The origins of the Basques remain mysterious. They are a distinct people, generally with a different build from the French and Spanish and a different blood group distribution from the rest of Europe. Their language, the complex Euskara, is unrelated to any other, and was already spoken in Spain when Indo-European languages such as Celtic and Latin began to arrive from the East three thousand years ago. Written records were scarce until the first books in Euskara were published in the mid-sixteenth century; language and culture were maintained instead through oral traditions, including that of the bertsolariak – popular poets specializing in improvised verse, a tradition still alive today.
Archeological and genetic evidence suggests that the Basque people may be the last surviving representatives of Europe’s first modern human population, commonly known as Cro–Magnon man. Skull fragments, believed to date from around 9000 BC, have been shown to be identical to present-day Basque cranial formation. Much anthropological work, above all by the revered José Miguel de Barandiarán (who died in 1991, aged 101), lends itself to the view that the Basques have continuously inhabited the western Pyrenees for thousands of years.