European hydrotoponymy (II): Basques and Iberians after Lusitanians and “Ligurians”

The first layer in hydrotoponymy of Iberia is clearly Indo-European, in territories that were occupied by Indo-Europeans when Romans arrived, but also in most of those occupied by non-Indo-Europeans.

Among Indo-European peoples, the traditional paradigm – carried around in Wikipedia-like texts until our days – has been to classify their languages as “Pre-Celtic” despite the non-Celtic phonetics (especially the initial -p-), because the same toponyms appear in areas occupied by Celts (e.g. Parisii, Pictones, Pelendones, Palantia); or – even worse – just as “Celtic”, because of the famous -briga and related components. This was evidently not tenable at the end of the 20th century, and it is simply anachronistic today.

NOTE. Since Indo-Europeans and non-Indo-Europeans of Western Europe show strong Y-chromosome bottlenecks under R1b-P312 lineages, maps below show the evolution of cultural groups side by side with ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples instead. The map series on prehistorical migrations contains also Y-DNA and mtDNA maps.

Most excerpts below (emphasis mine) are translated from Spanish (see the original text here):

Top Left: Arrival of Indo-European-speaking East Bell Beakers and likely disruption of the Basque-Iberian community (ca 2500 BC on). Top Right: corresponding (unsupervised) ADMIXTURE map of ancient DNA samples. Arrival of Central European ancestry (“Steppe ancestry”, roughly represented by the blue color), with other components still prevalent, roughly including Anatolia Neolithic (brown), WHG (red), and sporadically Northern African (violet). Notice the high proportion of Central European ancestry in central and north-western Iberia. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA. Bottom: PCA of Bell Beaker and contemporaneous samples.


While the non-Celtic Indo-European nature of Lusitanian is certain, the nature of the “Pre-Celtic” language spoken by peoples such as Cantabri, Astures, Pellendones, Carpetani and Vettones is still being discussed, due to the scarcity of material to work with.


From Hacia una definición del lusitano, by Vallejo (2013):

It is certain that the delimitation of the geographical area set by Tovar is still valid, basically determined by the known direct documents, that is, the traditionally accepted inscriptions (the classic ones of Lamas de Moledo, Arroyo de la Luz and Cabeço das Fráguas), in addition to the new ones from Arroyo and the recent one from Arronches, see Fig. 1), to which some others could be added: the new bilingual inscription from Viseu necessarily compels us to consider it as indigenous, because it contains terms that belong to the core of the language and not only onomastics (I refer to the nexus igo and the nicknames deibabor and deibobor). By virtue of this new incorporation, we can also consider other texts as indigenous, although they do not include a common lexicon (see Fig. 1, inscriptions 7 to 22), in the expectation that many Lusitanian scribes were consciously mixing two linguistic registers (code switching), one to refer to the deities (for which they frequently used indigenous inflection) and another for anthroponyms (always with Latin inflection).

Left: Early Bronze Age cultures in Iberia (in red, likely Indo-European groups; in green, likely non-Indo-European groups). Right: Unsupervised ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA.

Firstly, it is striking that this geographical profile drawn by the texts correspond almost exactly to the distribution of large series of anthroponyms and theonyms.* Among the abundant names of people we can highlight those with a large number of repetitions whose appearance is circumscribed to our region of study (see Fig. 2). Some of them are truly frequent and lack parallels on the outside, such as the stem Tanc / Tang- (of Tanginus) with no less than 130 attestations, or Tonc- / Tong- (of Tongius or Tongetamus) with 70. Others show also sufficiently representative figures as Camalus and Maelo (with 46 repetitions each), Celtius (with 29), Caturo or Sunua (with 23), Camira (with 22), Doquirus (with 20), Louesius (with 18), Al(l)ucquius (with 17) or Malge(i)nus (with 16). According to these quantities, it appears that these are not casual occurrences of names, taking into account that chance tends to be reduced to a minimum in the study of the Iberian Peninsula, since we can easily handle the entire peninsular corpus. In turn, Reue, Bandue, Nauiae and Crougiae are the theonyms that best represent the Lusitanian-Galician area, coinciding fundamentally (Figure 3) with the picture that anthroponymy and texts had drawn, although with less examples.

