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Mark Kurlansky

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A Biography Of The Fish That Changed The World
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A World History
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A Mandate of Salt

Once I stood on the bank of a rice paddy in rural Sichuan Province, and a lean and aging Chinese peasant, wearing a faded forty-year-old blue jacket issued by the Mao government in the early years of the Revolution, stood knee deep in water and apropos of absolutely nothing shouted defiantly at me, “We Chinese invented many things!”

The Chinese are proud of their inventions. All Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, sooner or later give a speech listing the many Chinese firsts. Though rural China these days seems in need of a new round of inventions, it is irrefutably true that the Chinese originated many of the pivotal creations of history, including papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.

China is the oldest literate society still in existence, and its 4,000 years of written history begin as a history of inventions. It is no longer clear when legends were made into men and when living historic figures were turned into legends. Chinese history starts in the same manner as Old Testament history. In the Book of Genesis, first come the legends, the story of the Creation, mythical figures such as Adam and Eve and Noah, generations of people who may or may not have lived, and gradually the generations are followed to Abraham, the beginning of documented Hebrew history.

In Chinese history, first was Pangu, the creator, who made humans from parasites on his body. He died but was followed by wise rulers, who invented the things that made China the first civilization. Fuxi was first to domesticate animals. Apparently an enthusiast for domesticity, he is also credited with inventing marriage. Next came Shennong, who invented medicine, agriculture, and trade. He is credited with the plow and the hoe. Then came Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who invented writing, the bow and arrow, the cart, and ceramics. Several centuries after Huangdi came Emperor Yao, a wise ruler who passed over his unqualified son and named a modest sage, Shun, his successor. Shun chose his minister, Yu, to succeed him. In 2205 b.c., according to tradition, Yu founded the Xia dynasty, and this dynasty, which lasted until 1766 b.c., enters into documented history.

Chinese salt history begins with the mythical Huangdi, who invented writing, weaponry, and transportation. According to the legends, he also had the distinction of presiding over the first
war ever fought over salt.

One of the earliest verifiable saltworks in prehistoric China was in the northern province of Shanxi. In this arid region of dry yellow earth and desert mountains is a lake of salty water, Lake Yuncheng. This area was known for constant warfare, and all of the wars were over control of the lake. Chinese historians are certain that by 6000 b.c., each year, when the lake’s waters evaporated in the summer sun, people harvested the square crystals on the surface of the water, a system the Chinese referred to as “dragging and gathering.” Human bones found around the lake have been dated much earlier, and some historians speculate that these inhabitants may also have gathered salt from the lake. The earliest written record of salt production in China dates to around 800 b.c. and tells of production and trade of sea salt a millennium before, during the Xia dynasty. It is not known if the techniques described in this account were actually used during the Xia dynasty, but they were considered old ways by the time of this account, which describes putting ocean water in clay vessels and boiling it until reduced to pots of salt crystals. This was the technique that was spread through southern Europe by the Roman Empire, 1,000 years after the Chinese account was written. About 1000 b.c., iron first came into use in China, though the first evidence of it being used in salt making is not until 450 b.c. by a man named Yi Dun. According to a passage written in 129 b.c., “Yi Dun rose to prominence by producing salt in pans.” Yi Dun is believed to have made salt by boiling brine in iron pans, an innovation which would become one of the leading techniques for salt making for the next 2,000 years. The legend says that he worked with an ironmaster named Guo Zong and was also friendly with an enterprising wealthy bureaucrat named Fan Li. Fan Li is credited with inventing fish farming, which for centuries after was associated with salt-producing areas. The Chinese, like later Europeans, saw that salt and fish were partners. Many Chinese, including Mencius, the famous Confucian thinker who lived from 372 to 289 b.c., were said to have worked selling both fish and salt.

Throughout the long history of China, sprinkling salt directly on food has been a rarity. Usually it has been added during cooking by means of various condiments—salt-based sauces and pastes. The usual explanation is that salt was expensive and it was stretched by these condiments. A recurring idea throughout the ancient world from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia, fish fermented in salt was one of the most popular salt condiments in ancient China. It was called jiang. But in China soybeans were added to ferment with the fish, and in time the fish was dropped altogether from the recipe and jiang became jiangyou, or, as it is called in the West, soy sauce.

Soy is a legume that produces beans, two or three in a two-inch-long furry pod. The beans can be yellow, green, brown, purple, black, or spotted, and Chinese cooking makes a great distinction among these varieties. Jiangyou is made from yellow beans, but other types are also fermented with salt to produce different pastes and condiments.

In China, the earliest written mention of soy is in the sixth century b.c., describing the plant as a 700-year-old crop from the north. Soy was brought to Japan from China in the sixth century a.d. by Chinese Buddhist missionaries. Both the religion and the bean were successfully implanted. But the Japanese did not make soy sauce until the tenth century. Once they did learn, they called it shoyu and industrialized it and sold it around the world.

Though jiangyou and shoyu are pronounced very differently and appear to be very different words in Western writing, the two words are written with the same character in Japanese and Chinese. Mao’s 1950s literacy campaign simplified the language to some 40,000 characters, but a pre-Mao character for the soy plant, su, depicts little roots at the bottom which revive the soil.

