not only of a foreign language, but of peoples and even regions, is through a female friend who's associated with the language, land or region in question. In any case, that's the way the cookie has always crumbled for me personally. Inversely, I've often thought that one of the explanations (cause or rather an effect?) of my aloofness concerning both my native land and the USA, for example, is the sad fact that I've never, at any moment, been involved in a passionate relationship with an Australian or an American. [This is not a distressed call for help!]


The ancient Basque Country covers a tiny corner of Spain and an even tinier corner of south-west France, in the vicinity of the Bay of Biscay. I've never had an opportunity of visiting this region. On the other hand, I had a Basque girlfriend in Paris for several years and, through her, I've always felt a kind of solidarity (no doubt superficial) with the Basque region and culture. Besides, as soon as she started to talk about her last visit to her relatives in the vicinity of Biarritz, she would abandon her usual lighthearted conversational style and adopt an almost solemn tone, as if to inform me that there should be no joking about her beloved region. It would have been unthinkable for me to make a remark of any kind concerning notorious events that were mentioned regularly by the media: the activities in Spain and France of partisans of the creation of an autonomous Basque nation.

Many Australians have heard of Basque beaches where surfing competitions take place. The sport that is most readily associated with this people is Basque pelota, derived from the quaint old game of "royal tennis".

Over recent decades, many curious legends have been circulating on the subject of the Basque people, who are often considered as a unique biological family, who might even be direct descendants of Cro-Magnon man. These legends probably came into existence initially because of the mysterious Basque language, which is indeed unique. It does not belong to the vast group of so-called Indo-European languages, and it appears to be unrelated to any other language in the world. Then, when blood tests appeared on the scene, it was found that 20 percent of Basques are Rh negative, as compared to only 15 percent among the English, and 3 percent among the Chinese. Even the great pioneer of population genetics Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza still looks upon this fact as evidence in favor of the Cro-Magnon hypothesis.

DNA testing then stepped into this arena, and it has clarified our ideas, and even changed them in many ways. Two days ago, a major article on the Basque question was published online [display]. It reveals that "a genome-wide survey does not show the genetic distinctiveness of Basques", who cannot be considered a genetic outsider. The authors of the article conclude that "interpretations on their origin may have to be revised". Now, I'm not sure that my former girlfriend would be happy to learn that there's nothing special about the Basques.

Much current research into the origins of Europeans concerns the famous R1b1b2 haplogroup, which is widespread throughout Europe. [I myself belong to the R1b1b2a1b5 subgroup, designated since the end of 2008 as the R-L21 family, with our own website.] Now, it has been known for quite a while that most Basques belong to this R1b1b2 haplogroup. The big question facing population geneticists has been this: What were the relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Middle East? In other words, were our ancestors basically Old Stone Age hunter-gatherers who finally transformed their way of life when they heard about the possibility of becoming farmers? Or were our ancestors New Stone Age farmers who migrated to Europe, maybe only 10,000 years ago, from their Middle Eastern lands of origin? The answer seems to be that there was an equivalent dosage of both these origins. But in all cases, Y-chromosome research indicates that the origin of the Basques was no different to that of other Europeans.

So, how do specialists explain the Rh negative phenomenon? Well, it now appears that blood groups are not a trustworthy standard in population genetics, since they can be influenced, over the centuries, by the spread of diseases. And how do linguists explain the strange Basque language? For the moment, they can't...

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