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Archaeological artifact sheds light on mysterious Basque language

Set on a white background, the bronze hand is laid out with fingers facing down. It has a blue-greenish tint from oxidation. The words etched into it in dots are traced over the picture. A red and black scale next to it shows the hand is life-sized.
Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi
The writing on the Mano de Irulegi was not immediately apparent when it came out of the ground and only revealed itself to researchers after they further analysis. The hand is the oldest example of proto-basque ever found.

The Basque language is a non-Indo European language in Western Europe, spoken by people living in the mountains between France and Spain. The isolated language has flummoxed scholars for centuries.

For many years, it was believed to only be spoken and had shown up in writing about 500 years ago. A recent archaeological find shows that written Basque existed much earlier than previously thought. The news, announced in November, has rocked the Basque community in Idaho and across the world.

The artifact was found in the ruins of a castle in Pamplona, the heart of Basque country. and is called La Mano de Irulegi - the Hand of Irulegi. A flat engraved bronze hand, it has turned bluish-green through oxidation. There are five words etched into it, one of which is recognizable to modern basque speakers.

Written in proto-Basque (or Vasconic), the word Sorioneku translates roughly as “of good fortune” or “of good omen.” In modern Basque, it's spelled as Zorioneko.

Edurne Arostegui is the education specialist at the Basque Museum in Boise. The discovery has brought a ton of joy and pride to the community.

“I have a lot of friends and family in the Basque country, I lived there, and my phone blew up, she said, “I mean, everybody was just ecstatic.”

They’re ecstatic because the hand is the oldest example of written basque ever found. It dates back to 72 years before Christ, proving modern Basques’ ancestors lived in the region almost 1,000 years earlier than previously thought and is one more clue in understanding the history of the Basque language.

“Most people would think it's some kind of mixture of Spanish and French, but it predates Indo-European languages,” said John Bieter, a history professor at Boise State studying Basque immigration.

Bieter explained Basque is indigenous and a language isolate, meaning it evolved without any influence from other languages. Basque speakers were long thought to be illiterate so this discovery is an important clue in understanding its evolution.

“It takes our idea of early languages and sometimes early civilizations as being kind of caveman or kind of an early rudimentary language that are very simple,” he said. “And it just dumps that on its head.”

Scholars have tried to link basque to Hungarian, Georgian, Etruscan and even Japanese, but are still baffled by its origins.

Professor Javier Velaza said the origin of the language is still a mystery. He is one of the linguists analyzing the writing on the hand.

“From a scientific point of view, this discovery is very important because it’s the first text preserved in Basque country and found where ancestors to the Basques lived,” he said.

Speaking from his office in Barcelona, he said the word etched into it is the first example of written Basque found in modern-day Basque country, which is actually not a nation state. It exists inside both Northern Spain and parts of Southern France.

DNA studies have suggested Basques are descendants of neolithic farmers and have been in the region for millennia. Their identity survived the back and forth of territorial aggression from various European invaders over the years.

“You would think that these languages with much bigger powers would have subsumed ours,” Arostegui said, “but we've been able to maintain it for such a long time.”

Basques called themselves Euskaldunak, which means “those who have Basque,” or “the people who speak Basque.”

“It's really integral to our identity,” Arostegui added.

During the Franco dictatorship, the Basque language was criminalized.

“From 1939 to 1975, you know, you could not use it in public. You would be fined,” she said. ”My name would have been illegal, right? You could not name your child Edurne.”

The language was kept alive in remote villages and inside people’s homes, spoken in secret and taught to children clandestinely in church basements.

“I always point out that it's thanks to the diaspora that a lot of these elements are still around because no one ever banned Basque here in Boise,” she added.

There are about three million Basque people in the original region and no clear numbers for the diaspora. It’s thought that about a third of Basque people speak it today or around three-quarters to a million people around the world. Idaho has one of the largest concentrations of Basques in the United States.

Back in Spain, Velaza interrupted our interview to answer an email from another journalist. He’s been fielding questions from the media non-stop since the news of the hand of Irulegi dropped.

He cautioned people to not assume the artifact contains all the answers to questions about the origins of Basque. It links Basque ancestors to the region in a way that had not been done before, but it does not say much more about where they came from.

The object itself is iconic. The message it carries is one of warmth and good fortune and Velaza said he was not surprised by the public’s reaction. The hand was dug up in the summer of 2021 but only analyzed at the start of 2022. After months of keeping the writing on it secret, Velaza and his colleagues were hoping the reaction to the announcement would be big.

And it was.

The above Tweet translates to "Maybe now Marvel will come up with a Basque superhero."

Basque Twitter (yes, that’s a thing) has since been putting out memes left and right. The hand has been blowing up WhatsApp threads and a song about it on YouTube has already gotten 50 thousand views.

A big moment for the community, and for Arostegui.

“Could you imagine seeing in hieroglyphic and just being able to read it from your present language, that is how it felt for me,” Arostegui said. “Just connecting to somebody 2000 years ago is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of moment.”

The hand is still being analyzed, and will likely go on display at the Pamplona Museum sometime in the future.

Find reporter Julie Luchetta on Twitter @JulieLuchetta.

I joined Boise State Public Radio in 2022 as the Canyon County reporter through Report for America, to report on the growing Latino community in Idaho. I am very invested in listening to people’s different perspectives and I am very grateful to those who are willing to share their stories with me. It’s a privilege and I do not take it for granted.

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