Soy puts nutrients back into the soil and can restore fields that have been exhausted by other crops. The bean is so nutritious that a person could be sustained for a considerable period on
nothing but water, soy, and salt.

The process by which the Chinese, and later the Japanese, fermented beans in earthen pots is today known as lactic acid fermentation, or, in more common jargon, pickling. Optimum lactic fermentation takes place between sixty-four and seventy-one degrees Fahrenheit, which in most of the world is an easily achieved environment.

As vegetables begin to rot, the sugars break down and produce lactic acid, which serves as a preservative. Theoretically, pickling can be accomplished without salt, but the carbohydrates and proteins in the vegetables tend to putrefy too quickly to be saved by the emerging lactic acid. Without salt, yeast forms, and the fermentation process leads to alcohol rather than pickles.

Between .8 and 1.5 percent of the vegetable’s weight in salt holds off the rotting process until the lactic acid can take over. Excluding oxygen, either by sealing the jar or, more usually, by weighting the vegetables so that they remain immersed in liquid, is necessary for successful lactic fermentation.

The ancient Chinese pickled in earthen jars, which caused a white film called kahm yeast, harmless but unpleasant tasting, to form on the top. Every two weeks the cloth, board, and stone
weighting the vegetables had to be washed or even boiled to remove the film. This added work is why pickling in earthen jars has not remained popular.

In Sichuan, pickled vegetables are still a staple. They are served with rice, which is never salted. The salty vegetables contrast pleasantly with the blandness of the warm but unseasoned rice gruel that is a common breakfast food. In effect, the pickles are salting the rice.

South of the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, lies Zigong, a hilly provincial salt town that grew into a city because of its preponderance of brine wells. The crowded, narrow, downhill open-air market in the center of town continues to sell salt and special pickling jars for the two local specialties, paocai and zhacai. A woman at the market who sold the glass pickling jars offered this recipe for paocai:

Fill the jar two-thirds with brine. Add whatever vegetables you like and whatever spice you like, cover, and the vegetables are ready in two days.

The spices added are usually hot red Sichuan peppers or ginger, a perennial herb of Indian origin, known to the Chinese since ancient times. The red pepper, today a central ingredient of Sichuan cooking, did not arrive until the sixteenth century, carried to Europe by Columbus, to India by the Portuguese, and to China by either the Indians, Portuguese, Andalusians, or Basques. Paocai that is eaten in two days is obviously more about flavor than preserving. After two days the vegetables are still very crisp, and the salt maintains, even brightens, the color. Zhacai is made with salt instead of brine, alternating layers of vegetables with layers of salt crystals. In time a brine is formed from the juices the salt pulls out of the vegetables. When a peasant has a baby girl, the family puts up a vegetable every year and gives the jars to her when she’s married. This shows how long zhacai is kept before eating. The original medieval idea was to marry her after twelve or fifteen jars. Today it usually takes a few more vegetables. The Chinese also solved the delicate problem of transporting eggs by preserving them in salt. They soaked the eggs, and still do, in brine for more than a month, or they soak them for a shorter time and encase them in salted mud and straw. The resulting egg, of a hard-boiled consistency with a bright orange yolk, will neither break nor spoil if properly handled. A more complicated technique, involving salt, ash, lye, and tea, produces the “1,000-year-old egg.” Typical of the Chinese love of poetic hyperbole, 1,000-year-old eggs take about 100 days to make, and will keep for another 100 days, though the yolk is then a bit green and the smell is strong.

In 250 b.c., the time of the Punic Wars in the Mediterranean, the governor of Shu, today the province of Sichuan, was a man named Li Bing. The governor was one of the greatest hydraulic
engineering geniuses of all time.

The coincidence of hydraulic engineering skills and political leadership does not seem strange when it is remembered that water management was one of the critical issues in developing China, a land of droughts and floods.

The Yellow River, named for the yellowish silt it rushes through northern China, was known as “the father of floods.” It and the Yangtze are the two great rivers of Chinese history, both originating in the Tibetan plateau and winding toward the sea on the east coast of China. The Yellow runs through arid northern regions and tends to silt up, raising the riverbed, which causes flooding unless dikes are built up around its banks. The Yangtze is a wider river with many navigable tributaries. It flows through the green and rainy center of China, bisecting the world’s third largest country, from the Tibetan mountains to Shanghai on the East China Sea. The rule of the wise Emperor Yao is said to have been a golden age of ancient China, and one reason for this was that Emperor Yao had tamed nature by introducing the concept of flood control.

Li Bing has taken on some of the mythic dimensions of Yao, a god who conquered floods and tamed nature. But unlike the mythical Emperor Yao, Li Bing’s existence is well documented. His most extraordinary accomplishment was the building of the first dam, which still functions in modernized form. At a place called Dujiangyan, he divided the Minjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The diverted water goes into a series of spillways and channels that can be opened to irrigate in times of droughts and closed in times of flooding. He had three stone figures of men placed in the water as gauges. If their feet were visible, this signaled drought conditions and the dam’s gates were opened to let in water. If their shoulders were submerged, floodwaters had risen too high and the dam’s gates were closed.

