How the Neanderthals became the Basques

David Noel
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.

What happened to the Neanderthals?

From a combination of old and new evidence, it appears that at last we have a satisfactory answer to the age-old question of 'What Happened to the Neanderthals?'. If the current reasoning is correct, their descendants are still with us, and we call them the Basques.

This theory therefore simultaneously answers a second age-old question, 'What is the Origin of the Basques'?

Robert J Sawyer has recently published his book "Hominids" [2], a fictional account of an interaction between Sapiens humans and Neanderthals, but drawing on the latest scientific research about Neanderthals.

This research included studies of DNA extracted from bones of Neanderthal remains. The account mentions five months of painstaking work to extract a 379-nucleotide fragment from the control region of the Neanderthal's mitochondrial DNA, followed by use of a polymerase chain reaction to reproduce millions of copies of the recovered DNA.

This was carefully sequenced and then a check made of the corresponding mitochondrial DNA from 1,600 modern humans: Native Canadians, Polynesians. Australians, Africans, Asians, and Europeans. Every one of those 1,600 people had at least 371 nucleotides out of those 379 the same; the maximum deviation was just 8 nucleotides.

But the Neanderthal DNA had an average of only 352 nucleotides in common with the modern specimens; it deviated by 27 nucleotides. It was concluded that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals must have diverged from each other between 550,000 and 690,000 years ago for their DNA to be so different.

In contrast, all modern humans probably shared a common ancestor 150,000 or 200,000 years in the past. It was concluded that Neanderthals were probably a fully separate species from modern humans, not just a subspecies: Homo neanderthalensis, not Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Looking now at the evidence for the theory that the Basques are descended principally from Neanderthals, everything suddenly falls into place, and the supposition becomes almost self-evident.

Location: The 'home country' of the Neanderthals is well known to have been western Europe. One source says that they "dominated this area for at least a quarter of a million years". Many of the best Neanderthal specimens have originated from the Iberian Peninsular. The Basque Country, lying on the western side of the Pyrenees and on the border between Spain and France, fits in neatly with this location.

Some Neanderthal sites. Note concentration in the Basque area. From [12]

The Basques are well-known to have distinctive body characteristics. Kurlansky says "Ample evidence exists that the Basques are a physically distinct group. There is a Basque type with a long straight nose, thick eyebrows, strong chin, and long earlobes" [1].

Basque skulls tend to be built on a different pattern. In the early 1880s, a researcher reported "Someone gave me a Basque body and I dissected it, and I assert that the head was not built like that of other men" [1].

These qualitative differences are indicative, but quantitative evidence, with presence or absence of features, or items being present in different numbers, has greater weight in deciding whether specimens belong to the same or different species. Powerful quantitative evidence comes from a consideration of blood factors.

Human blood is classified according to various parameters, the most important of which are ABO and Rhesus characteristics. In ABO, blood may contain the 'A' factor (giving A-group blood), the 'B' factor (B-group), both 'A' and 'B' (AB blood), or neither (O blood). The A and B factors act as antigens, and if blood containing one or both of them is transferred to a person whose blood does not already contain them, and therefore has the corresponding antibody, adverse reactions occur. Group O blood contains neither antigen but has both antibodies, and can typically be transferred without reaction to any recipient.

Some 55% of Basques have Group O blood, one of the highest percentages in the world [3].

Blood Groups. From [11]

Even stronger evidence comes from the Rhesus factor, discovered only in 1940. The blood of most humans (and, apparently, all other primates [6]) contains this factor, and is called Rhesus-positive or Rh+ blood. Blood lacking this factor is called Rhesus-negative.

The Basques are well-known to have the highest percentage (around 33%) of Rhesus-negative blood of any human population [2], and so are regarded as the original source of this factor. In the United States, some 15% of the 'European' population are Rh-negative, while the percentage in the 'Asian' and 'Black' population is much less than this.

Possession of Rh-negative blood can be a major disadvantage for a human population. A Rh-negative woman who conceives a Rh-positive child with a Rh-positive man will typically bear her first child without special problems. However, because of intermingling of fluids between mother and foetus, the first pregnancy builds up antibodies to Rh+ blood in the woman which typically attack the blood of her subsequent Rh+ children, causing them to miscarry, be stillborn, or die shortly after birth (infant haemolytic disease [6]). This phenomenon is unknown elsewhere in nature, although it can occur with artificial crosses between species, as in mule production [6].

The scenario so far then is this. Around 600,000 years ago, in southern Europe, a species of man separated off from the ancestral line, and we call this species Homo neanderthalensis, the 'N-people'. The blood of this species contained none of the factors A, B, or Rh.

