Molecular Biology and Evolution

Evidence of pre-roman tribal genetic structure in basques from uniparentally inherited markers

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Basque people have received considerable attention from anthropologists, geneticists, and linguists during the last century due to the singularity of their language and to other cultural and biological characteristics. Despite the multidisciplinary efforts performed to address the questions of the origin, uniqueness, and heterogeneity of Basques, the genetic studies performed up to now have suffered from a weak study design where populations are not analyzed in an adequate geographic and population context. To address the former questions and to overcome these design limitations, we have analyzed the uniparentally inherited markers (Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA) of ∼900 individuals from 18 populations, including those where Basque is currently spoken and populations from adjacent regions where Basque might have been spoken in historical times. Our results indicate that Basque-speaking populations fall within the genetic Western European gene pool, that they are similar to geographically surrounding non-Basque populations, and also that their genetic uniqueness is based on a lower amount of external influences compared with other Iberians and French populations. Our data suggest that the genetic heterogeneity and structure observed in the Basque region result from pre-Roman tribal structure related to geography and might be linked to the increased complexity of emerging societies during the Bronze Age. The rough overlap of the pre-Roman tribe location and the current dialect limits support the notion that the environmental diversity in the region has played a recurrent role in cultural differentiation and ethnogenesis at different time periods. © 2012 The Author(s).