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The Living Legacy of the Basque People and Their Culture

written by: Michele McDonough • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/26/2012

Despite the myriad of conjectures that surround the origins of the Basque people, this unique culture continues to flourish in today’s world. Is it possible to retain your own cultural identity while immersing yourself in the world around you?

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    Origins of the Basque People

    BasqueCountryMap Right on the border of France and Spain, in an area known as Euskal Herria or Basque Country, lives a group of over two million people whose unknown origins have shrouded them in a cloud of mystery. Though the area is not recognized by the rest of the world as having any type of political sovereignty, it is still often referred to as the Basque “Nation”.

    In his book The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer uses DNA analysis to present genetic arguments linking British ancestry to that of the Basques, but even this evidence only goes back so far. Other studies have suggested that there is a direct line connecting the Basque people with the original hunter-gatherers of Europe. The Basque language is still considered a language isolate in that it has no connections with any other living language.

    Linguists, geneticists, and archaeologists are not the only ones offering theories regarding the origins of the Basques.The aura of mystery that surrounds this puzzle attracts minds of all types. There are even those that relate the origins of the Basque people with the lost civilization of Atlantis.

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    The Basque People in Today’s World

    Mark Kurlansky remarks in The Basque History of the World (page 3), “The singular remarkable fact about the Basques is that they still exist.” How does a group of Basque History of the World people that have never had a “country” to call their own continue to hold on to their own cultural identity while still firmly planting themselves as fixtures in the rest of the world?

    The answer to this question may prove to be more elusive than that concerning Basque origins. There is still hope that new techniques in genetics or additional archaeological discoveries may yield more evidence in the scientific arena. However, the instinct that pushes the Basque people forward not only just to survive, but to thrive, in the modern world is another matter completely.

    The estimated number of those with Basque ancestry worldwide is roughly 18 million with around 2.5 million living in the part of the world known as Basque Country and its surrounding areas. It’s true that not all those who claim Basque ancestry can speak the language, but it’s still not uncommon to find celebrations of Basque culture around the world even in small towns like Winnemucca, Nevada and Chino, California.

    You’ll find Basque representation in almost every field imaginable. Basques are farmers, engineers, construction workers, actors, athletes, and poets. Among the more famous names of historical and modern day Basques include Louis Daguerre, John Leguizamo, Che Guevara, and Placido Domingo. A more comprehensive list can be found on Wikipedia.

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    The Ability to Adapt

    How has the Basque culture managed to survive despite all the attempts in history to assimilate it, or even destroy it? A large part of the answer to this question has to do with the ability of the Basque people to adapt and incorporate outside influences into their lives without casting away their heritage. Even the traditional Basque legend of Olentzero has changed over the centuries to reflect cultural growth and new influences.

    One example of the Basques’ ability to adapt can be found in Nevada history. During the gold-rush days of the mid to late 1800s, a number of Basques immigrated to the Northern Nevada area in search of gold. After realizing that the gold strikes were few and far between, they turned to the more lucrative occupation of sheep-herding. As the economic and political scene continued to change over the years, the sheep-herding career began to offer fewer and fewer rewards. When that happened, instead of clinging to the occupation, the Basques moved on looking for other opportunities.

    Even though the Basques realized that it was time to leave sheep-herding behind, they still remember and celebrate this era of their history. This ability to preserve the memory of the past while continuing to move on into the future allows the Basque people to build and broaden their cultural heritage. It’s a lesson that we could all learn from.

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    References:

    Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World. New York: Penguin Group, 2001.