Much later, possibly around 200,000 years ago in Africa, the main human line had picked up the A, B, and Rh factors (possibly from other primates, the Rhesus factor is named after the Rhesus monkey or macaque), and by then could be classed as Homo sapiens, the 'S-people'.

In competition between related species or races, antibodies in their blood are a powerful genetic advantage for those who possess them when competing against those who don't. History has many examples of European settlers who quite unintentionally won out against native populations because the latter had no antibodies against diseases such as measles which the Europeans brought with them.

In the present scenario, a woman of the N-people (Basque, Rh-) who partnered with a man of the S-people (non-Basque, Rh+) would be likely to bear no more than a single child of the partnership. 'Mixed marriages' in humans are not usually genetically disadvantageous, but in this case they would be. The effect would be a continuing reduction in the N-people population as 'mixed' couples produced only a single child, half the nominal population-maintenance rate.

There are other physical characteristics of humans which are typically associated with Rh-negative blood, but which in the present scenario would be regarded as belonging to the N-people. These include early maturity, large head and eyes, high IQ [6], or an extra vertebra (a 'tail bone' -- called a 'cauda'), lower than normal body temperature, lower than normal blood pressure, and higher mental analytical abilities [5].

Another highly distinguishing feature of the Basques is their language, which is related to no other on earth. According to [3], its ancestor was "spoken in western Europe before (possibly long before) the ancestors of all other modern western European languages". This source states that the most strenuous efforts at finding other relatives for Basque have been complete failures.

People have unsuccessfully tried to connect Basque with Berber, Egyptian and other African languages, with Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, the Finno-Ugric languages, the Caucasian languages, the Semitic languages, with almost all the languages of Africa and Asia, living and dead, and even with languages of the Pacific and of North America. Basque absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other language at all [3].

The structure of the Basque language is also very distinctive, it is said to contain only nouns, verbs, and suffixes. The language strongly defines the Basque people [8]. In the Basque Language, called Euskera, there is no word for Basque. The only word defining a member of the group is Euskaldun, or Euskera speaker. The land is called Euskal Herria -- the land of Euskera speakers.

In the present scenario, Basque is the descendant of a spoken language originated by the N-people, independently of (and possibly at a much earlier time than) the languages of the S-people.

In an interesting study, Philip Lieberman [7] has looked at the mouth cavities and other presumed speech production features of Neanderthal fossils. According to his evaluation, Neanderthal people would have had difficulty in pronouncing the vowel 'ee'. This vowel is missing from normal Basque pronunciation [9].

If the present scenario is valid, then the Basques, mostly stemming from the N-people, would of course be somewhat distinct genetically. In [3] the question is asked, "Are the Basques genetically different from other Europeans?" , with the answer, "Apparently, yes. Recently the geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza has completed a gene map of the peoples of Europe, and he finds the Basques to be strikingly different from their neighbours. The genetic boundary between Basques and non-Basques is very sharp on the Spanish side. On the French side, the boundary is more diffuse: it shades off gradually toward the Garonne in the north. These findings are entirely in agreement with what we know of the history of the Basque language".

The social relationships of the Basques with the rest of the world have been quite unusual for a distinctive human group. While always protecting their unique and separate identity, they have also always striven to interact, cooperate with, and sometimes lead the rest of the world.

Kurlansky points out the remarkable contributions the Basques have made to world history [1]. They were the explorers who connected Europe to the other continents in the Age of Exploration, in trade they were among the first capitalists, experimenting with tariff-free international trade and monopoly breaking, and in the industrial revolution they became leading shipbuilders, steelmakers, and manufacturers.

At the same time, the Basques have always been regarded as 'different', and so inevitably subjected to discriminatory treatment and (sometimes savage) persecution, as in the Franco years [3]. In my book 'Matrix Thinking' [4] I have examined the underlying forces driving interactions between human groups, using the term SIOS, and the way groups recognize and act on differences between those inside and outside their own group.

Genetic differences are one of the most powerful recognition signals in this process, and so it cannot be unexpected that the Basques have suffered in this way. Nowadays such events are regarded in a very negative light, as pointlessly discriminatory. In the Basque case there is some rare justification for this -- a non-Basque man pairing with a Basque women might have expected to have only one child of the marriage, before recent medical procedures got round the Rhesus-negative problem.

Language differences are also very powerful SIOS recognition signals, and it is interesting to look at the Basque case. The Basque language, while retaining its own distinct structure, has heavily borrowed words from other languages. Other languages have borrowed very few words from Basque, regarded as an 'inferior' language, and those that have come over often have had an uncomplimentary sense. As an example, Spanish has borrowed 'izquierdo' (meaning left, as in left-handed) from Basque, and words meaning 'left' often have a negative connotation (in English, 'gauche' and 'sinister' are from the French and Latin for 'left').

