“When the fox is engaging you in conversation, keep an eye on your chicken” – Basque Proverb
The Basque people are indigenous to the western Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, in a region straddling northern Spain and Southern France. And they’ve been there a really, really long time. Like long before anybody settled in to speak any of the languages we would recognize as ancestral to modern European languages. One big indicator of this is the Basque language, which is unlike any Indo-European languages (although it has of course long since adopted some of the vocabulary of its neighbors). The current popular theory is that the Basque language is entirely unrelated to any other European language, and developed over several millennia in the same region of the Pyrenees prior to the influx of proto-Indo-European speakers into Western Europe. Add to this that genetic studies of Basque ancestry indicate that a genetically unique “Basqueness” appears to predate the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula (around 7000 B.C.), and it’s no wonder that a lot of learned folks think the Basque represent a remnant of some of the earliest Homo sapiens inhabitants of Western Europe.
Now, human history in a nutshell is pretty much just one group of savages migrating into the territory of another group of savages and settling down. Sometimes this happens gracefully and peacefully with a lot of love matches and mixed families, and other times there’s a lot of mayhem and bludgeoning each other about the head and neck, and dining on the entrails of one’s enemies, not to mention writing them into the record as fearsome demons that you just barely managed to overcome because you were smart enough, beautiful enough, and gosh darn it, people just like you. For the sake of continuity, let’s back up into the history of erect things that migrated out of Africa, where its generally assumed us humans emerged as an especially funky kind of primate.
About 2 million years ago, Homo erectus shambled off the veldt into the Levant, followed shortly thereafter (a million years or so) by Homo heidelbergensis. This is significant because paleoanthropologists think that Neanderthals, Denisovians, and modern humans are all descended from Homo heidelbergensis who seemed to be lumbering about Europe some 400,000 years ago, and theoretically are believed to have thoughtfully evolved into Neanderthals. Those Heidelbergensis who set out towards Asia are thought to represent the population that evolved into Denisovans. Obviously, this left some extra space and job openings in the African homelands, where the remaining Homo heidelbergensis eventually morphed into Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. Now, Homo sapiens thought they were the “real deal” and initiated their own wave of migration out of Africa into Europe and Asia between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago. So, what does Western Europe look like at 40,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic? Probably a bunch of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (our name for the first early modern humans, basically a bigger, taller, hairier version of us) meandering the landscape looking for their next meal. They had yet to invent the concept of “marrying money”, so that was pretty much their only option. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA, so obviously the Neanderthals had better parties, and rarely failed to invite the Cro-Magnon ladies, but the main point is, us modern humans had some representation in Western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic.
Along come the proto-Indo-Europeans (and their languages), migrating out of the Pontic–Caspian steppe into the lower Danube valley around 4200 B.C. and spreading across Europe by the 3rd Millennium B.C. And now most folks in Europe speak some derivation of what is called proto-Indo-European. Except for the Basque. The fact that Basque is unrelated to any other language in Europe suggest that it is not of Indo-European ancestry, rather is a Vasconic language (like the extinct Aquitanian and Iberian languages), but nobody has a good suggestion for where these Vasconic languages originated. Basically, proto-Basque is a complete mystery. And we love a good mystery, but this is one that historical linguists have not been able to solve. While the origin of languages is a fascinating study, we’re more interested in a different question. Who were those tall, hairy dudes commonly referred to in Basque mythology and oral traditions – the Jentilak, particularly if you consider the possibility that the Basques or their immediate forefathers have been occupying the same region for what by some accounts may be as long as 25,000 years?
The mythology of the ancient Basques didn’t really survive the arrival of Christianity in the 4th Century A.D., but the Romans were pretty good note-takers and scribbled down a few interesting points in the 1st Century B.C. (Strabo and Pliny mention them as established tribes). Since Basque genetics seem to indicate they have been around the Pyrenees for at least 7000 years, one’s got to figure those remnants of their oral traditions might contain some curious stuff we can’t get elsewhere. Which leads us to the Jentilak.
