Mattias Jakobsson, of Uppsala University in Sweden, analysed DNA recovered from eight Stone Age skeletons found in a cave in El Portalón, Atapuerca, northern Spain.
They would have lived more than 3500 years ago at a time when south-west Europe had made the switch from hunter-gatherer societies to farming.
The researchers found that these early farmers were the closest ancestors to present-day Basques, according to their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.
And their genomes shared a similar story to those of central and northern Europe, where an arriving population of farmers interbred with the local hunter-gatherer populations.
“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,” says Prof. Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University, who headed the study.
“The difference between Basques and other Iberian groups is these latter ones show distinct features of admixture from the east and from north Africa.”
The findings contradict existing theories that Basques – because of their distinct culture and language, Euskera, which is unrelated to indo-European langauges – had existed for more than 10,000 years.
Dr Torsten Günther, another author, said: “One of the great things about working with ancient DNA is that the data obtained is like opening a time capsule. Seeing the similarities between modern Basques and these early farmers directly tells us that Basques remained relatively isolated for the last 5,000 years but not much longer.”
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