It has been suggested [5] that the Basques were the original inhabitants of Europe, and the architects of Stonehenge and similar megalithic structures. These constructions apparently used a unique system of measurement based on the number 7 (instead of 10, 12, or 60), representing a separate origin of a mathematical system.

To round out the present scenario, it is suggested that the present world population is a complex hybrid mixture of at least two human species, one classed as Homo neanderthalensis, the other (or others -- if the A and B blood factors originated from separate species) as Homo sapiens. The genes from these species are now so intermixed (as in cultivated roses) as to make the species name indeterminate.

Further genetic analysis, concentrating on the Basques, may reveal more on this. Research should cover both nuclear DNA, controlling sexually-inherited traits such as blood groups, and mitochondrial DNA, passed on unchanged from mother to child. For reasons given above, the N-people mitochondrial DNA may have now been bred out completely from modern world populations.

Perhaps the Human Genome project needs extension to cover the possible mix of origins. It would also be of interest to check whether any known Neanderthal skeletons had an extra vertebra.

There is an extensive website covering recorded Neanderthal fossils [10], and the information there generally supports the suggestion that the species have merged, with later N-people more similar to the S-people than older specimens.

Supplement 1

When the article above was first made available on the Web in 2002, nine years, it contained some perhaps controversial suggestions.

Among these suggestions were that the Neanderthals had not become extinct as a result of competition with 'superior' modern humans; that instead, Neanderthals had merged with other humans to form a mixed, single modern species (Homo sapiens); and that the Basque people of the western Pyrenees had the largest genetic inheritance from the Neanderthals in their DNA.

The influence of blood groups on human inheritance was looked at, and it was explained that while the nuclear DNA (the main DNA considered in inheritance) of Basques might well have more Neanderthal inheritance than average, their mitichondrial DNA (passed on directly from mother to child) might have had all Neanderthal components bred out.

This was because infant haemolytic disease, where a Rhesus-negative mother mating with a Rhesus-positive man was likely to have only a single child survive, would mitigate against outbreeding Basque women having many descendants.

Nine years on, these suggestions are no longer controversial, and are becoming widely accepted. For example, a recent article [13] says:

People of European descent may be 5% Neanderthal, according to a DNA study that questions whether modern humans left Africa and replaced all other existing hominids.

It also mentions:

The researchers agree with recent studies that conclude Neanderthals did not contribute any mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, genetic material that is passed from mothers to children.

An extensive National Geographic article on Neanderthals [14] had some interesting reconstructions of what Neanderthal women are thought have looked like.

Neanderthal and modern European women. From [14]

As well as these published articles, I have received many messages from people with Basque family origins who have recognized themselves or their relatives in the characteristics suggested in the 2002 article. One lady said that the National Geographic reconstruction "could have been a photograph of her mother".

One interesting facet of Neanderthals, not picked up in the 2002 article, is that they are believed to have had reddish hair and light skins [15]. So red hair may be another marker of part-Neanderthal ancestry.

A Neanderthal girl. From [15]

The old concept of Neanderthals being brutish, primitive people has receded in the light of modern studies. Instead, with their powerful, tough physiques and brain size above the modern average, and increasing evidence of cultural and artistic achievement, we may all become quite proud of our Neanderthal inheritance!

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[1] Mark Kurlansky. The Basque History of the World. Penguin Books, New York, 2001.
[2] Robert J. Sawyer. Hominids. Tor Books, 2002.
[3] FAQs About Basque and the Basques.
[4] David Noel. Matrix Thinking. BFC Press, 1997. Chapter 104, Syston Boundaries and SIOS. Also at:
[5] The Rh-negative Factor and 'Reptilian Traits'.
[6] Blood of the Gods.
[7] Philip Lieberman. Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution. W W Norton, 1998.
[8] What is Basque?
[9] Basque Pronunciation.
[10] Homo neanderthalensis.
[11] Blood Groups, Blood Typing and Blood Transfusions.
[12] Boundary of the known Neanderthal world.
[13] Are You Part-Neanderthal?
[14] The Other Humans: Neanderthals Revealed. National Geographic, October 2008, pp. 34-59.
[15] Humans Interbred With Neanderthals: analysis.

Stablemate articles:
David Noel. In: Matrix Thinking. The Substance of Society -- Infocap.

Original version 1.1 on Web 2002 Aug 26
Version 2.0, with Supplement 1, and blood group writeup corrected*, 2011 Jul 25. V. 2.1, comment facility added, 2012 Apr 25.
V. 2.11, technical adjustments, 2014 Jun 21. (* Corrections thanks to Kenneth McIntyre MD)
V. 2.2, cleanup & BIP, 2019 Apr 15.