Top left: Lusitanian (long and short) inscriptions; top right: Map of the distribution of statue-menhirs and south-western stelae, by Rodríguez-Corral (2014) [(1) stelae in Beira Alta and Tras-os-Montes (Portugal), and Orense (Galicia, Spain); (2) both in the same territory: northwestern statue-menhirs and southwestern stelae; (3) hybridization of both into the same material form (stela/stela-menhir from Pedra Alta)]; bottom left: Lusitanian teonymy; bottom right: Lusitanian anthroponymy.

* The other subdivision of the onomastics, toponymy, presents difficulty in the elaboration of series, by the few repetitions of segments, once the universal element -briga has been eliminated.

It is not only these groups of names and roots that help us define a large northwestern area, but, as I have had occasion to mention in other places, some onomastic data that share a similar distribution can also be added: the desinence -oi (with an assimilation in -oe / -ui) of theonymic dative singular, the ending -bo of dative plural, the presence of the noun-forming suffix -aiko-, in addition to other phonetic features such as the passage of e> ei in anthroponymy, the reduction ug> uo the step of w> b.

Genetic isolation in modern north-western Iberia (northern Portugal / southern Galicia) is greater than in other Iberian regions, forming different ancestral clusters splitting before others (including Basques). Image from Bycroft et al. (2018). See explanatory video by Carracedo.


From The concept of Onomastic Landscape: the case of the Astures, by Vallejo (2013):

(…) First of all, it seems that there is an independent onomastic area, which can be defined by a series of names and suffixes that are repeated there exclusively or predominantly. This area does not seem to correspond with what we know of the Lusitanian-Galician onomastics nor of the more coastal Asturian; it also differs from the Celtiberian area, with which it does not have features in common. In this way, and always in the conjectural terrain, we could find ourselves before an Indo-European non-Celtic language different from the Lusitanian language.

A peculiarity that will have to be investigated is the presence of an excessively wide border corridor, where the names of the southern Astures (Augustales) do not predominate, but neither those of the northern Astures (Transmontanos). Similarly, we will have to see the scope of the hypothesis that there might have been a language perhaps differentiated from that spoken in the Lusitanian, Galician or Celtiberian zones; the lower documentary richness of the Asturian zone of Transmontana makes it more difficult to guarantee that it is not the same linguistic area as the one we isolate among Asturian cities.

In any case, de Hoz, even taking into account the difficulty of an affirmation of this type, pointed out ambiguously that we could find ourselves in front of different languages. On the other hand, the absence of texts directly transmitted by this people leaves us without a definitive confirmation the argument that it is a linguistically differentiated region, but it does not invalidate it at all. These drawbacks require the suspension of the exact characterization of our area, awaiting advances in the field of epigraphy and methodology.



The following are mainly excerpts from Villar (2007, 2014):

Lenguas, genes y culturas en la Prehistoria de Europa y Asia suroccidental (2007). Buy the ebook online (or the printed version, if available).



The information provided by place-names and hydronyms on the one hand and anthroponyms on the other is of undoubted historical value in both cases, but of different specific significance. Anthroponyms reflect the present situation at the moment when living people were using them. It is an aspect very sensitive to social changes of all kinds, reaching its highest level of instability when there is language change.

(…) the Pre-Roman anthroponymic inventory of the Basque Country and Navarre indicates that prior to the arrival of Romans the language spoken was Indo-European (reflected in the names used) in the territories of Caristii, Varduli and Autrigones, while in Vasconic territory (especially in the current Navarre) most of the speakers chose Iberian names. In the territories of the current Basque Country, only a negligible statistical proportion chose Basque names, whereas in Navarre it was a minority of the population. That’s how things were towards the 3rd century BC.


Cities and rivers are not subject to the ephemeral life cycle of humans. Rivers have very long cycles that go far beyond the life time not only of individuals, but also of languages ​​and cultures. Cities are also generally very stable, although social circumstances occasionally cause one to be abandoned or destroyed, while new ones are created from time to time. That means that the names of rivers and cities are not subject to fashions or frequent change. Nor does a language change imply a renewal of the previous hydronymy and toponymy.

