The Proto-Indo-European – Euskarian hypothesis

palaeolithic

Another short communication by Juliette Blevins has just been posted, A single sibilant in Proto-Basque: *s, *Rs, *sT and the phonetic basis of the sibilant split:

Blevins (to appear) presents a new reconstruction of Proto-Basque, the mother of Basque and Aquitanian, based on standard methods in historical linguistics: the comparative method and the method of internal reconstruction. Where all previous reconstructions of Proto-Basque assume a contrast between two sibilants, *s, a voiceless apical sibilant, and *z a voiceless laminal sibilant (Martinet 1955; Michelena 1977; Lakarra 1995; Trask 1997), this proposal is unique in positing only a single sibilant *s. Under this account, all instances of Common Basque /z/ are derived from *s. More specifically, in syllable coda, *Rs > *Rz (R a sonorant) while in the syllable onset, *sT > *zT (T an oral stop). The true split of *s into /s/ vs. /z/ occurs when clusters like *Rz or *zT are further simplified to /z/.

In this talk, internal evidence for a single sibilant, *s, in Proto-Basque is presented, and sound changes underlying the sibilant split are examined within the context of Evolutionary Phonology (Blevins 2004, 2006, 2015, 2017). Similar sound changes are identified in other languages with similar cluster types (e.g. Kümmel 2007:232), and the phonetic basis of the sibilant split is informed by recent studies of sibilant retraction (e.g. Stevens and Harrington 2016; Stuart-Smith et al. 2018).

Blevins, already known for her previous work on the Basque language, was known internationally for her recent controversial proposal of a genetic relationship between Proto-Indo-European and Basque. Apparently, a book with her full model, Advances in Proto-Basque Reconstruction with evidence for the Proto-Indo-European-Euskarian Hypothesis, will be published by Routledge soon.

I was never convinced, not just about a genetic connection, but about the very possibility of discovering it if there was any, mainly because such a link would be quite old, and Basque is known to have been greatly influenced by surrounding IE prestige languages for millennia until it was first attested in the 16th century. Internal reconstruction can only avail a gross reconstruction of few aspects up to a certain point in time, probably not very far beyond the Pre-Roman period, and that only thanks to the available Aquitanian inscriptions.

There are indeed certain known migrations that could be linked with a pan-European population movement, the most likely one for this hypothesis being the Villabruna cluster (the Villabruna sample itself being of haplogroup R1b pre-P297), and especially the expansion of R1b-V88 lineages, found widespread in Europe from west to east, from Mesolithic Iberia to Khvalynsk.

This haplogroup is also found in Sardinia, which may be connected to the expansion of V88 subclades (which I have speculatively proposed could be linked to Afro-Asiatic) into Africa through Italy and the Green Sahara; although it could also be linked to a speculative Vasconic-Iberian – Palaeo-Sardo group.

Without knowing the exact Pre-Proto-Indo-European stage at which Blevins would place the Basque separation, it is difficult to know how it could fit within any macro-language proposal – and thus potential ancestral population expansion.

If you are interested in this hypothesis, I suggest Koch’s controversial paper of 2013 Is Basque an Indo-European Language? (PDF), appeared in JIES 41 (1 & 2)….And of course the many papers rejecting it in the same volume. You also have Forni’s writings supporting this association.

Seeing how many Basque nationalists (obviously obsessed with racial purity) are still rooting for an autochthonous Palaeolithic origin of R1b lineages (especially P312) linked with the Basque language and dat huge Vasconic Western Europe; and now, after Olalde & Mathieson 2018, how some are also suggesting a Neolithic link of R1b with the Neolithic expansion and Sardinians, for lack of further modern genetic differences with other Western Europeans… I wonder how a lot of people inclined to believe this nonsense today, and mentally linking Vasconic with haplogroup R1b, will be paradoxically necessarily tied precisely to this kind of macro-family proposals in the future.

Related:

Neolithic and Bronze Age Basque-speaking Iberians resisted invaders from the steppe

gaul-asterix

Good clickbait, right? I have received reports about this new paper in Google Now the whole weekend, and their descriptions are getting worse each day.

The original title of the article published in PLOS Genetics (already known by its preprint in BioRxiv) was The population genomics of archaeological transition in west Iberia: Investigation of ancient substructure using imputation and haplotype-based methods, by Martiniano et al. (2017).

Maybe the title was not attractive enough, so they sent the following summary, entitled “Bronze Age Iberia received fewer Steppe invaders than the rest of Europe” (also in Phys.org. From their article, the only short reference to the linguistic situation of Iberia (as a trial to sum up potential consequences of the genetic data obtained):

Iberia is unusual in harbouring a surviving pre-Indo-European language, Euskera, and inscription evidence at the dawn of history suggests that pre-Indo-European speech prevailed over a majority of its eastern territory with Celtic-related language emerging in the west. Our results showing that predominantly Anatolian-derived ancestry in the Neolithic extended to the Atlantic edge strengthen the suggestion that Euskara is unlikely to be a Mesolithic remnant. Also our observed definite, but limited, Bronze Age influx resonates with the incomplete Indo-European linguistic conversion on the peninsula, although there are subsequent genetic changes in Iberia and defining a horizon for language shift is not yet possible. This contrasts with northern Europe which both lacks evidence for earlier language strata and experienced a more profound Bronze Age migration.