Basque folklore speaks of a race of hairy giants (Jentil; plural Jentilak) living alongside the ancient Basques who are credited with inventing metallurgy, saws, and educating humans in their techniques in farming, not to mention the construction of the neolithic monuments that dot Basque territory. The existence of these myths has of course been seized upon for all manner of speculation that the Basque were referring to the ever-popular Nephilim, or that a population of Basque bigfoots were wandering about the upper reaches of the western Pyrenees. And most simply have a chuckle and are amused by the folklore us humans come up with. This misses a rather essential point. We can all agree that the Basques have been around the same area for quite some time, long enough that their ancestors could potentially have experienced the overlap between populations of Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, and more modern humans. Since there are no more Cro-Magnons or Neanderthals loitering about, we have a pretty good idea who came out on top. Although, I’m admittedly suspicious and scan every crowd for evidence of prognathic faces, occipital buns, and heavy brow ridges. Got to keep Homo sapiens at the top of the food chain after all, and while I may not like many in the specific, I have a fondness for the general species.
Obviously, we aren’t the only sentient species to walk on two legs that has ever dotted the planet Earth, and anthropologists tend to agree that there was clearly a brief period of time where other candidates co-inhabited the world with us, yet we prefer not to examine what underlies ancient folkloric traditions too deeply because if were find simple grains of truth in archaic oral traditions regarding relations with our ancestor species, it begs the question of what other meaningful notions are encoded in our folklore. This is a bit unsettling. Arthur L. Campa observed, “There is a tendency to think of history and folklore as being polarized to such an extent that the two disciplines repel each other, and in the minds of some there is an inclination to look upon the former as a more or less exact science and the latter as something akin to old wives’ tales. A close look at the origin and nature of history reveals a much closer kinship to folklore than we might suspect at first glance-and in some respects a continued relationship. As history emerged from traditional accounts, it acquired certain features which gradually caused it to differ from folklore, but in some of its functions history has never quite lost its kinship with folklore because both are concerned with the human record” (Campa, 1965, p1). Our compulsion to speak of history as “important” and folklore as “trivial” is an act of pure hubris, presuming that history is not just another story about the past.
Folklore emerged as a discipline in the 19th century. As mankind became increasingly centralized in cities and fell under the watchful eye of authority that could maintain such population densities, folklore increasingly dealt with what was regarded as liminal – what happened outside the narrow confines of an increasingly urban and industrialized society. Our species had tamed ourselves, and forgotten that our history as a species extend 200,000 years into the past. Folklore became the lie that history was designed to disprove, whereas “Originally it connoted tradition, ancient customs and surviving festivals, old ditties and dateless ballads, archaic myths, legends and fables, and timeless tales, and proverbs. As these narratives rarely stood the tests of common sense and experience, folklore also implied irrationality: beliefs in ghosts and demons, fairies and goblins, sprites and spirits; it referred to credence in omens, amulets, and talismans. From the perspective of the urbane literati, who conceived the idea of folklore, these two attributes of traditionality and irrationality could pertain only to peasant or primitive societies. Hence they attributed to folklore a third quality: rurality. The countryside and the open space of wilderness was folklore’s proper breeding ground. Man’s close contact with nature in villages and hunting bands was considered the ultimate source of his myth and poetry. As an outgrowth of the human experience with nature, folklore itself was thought to be a natural expression of man before city, commerce, civilization, and culture contaminated the purity of his life”(Ben-Ami and Dan, 1983, p1).
We have only a small slice of human history where we’ve been diligently scribbling down important details about our experience, and lending them the authority of physical tangibility, pushing ancient oral traditions further back into that misty boundary between our current story about human history and the hundreds of millennia since we began straggling out of Africa. As author Ashwin Sanghi said, “Mythology is a set of primitive lies that people rarely believe. This is rather different from history, which is a set of lies that people actually believe”. Clearly we out-competed our other hominid relations, eventually driving them to extinction after a brief span of time where we shared the planet. We just don’t like to talk about it. And here and there, our folklore eulogizes them. So next time you’re sitting around a campfire in the dark forest, pour a little malt liquor on the fire in remembrance of our hairy homies from the Pyrenees. Alas, poor cavemen. We knew you well.
Ben-Ami, Issachar & Dan, Joseph eds. “The Idea of Folklore: An Essay.” Studies in Aggadah and Jewish Folklore. Folklore Research Center Studies VII. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, pp. 11-17, 1983.
Campa, Arthur L. “Folklore and History.” Western Folklore, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 1–5, 1965.