Speakers of the new languages ​​incorporated into a territory learn from the natives the hydronymic and toponymic system, producing what we call the “toponymic transmission”. (…) it requires a prolonged contact between the native population and the new occupants, which can only occur when the indigenous population is not annihilated quickly and radically.

Top Left: Middle Bronze Age cultures in Iberia (in red, likely Indo-European groups; in green, likely non-Indo-European groups). Top Right: Unsupervised ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA. Bottom: Bottom: PCA of Bronze Age groups.

The ancient onomastic data of the Basque Country and Navarre can be summarized as follows:

  • Ancient hydronymy, the longest lasting onomastic component, is not Basque, but Indo-European in its entirety.
  • The old toponymy, which follows it in durability, is also Indo-European in its entirety, except Poampaelo (now Pamplona) and Oiarso (now Oyarzun).
  • And in anthroponymy, which reflects the language used at the time when those names were in use, is also massively Indo-European, although there are between 10-15% anthroponyms of Vasconic etymology.

(…) the existing data show that, while in Roman times in Hispania there were only a couple of place-names in the Pyrenean border and a dozen anthroponyms of Vasconic etymology, in Aquitaine there was an abundant antroponymy of that etymology.

Left: Late Bronze Age cultures in Iberia (in red, likely Indo-European groups; in green, likely non-Indo-European groups). Right: Unsupervised ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA.

This set of facts is most compatible with a hypothesis that postulated a late infiltration of this type of population from Aquitaine, which at the time of the Roman conquest had only reached to establish a bridgehead, consisting of a small population center in Navarre and Alto Aragón and nothing else, except some isolated individuals in the current provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa. The almost complete absence of old place-names of Vasconic etymology would be explained in this way: Vasconic speakers, recently arrived and still in small numbers, would not have had the possibility of altering in depth the toponymic heritage prior to their arrival, which was Indo-European.

The idea of ​​a late Vasconization of a part of those territories, in the High Middle Ages or late Antiquity, is not new. Already in the 1920s M. Gómez Moreno said about the modern Basque provinces, with the district of Estella in Navarra, that “personal nomenclature allows comparisons of definitive value, probative that there lived people of the Cantabrian-Asturian race [who for Gómez Moreno were Indo-European], without the slightest trace of perceptible Basqueness”. For him, the first Indo-European people to penetrate the peninsula would have been Ligurian, which evolved into Cantabrians, Asturians, Venetians, Lusitanians, Tormogi, Vacaeans, Autrigones, Caristii and Varduli.

Top Left: Pre-Roman cultures in Iberia (in red/brown, Indo-European groups; in pink, Greek; in yellow, Phoenician; in green, likely non-Indo-European groups; Tartessian is disputed). Top Right: Unsupervised ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA. Bottom: PCA of Iron Age groups.


If, as we said above, Basque speakers began to enter the Iberian Peninsula from the other side of the Pyrenees only from the Roman-Republican era, to intensify their presence in the following centuries we must assume that they were to the north of the Pyrenees already before those dates. And, indeed, the existence of this abundant Vasconic antroponymy shows that in the first centuries of our era – while Vasconic speakers in the Peninsula were very few in number, their population in Aquitaine was abundant.

In a provisional manner we can advance that [Aquitaine’s] hydronyms are also known in other places of Europe and easily compatible with Indo-European etymologies (Argantia, Aturis, Tarnes, Sigmanos); and among the place names there are also many that are compatible with non-Gallic Indo-European etymologies, or not necessarily Gallic (Curianum, Aquitania, Burdigala, Cadurci, Auscii, Eluii, Rutani, Cala- (gorris), Latusates, Cossion, Sicor, Oscidates, Vesuna, etc.).

