Analysis of DNA from ancient remains appeared to have solved the puzzle of the Basque people whose distinct language and genetic make-up have long puzzled anthropologists.
The Basques are one of Europe's most enigmatic people. They have distinct customs and language, Euskera, which is not related to any other spoken language in the world. They also have distinct genetic patterns from their neighbors in Spain and France.
Findings of a new study published in the journal PNAS on Sept. 7 now sheds light on the early history of this group of people.
For the study, Mattias Jakobsson, from the Uppsala University in Sweden, and colleagues analyzed the DNA recovered from eight ancient human skeletons that were found in an El Portalón cave in Atapuerca, northern Spain.
The remains belonged to ancient Iberian farmers who lived more than 3,500 years ago at the time when southwest Europe transitioned to farming from hunter-gatherer societies.
Genome sequencing revealed that early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors of the modern day Basques overturning previous hypotheses that associate this people to earlier pre-farming groups.
The genome-wide sequence data from these early farmers likewise showed that the DNA shared a similar story to those of northern and central Europe suggesting that this population of farmers originate from a southern wave of expansion, interbred with hunter gatherers and spread agricultural practices with expansions of the populations.
The researchers likewise observed that while this early Iberian population shares similarities with other European farmers, they have their own particularities.
The study also offered an explanation to some of the differences between the Basques and their neighbors in Spain and France. Following the initial farmer-hunter interbreeding, the ancestors of the Basques became isolated from surrounding group which could possibly be due to a combination of culture and geography.
"Our results show that the Basques trace their ancestry to early farming groups from Iberia, which contradicts previous views of them being a remnant population that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups," said study researcher Mattias Jakobsson, from Uppsala University.
The findings also overturn the theory that the Basques were isolated for over 10,000 years. The researchers said that the similarities that were observed between the modern-day Basques and the early farmers indicate that the Basques were indeed isolated but only for 5,000 years and not longer.