Judging from the article, more precise summaries of potential consequences would have been “Proto-Basque and Proto-Iberian peoples derived from Neolithic farmers, not Mesolithic or Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers”, or “incomplete Indo-European linguistic conversion of the Iberian Peninsula” – both aspects, by the way, are already known. That would have been quite unromantic, though.

Their carefully selected title has been unsurprisingly distorted at least as “Ancient DNA Reveals Why the Iberian Peninsula Is So Unique“, and “Ancient Iberians resisted Steppe invasions better than the rest of Europe 6,000 years ago“.

So I thought, what the hell, let’s go with the tide. Using the published dataset, I have also helped reconstruct the original phenotype of Bronze Age Iberians, and this is how our Iberian ancestors probably looked like:

Typical Iberian village during the Steppe invasion, according to my phenotype study of Martiniano et al. (2017). Notice typical invaders to the right.

And, by the way, they spoke Basque, the oldest language. Period.

Now, for those new to the article, we already knew that there is less “steppe admixture” in Iberian samples from southern Portugal after the time of east Bell Beaker expansion.

portugal-bronze-age-admixture
(A) PCA estimated from the CHROMOPAINTER coancestry matrix of 67 ancient samples ranging from the Paleolithic to the Anglo-Saxon period. The samples belonging to each one of the 19 populations identified with fineSTRUCTURE are connected by a dashed line. Samples are placed geographically in 3 panels (with random jitter for visual purposes): (B) Hunter-gatherers; (C) Neolithic Farmers (including Ötzi) and (D) Copper Age to Anglo-Saxon samples. The Portuguese Bronze Age samples (D, labelled in red) formed a distinct population (Portuguese_BronzeAge), while the Middle and Late Neolithic samples from Portugal clustered with Spanish, Irish and Scandinavian Neolithic farmers, which are termed “Atlantic_Neolithic” (C, in green).

However, there is also a clear a discontinuity in Neolithic Y-DNA haplogroups (to R1b-P312 haplogroups). That means obviously a male-driven invasion, from the North-West Indo-European-speaking Bell Beaker culture – which in turn did not have much “steppe admixture” compared to other north-eastern cultures, like the Corded Ware culture, probably unrelated to Indo-European languages.

portugal-bronze-age-haplogroup
Summary of the samples sequenced in the present study.

As always, trying to equate steppe or Yamna admixture with invasion or language is plainly wrong. Doing it with few samples, and with the wrong assumptions of what “steppe admixture” means, well…

Proto-Basque and Proto-Iberian no doubt survived the Indo-European Bell Beaker migrations, but if Y-DNA lineages were replaced already by the Bronze Age in southern Portugal, there is little reason to support an increased “resistance” of Iberians to Bell Beaker invaders compared to other marginal regions of Europe (relative to the core Yamna expansion in eastern and central Europe).

As you know, Aquitanian (the likely ancestor of Basque) and Iberian were just two of the many non-Indo-European languages spoken in Europe at the dawn of historical records, so to speak about Iberia as radically different than Italy, Greece, Northern Britain, Scandinavia, or Eastern Europe, is reminiscent of the racism (or, more exactly, xenophobia) that is hidden behind romantic views certain people have of their genetic ancestry.

Some groups formed by a majority of R1b-DF27 lineages, now prevalent in Iberia, spoke probably Iberian languages during the Iron Age in north and eastern Iberia, before their acculturation during the expansion of Celtic-speaking peoples, and later during the expansion of Rome, when most of them eventually spoke Latin. In Mediaeval times, these lineages probably expanded Romance languages southward during the Reconquista.

Before speaking Iberian languages, R1b-DF27 lineages (or older R1b-P312) were probably Indo-European speakers who expanded with the Bell Beaker culture from the lower Danube – in turn created by the interaction of Yamna with Proto-Bell Beaker cultures, and adopted probably the native Proto-Basque and Proto-Iberian languages (or possibly the ancestor of both) near the Pyrenees, either by acculturation, or because some elite invaders expanded successfully (their Y-DNA haplogroup) over the general population, for generations.

Maybe some kind of genetic bottleneck happened, that expanded previously not widespread lineages, as with N1c subclades in Finland.

There is nothing wrong with hypothetic models of ancient genetic prehistory: there are still too many potential scenarios for the expansion of haplogroup R1b-DF27 in Iberia. But, please, stop supporting romantic pictures of ethnolinguistic continuity for modern populations. It’s embarrassing.


Featured image from Wikipedia, and Pinterest, with copyright from Albert Uderzo and publisher company Hachette.

Images from the article, licensed CC-by-sa, as all articles from PLOS.