The earliest notices of the geography of Spain, from the 5th century B.C., represent Spain as occupied by a congeries of tribes distinguished mainly as Iberi, Celtiberi and Celts. These had no cohesion together, and unless temporarily united against some foreign foe, were at war with one another and were in constant movement; the ruder tribes being driven northwards by the advancing tide of Mediterranean civilization. The tribes in the south in Baetica had, according to Trogus and Strabo, written laws, poems of ancient date and a literature. Of this nothing has reached us. We have only some inscriptions, legends on coins, marks on pottery and on megalithic monuments, in alphabets slightly differing, and belonging to six geographical districts. These still await an interpreter; but they show that a like general language was once spoken through the whole of Spain, and for a short distance on the northern slope of the Pyrenees. The character of the letters is clearly of Levant origin, but the particular alphabets, to which each may be referred, and their connexion, if any, with the Basque, are still undetermined.
It was early remarked by the classical scholars among the Basques after the Renaissance that certain names in the ancient toponymy of Spain, though transcribed by Greek and Latin writers, i.e. by foreigners, ignorant of the language, yet bear a strong resemblance to actual place-names in Basque (e.g. Iliberis, Iriberry); and in a few cases (Mondiculeia, Mendigorry; Iluro, Oloron) the site itself shows the reason of the name. Andres de Poza (1587), Larramendi (1760), Juan B. Erro (1806) and others had noted some of these facts, but it was W. von Humboldt (1821) who first aroused the attention of Europe to them. This greater extension of a people speaking a language akin to the Basque throughout Spain, and perhaps in Sicily and Sardinia, has been accepted by the majority of students, though some competent Basque scholars deny it; and the certain connexion of the Basques, either with the Iberians or Celtiberians, whether in race or language, cannot be said to be conclusively proved as long as the so-called Celtiberian inscriptions remain uninterpreted. (See also Iberians.)
After so many centuries of close contact and interpenetration with other peoples, we can hardly expect to find a pure physical type among the present Basques. All that we can expect is to be able to differentiate them from their neighbours. The earliest notice we have of the Basques, by Einhard (778), speaks of their wonderful agility. The next, the pilgrim of the Codex Calixtinus (12th century), says the Basques are fairer in face (facie candiliores) than the Navarrese.
Anthropologists no longer rely solely on craniology, and the measurement of the skull, to distinguish race. The researches of Aranzadi (1889 and 1905) and of Collignon (1899) show them as less fair than northern Europeans, but fairer than any of the southern races; not so tall as the Scandinavians, Teutons or British, but taller than their neighbours of southern races. There is no tendency to prognathism, as in some of the Celts. The profile is often very fine; the carriage is remarkably upright. Neither markedly brachycephalous nor dolichocephalous, the skull has yet certain peculiarities. In the conjunction of the whole physical qualities, says Collignon, there is a Basque type, differing from all those he has studied in Europe and northern Africa. There are differences of type among themselves, yet, when they emigrate to South America, French and Spanish Basques are known simply as Basques, distinct from all other races.
On the origin of the Basques, the chief theories are: - (1) that they are descended from the tribes whom the Greeks and Latins called Iberi; (2) that they belong to some of the fairer Berber tribes ("Eurafrican," Hervé) and through the ancient Libyans, from a people depicted on the Egyptian monuments; (3) the Atlantic theory, that they belong to a lost Atlantic continent, whose inhabitants were represented by the Guanches of the Canary Islands, and by a fair race on the western coast of Africa; (4) that they are an indigenous race, who have never had any greater extension than their present quarters.
The remains of prehistoric races hitherto discovered in Spain throw little light on the subject, but some skulls found in southeastern Spain in the age of metal resemble the Basque skulls of Zaraus.
The megalithic remains, the dolmens, menhirs, cromlechs and stone circles are said to resemble more closely those of northern Africa than the larger remains of Brittany and of the British Isles. Aristotle tells us that the Iberi fixed obelisks round the tomb of each warrior in number equal to the enemies he had slain (Polit. vii. c. 2. 6), but proof is wanting that these Iberi were Basques.
Iberian inscriptions have been found on the so-called toros de guisando, rude stone bulls or boars, on other monuments of northern Spain and in ancient sepulchres; some of these figures, e.g. at the Cerro de los Santos in Murcia, recall the physical type of the modern Basques, but they are associated with others of very varied types.
Of the religion of the Basques anterior to Christianity, little is certainly known. The few notices we have point to a worship of the elements, the sun, the moon and the morning star, and to a belief in the immortality of the unburnt and unburied body. The custom of the couvade, attributed by Strabo to the Cantabri, is unknown among the modern Basques. As elsewhere, the Romans assimilated Basque local deities to their own pantheon, thus we find Deo Baicorrixo (Baigorry) and Herauscorrtsehe in Latin inscriptions. But the name which the Basques themselves give to the Deity is Jaincoa, Jaungoikoa, which may mean lord or master, Lord of the high; but in the dialect of Roncal, Goikoa means "the moon," and Jaungoikokoa would mean "Lord of the moon." The term Jaun, lord or master, Etcheko Jauna, the lord or master of the house, is applied to every householder.
There is no aid to be got from folk-tales; none can be considered exclusively Basque and the literature is altogether too modern. The first book printed in Basque, the Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, the poems of Bernard d'Echepare, is dated 1545. The work which is considered the standard of the language is the Protestant translation of the New Testament made by Jean de Liçarrague, under the auspices of Jeanne d'Albret, and printed at La Rochelle in 1571. The pastorales are open-air dramas, like the moralities and mysteries of the middle ages. They are derived from French materials; but a dancing chorus, invariably introduced, and other parts of the mise-en-scène, point to possibly earlier traditions. No MS. hitherto discovered is earlier than the 18th century. The greater part of the other literature is religious and translated. It is only recently that a real literature has been attempted in Basque with any success.
In spite of this modernity in literature there are other matters which show how strong the conservatism of the Basques really is. Thus, in dealing with the language, the only true measure of the antiquity of the race, we find that all cutting instruments are of stone; that the week has only three days. There are also other survivals now fast disappearing. Instead of the plough, the Basques used the laya, a two-pronged short-handled steel digging fork, admirably adapted to small properties, where labour is abundant. They alone of the peoples of western Europe have preserved specimens of almost every class of dance known to primitive races. These are (1) animal (or possibly totem) dances, in which men personate animals, the bear, the fox, the horse, etc.; (2) dances to represent agriculture and the vintage performed with wine-skins; (3) the simple arts, such as weaving, where the dancers, each holding a long coloured ribbon, dance round a pole on which is gradually formed a pattern like a Scotch tartan; (4) war-dances, as the sword-dance and others; (5) religious dances in procession before the Host and before the altar; (6) ceremonial dances in which both sexes take part at the beginning and end of a festival, and to welcome distinguished people.
How large a part these played in the life of the people, and the value attached to them, may be seen in the vehement defence of the religious dances by Father Larramendi, S.J., in his Corografia de Guipúzcoa, and by the large sums paid for the privilege of dancing the first Saut Basque on the stage at the close of a Pastorale.
The old Basque house is the product of a land where stone and timber were almost equally abundant. The front-work is of wood with carved beams; the balconies and huge over-hanging roof recall the Swiss chalet, but the side and back walls are of stone often heavily buttressed. The cattle occupy the ground-floor, and the first storey is reached often by an outside staircase. The carven tombstones with their ornaments resemble those of Celtic countries, and are found also at Bologna in Italy.
In customs, in institutions, in administration, in civil and political life there is no one thing that we can say is peculiarly and exclusively Basque; but their whole system taken together marks them off from other people and especially from their neighbours.