England, Wales & Northwestern Europe 21%
Europe East 21%
Ireland & Scotland 20%
Iberian Peninsula 6%
Europe West 1%
England, Wales & Northwestern Europe 50%
Ireland & Scotland 24%
Baltic States 21%
50% England, Wales & Northwestern Europe
Primarily located in: England, Scotland, Wales
Also found in: Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg
The history of Britain, the heart of our England and Wales region, is often presented as one group of invaders after another displacing the native population. The Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans all left their mark on Britain both politically and culturally. However, the story of Britain is far more complex. In fact, modern studies suggest the earliest populations weren’t wiped out, but adapted and absorbed the new arrivals.
24% Ireland & Scotland
Primarily located in: Ireland, Wales, Scotland
Also found in: France, England
Located among the isles of the eastern North Atlantic Ocean, our Ireland and Scotland region remains linked to Celtic culture. Here, along with a handful of other isolated communities within the British Isles, you can find some of the last holdouts of the ancient Celtic languages that were once spoken throughout much of Western Europe. And though closely tied to Great Britain, both geographically and historically, people in this region have maintained their unique character through the centuries.
21% Baltic States
Primarily located in: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Also found in: Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine
Thousands of years ago, the early ancestors of the peoples in our Baltic States region came from the east and south. They entered a landscape of low-lying plains, thousands of lakes, and millions of acres of forest, a beautiful boundary zone straddling eastern and western Europe. Inhabitants have seen Vikings, crusading Teutonic Knights, empires, and Communism come and go, but they have maintained an attachment to land, culture, and freedom.
Primarily located in: Sweden
Also found in: Denmark
With its rocky coastline, wooded uplands, and subarctic, mountainous terrain, our Sweden region emerged from glacial ice as a rugged land of lakes and islands. The Swedish people share a common Norse heritage with Norway and, especially, Denmark that includes language, religion, and art, but they eventually developed a culture of their own. Situated north of the Baltic Sea, geographic isolation from conflicts raging on the European continent did not stop the Swedes from influencing the culture, trade, and politics of regions from the Volga River to Byzantium.
Primarily located in: Norway
Also found in: Sweden, Denmark
The earliest inhabitants of our Norway region were strong, seafaring peoples. For centuries, hunter-gatherers slowly pushed north across the Baltic Sea, probing coastal fjords and inland stretches for arable land as ice melted off the untamed region. While Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes all share a common Norse heritage, over time, Norway’s resilient coastal communities evolved into a nation known for its seamanship, technology, artistry, and mythology.
Primarily located in: Spain, France
Basque history has long been shrouded in mystery. The Basque country lies on the Bay of Biscay and in the western Pyrenees Mountains, with four provinces in Spain and three in France. The Basques have been living there longer than anyone can remember. Their language is probably the oldest in modern Europe and appears to be unrelated to any other known language in the world. Despite being an ancient people, the Basques currently have no nation of their own. They’re defined by being Basque—not by borders.
Born to Be Basque
The Romans encountered the Basques around 200 B.C., but the Basques had been there long before that. Over time there have been plenty of theories about where the Basques came from: They descended from Europe’s first humans. They were the 13th tribe of Israel. Some have even claimed they are refugees from Atlantis. But recent DNA evidence points to a more likely theory. The evidence comes from eight skeletons found in the El Portalón cave in Basque country. Archaeological clues show these people were farmers; the skeletons date back 3,500 to 5,500 years, and their closest living genetic relatives are the Basques. So the Basques apparently descended from early farmers who settled in the region.
At some point long ago, however, it’s obvious that the Basques became an isolated community. Geography played a role in this. Though local mountains aren’t particularly high, the Basques’ homeland is made up rugged, forested country, which made it more difficult to conquer and also less valuable for invaders to hold on to. The Basques also tended to work with would-be conquerors, like the Romans, who allowed them a great deal of self-rule. For centuries the Basques governed themselves according to their own fueros. These were local laws, taxes, and courts recognized by both the Basques and the kingdom that ruled over the Basque provinces at the time.
The Basques remained somewhat isolated culturally, too, but they didn’t cut themselves off from the world completely. In the Middle Ages, they became expert sailors and ship builders. They were among the first whalers to ply the Atlantic, and Basque sailors ventured as far as the coasts of Newfoundland for cod. And while most of us grew up learning that Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe, he actually died in the Philippines. It was his Basque captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano, who finished the voyage.
Basque sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano
A Unique Language
The Basque language, Euskara, is one of only four languages spoken in Europe or Scandinavia that is not an Indo-European language, and it is an important link among Basques. Basques don’t call themselves Basques; they use the word Euskaldun, which means someone who speaks Euskara. Their land is Euskal Herria, the land where people speak Euskara. As he tried to strengthen his hold on Spain after the Spanish Civil War, dictator Francisco Franco banned publications, broadcasts, and teaching Euskara for decades to suppress Basque separatists.
Migrations from This Region
Large Basque populations live in many far-flung corners of the world. Basque sailors made up part of Columbus’s crew, and some came to the New World with the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. Others migrated in the 17th through 19th centuries or fled during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Basque traditions of inheritance passed a family’s farm to the oldest child, which also made emigrating an attractive option for some younger children. People of Basque descent make up 10 percent of Argentina’s population, and about 18 percent of Peruvians have a Basque surname. Chile, Columbia, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela all have sizable populations descended from Basques. The largest Basque populations in the U.S. live in California, Nevada, and Idaho. Many of their ancestors came from South America during the California gold rush. When they didn’t strike it rich as miners, they started working as sheepherders and ranchers.
Modern takes on Basque cuisine have become popular in Spain, France, and the United States. Basque food is known for fresh ingredients, and favorites include seafood (especially salt cod and hake), grilled meats, and cheeses made of ewe’s milk. Basques are also known for their culinary societies, clubs where men traditionally gather to cook (though they’ve recently allowed women in their kitchens). San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread has even been linked to the bread baked by Basque miners.
Basques have made other significant contributions to world culture. Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque, was one of the founders and first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. Traditional Basque sports include stone lifting, log chopping, and pelota. Pelota is a sort of handball originally played against the walls of churches that developed into jai alai. And Pablo Picasso created his famous painting Guernica in response to the bombing of that Basque village during the Spanish Civil War.
A mural of Picasso’s Guernica in Gernika, Spain Courtesy Papamanila/CC BY-SA 3.0
Did you know?
The famous running of the bulls in Pamplona takes place in Basque country.