In addition to those place names that we classify as generically Indo-European, there are not a few Celts (Lugdunum, Mediolanum, Noviomagos, Segodunon, Bituriges, Petrucorii, Pinpedunni), several Latins (Aquae Augustae, Convenae, ad Sextum, Augusta), and even some Celto-Latin hybrids (Augustonemeton, Augustoriton). On the other hand, there are hardly any names, neither serial nor not serial, that have a reasonable possibility of being explained by Vasconic etymology (Anderedon could be one of them).

Consequently, the onomastic question of Aquitaine is not compatible with the possibility that Vasconic is the “primordial element” there, either. On the contrary, it is compatible with the hypothesis that they arrived also late in Aquitaine, when hydro-toponymy was already established. They had to Vasconize all or part of the previous population, that turned to use to a large extent the Vasconic anthroponymy. But the previous toponymy remained and the Vasconization process was probably soon interrupted by Celticization first, and Romanization later.

Aquitani and neighbouring tribes around the Pyrenees, as described by the Romans (ca. 1st c. BC). The Basque language likely expanded south and west of the Pyrenees into Indo-European-speaking territories during the Roman period. The term ‘Vascones’ only became applied to Basque-speaking tribes in medieval times. Map modified from image by Sémhur at Wikipedia.

A prediction in genetics

This is how Francisco Villar and co-authors from the University of Salamanca saw what would happen with the genetic studies of modern Basques in 2007, based on the similarity with neighbouring Iberians and French, and the late intrusion of the language in its current territory:

Unfortunately, linguistics does not have the means to establish the moment of that arrival in terms of absolute chronology. In any case, this hypothesis is not incompatible with some peculiarities in the frequency of certain genes of the Basque-speaking population. Indeed, today we tend to attribute these peculiarities to the joint action of genetic drift and isolation; to which perhaps we could add a bottleneck in the Vasconic founding population that would one day settle in Aquitaine.

Indoeuropeos, iberos, vascos y sus parientes (2014). Buy the ebook online (Or printed version, if available).

Also Villar, in 2014:

In the hypothesis that I propose, future speakers of Basque would have settled initially in Aquitaine, where there would have been an inevitable genetic diffusion with pre-existing [first stage] populations. On the other hand, Basque speakers from Aquitaine would have started to arrive to the Basque Country and Navarre only from Roman times (only a couple of Vasconic toponyms, at least one of them of recent creation; scarce anthroponyms of Vasconic etymology). The part of those populations that mixed with the pre-existing Palaeo-Indo-Europeans (Indo-European names of rivers; general Indo-European toponymy) saw how the uniqueness of their haplogroups, if there was any, was diluted, making it difficult to distinguish from the general [Indo-European] background; being a minority, it could had been even lost as a result of adverse genetic drift.

Olalde et al. (2019) confirmed this hypothesis that modern Basques are quite similar to investigated Iron Age Indo-Europeans from Iberia (such as Celtiberians sampled from the Basque Country):

For the Iron Age, we document a consistent trend of increased ancestry related to Northern and Central European populations with respect to the preceding Bronze Age. The increase was 10 to 19% (95% confidence intervals given here and in the percentages that follow) in 15 individuals along the Mediterranean coast where non-Indo-European Iberian languages were spoken; 11 to 31% in two individuals at the Tartessian site of La Angorrilla in the southwest with uncertain language attribution; and 28 to 43% in three individuals at La Hoya in the north where Indo-European Celtiberian languages were likely spoken. This trend documents gene flow into Iberia during the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, possibly associated with the introduction of the Urnfield tradition.

Modern Basques show therefore, paradoxically, an ancestry similar to recent Iron Age Indo-European invaders (quite likely the ancestors of Celtiberians), which confirms the hypothesis of bottlenecks/founder effects followed by a very recent isolation of its population:

(…) the genetic profile of present-day Basques who speak the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe [] overlap genetically with Iron Age populations showing substantial levels of Steppe ancestry.

Left: Roman period in Iberia. Right: Unsupervised ADMIXTURE of ancient DNA samples. See full maps including Y-DNA and mtDNA. Notice increase of steppe ancestry in the north, associated with the (Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age) arrival of Central Europeans.


Regarding the Iberian language, the circumstances of analysis are less favorable. However, we can observe in the ancient toponymy of typically Iberian areas (the Spanish Levant and Catalonia) a considerable proportion of toponymy of Indo-European etymology, often identical to that which F. Villar (2000) has called “Southern-Iberian-Pyrenean”. In fact, its presence in the Levant is nothing else but a continuation from Catalonia to the South along the Mediterranean coast. Here are some examples: Caluba, Sorobis, Uduba, Lesuros, Urce / Urci, Turbula, Arsi / Arse, Asterum, Cartalias, Castellona, ​​Lassira, Lucentum, Saguntum, Trete, Calpe, Lacetani, Onusa, Palantia, Saetabis, Saetabicula, Sarna , Segestica, Sicana, Turia, Turicae, Turis.

Compatible with the Indo-European etymology can also be Blanda, Sebelacum, Sucro, Tader, Sigarra, Mastia, Contestania, Liria, Lauro, Indibilis, Herna, Edeta, Dertosa, Cesetania, Cossetani, Celeret, Bernaba, Biscargis, (…)

Finally, in other place names there are Indo-European components in hybrid toponymic syntagms, such as:

  1. orc- / urc-: Orceiabar, Urcarailur, Urceatin, Urcebas, Urcecere, Urcescer, Urceticer.
  2. Il-: Iltukoite, Iluro (3), Ilurci, Ilorci, Ilurcis, Ilucia, Iliturgi, Ilarcurris, Iluberitani, etc.


Examples like these show that in Catalonia and the Spanish Levant the Iberian language is not the deepest identifiable substrate language, but that it took root there when there was previously an Indo-European language that had created a considerable network of toponyms and hydronyms that we can recognize, and over which Iberians settled as a superstrate. The pre-existence of an Indo-European language in the historically Iberian area is further corroborated by the fact that its ancient hydronyms are all Indo-European, with the exception of a single river that has a name that is supposed to be Iberian: the Iberus (Ebro), of which obviously the country and its inhabitants took their name. No doubt ib- was an appellation for river, so that in the language that created that hydronym the Iber should have simply been “the river”. But we will see in the body of this work that ib- is in various places outside the Iberian Peninsula as an appellation for «river», which will force us to rethink its supposed Iberian affiliation. In fact, the Iberus had another name, Elaisos, whose etymology is compatible with Indo-European. As we know with certainty that after Iberians no other Indo-European peoples came to their territory before the Romans, the Indo-European creators of that hydronymy have had to be there before the Iberians. And its antiquity must be considerable because, as we have already said, the vast majority of its hydronyms (Alebus, Caluba, Lesuros, Palantia, Saetabis, Sigarra, Sucro, Tader, Turia and Uduba, Elaisos) belong to that anonymous Indo-European language that didn’t leave written texts or had historical continuity.

Inscriptions in Iberia ca. 2nd–1st c. BC. Purple squares show Celtiberian inscriptions, blue circles show Iberian inscriptions. Image modified from Hesperia – Banco de datos de lenguas paleohispánicas.

Villar (2014):

Not always that a language is settled in a territory is it able to eradicate the existing ones definitively. Even a political system as unitary and unifying as the Roman was not able to eradicate the Basque language. And nowadays in Latin America, despite the crushing cultural dominance of Spanish, despite the means for the schooling of a modern society, in spite of the media, a multitude of pre-Columbian languages ​​are spoken that coexist with the language of culture, the only one that is written in those countries. In those situations, which can be prolonged for quite a lot of time, there are individuals who only speak the language newly imposed, others who speak only the language that has resisted disappearing, and others who speak both, in a broad framework of bilingualism. My proposal is that something similar to that must have happened in the Iberian territory when the Romans arrived: A language of culture, Iberian, diversified into more or less distant local dialects, coexisted with several previous languages, equally differentiated from the dialectal point of view. This explains the irruption in the Iberian texts of non-Iberian anthroponyms and, above all, the existence there of a Palaeo-Indo-European hydro-toponymy that had remained in use not only because it was transmitted to Iberian speakers, but also because its native users were still present.