Because of the Dujiangyan dam system, the plains of eastern Sichuan became an affluent agricultural center of China. Ancient records called the area “Land of Abundance.” With the dam still operating, the Sichuan plains remain an agricultural center today. In 1974, two water gauges, carved in a.d. 168, were found in the riverbed by the site of Li Bing’s dam. They seem to have been replacements for the original water gauge statues. One of them is the oldest Chinese stone figure ever found of an identifiable individual. It is a statue of Li Bing. The original gauges he had used depicted gods of flood control. Four centuries after his death, he was considered to be one of these gods.

Li Bing made a very simple but pivotal discovery. By his time, Sichuan had long been a salt-producing area. Salt is known to have been made in Sichuan as early as 3000 b.c. But it was Li Bing who found that the natural brine, from which the salt was made, did not originate in the pools where it was found but seeped up from underground. In 252 b.c., he ordered the drilling of the world’s first brine wells.

These first wells had wide mouths, more like an open pit, though some went deeper than 300 feet. As the Chinese learned how to drill, the shafts got narrower and the wells deeper. But sometimes the people who dug the wells would inexplicably become weak, get sick, lie down, and die. Occasionally, a tremendous explosion would kill an entire crew or flames spit out from the bore holes. Gradually, the salt workers and their communities realized that an evil spirit from some underworld was rising up through the holes they were digging. By 68 b.c., two wells, one in Sichuan and one in neighboring Shaanxi, became infamous as sites where the evil spirit emerged. Once a year the governors of the respective provinces would visit these wells and make offerings.

By a.d. 100, the well workers, understanding that the disturbances were caused by an invisible substance, found the holes where it came out of the ground, lit them, and started placing pots close by. They could cook with it. Soon they learned to insulate bamboo tubes with mud and brine and pipe the invisible force to boiling houses. These boiling houses were open sheds where pots of brine cooked until the water evaporated and left salt crystals. By a.d. 200, the boiling houses had iron pots heated by gas flames. This is the first known use of natural gas in the world.

Salt makers learned to drill and shore up a narrow shaft, which allowed them to go deeper. They extracted the brine by means of a long bamboo tube which fit down the shaft. At the bottom of the tube was a leather valve. The weight of the water would force the valve shut while the long tube was hauled out. Then the tube was suspended over a tank, where a poke from a stick would open the valve and release the brine into the tank. The tank was connected to bamboo piping that led to the boiling house. Other bamboo pipes, planted just below the wellhead to capture escaping gas, also went to the boiling house.

Bamboo piping, which was probably first made in Sichuan, is salt resistant, and the salt kills algae and microbes that would cause rot. The joints were sealed either with mud or with a mixture of tung oil and lime. From the piping at Sichuan brine works, Chinese throughout the country learned to build irrigation and plumbing systems. Farms, villages, and even houses were built with bamboo plumbing. By the Middle Ages, the time of the Norman conquest of England, Su Dongpo, a bureaucrat born in Sichuan, was building sophisticated bamboo urban plumbing. Large bamboo water mains were installed in Hangzhou in 1089 and in Canton in 1096. Holes and ventilators were installed for dealing with both blockage and air pockets.

Salt producers spread out bamboo piping over the countryside with seeming chaos like the web of a monster spider. The pipes were laid over the landscape to use gravity wherever possible, rising and falling like a roller coaster, with loops to create long downhill runs.

In the mid-eleventh century, while King Harold was unsuccessfully defending England from the Normans, the salt producers of Sichuan were developing percussion drilling, the most advanced drilling technique in the world for the next seven or eight centuries. A hole about four inches in diameter was dug by dropping a heavy eight-foot rod with a sharp iron bit, guided through a bamboo tube so that it kept pounding the same spot. The worker stood on a wooden lever, his weight counterbalancing the eight-foot rod on the other end. He rode the lever up and down, see-saw-like, causing the bit to drop over and over again. After three to five years, a well several hundred feet deep would strike brine.

In 1066, Harold was killed at Hastings by an arrow, the weapon the Chinese believe was invented in prehistory by Huangdi. At the time of Harold’s death, the Chinese were using gunpowder, which was one of the first major industrial applications for salt. The Chinese had found that mixing potassium ni-trate, a salt otherwise known as saltpeter, with sulfur and carbon created a powder that when ignited expanded to gas so quickly it produced an explosion. In the twelfth century, when European Crusaders were failing to wrest Jerusalem from the infidel Arabs, the Arabs were beginning to learn of the secret Chinese powder.

Li Bing had lived during one of the most important crossroads in Chinese history. Centuries of consolidation among warring states had at last produced a unified China. The unified state was the culmination of centuries of intellectual debate about the nature of government and the rights of rulers. At the center of that debate was salt.

Chinese governments for centuries had seen salt as a source of state revenue. Texts have been found in China mentioning a salt tax in the twentieth century b.c. The ancient character for salt, yan, is a pictograph in three parts. The lower part shows tools, the upper left is an imperial official, and the upper right is brine. So the very character by which the word salt was written depicted the state’s control of its manufacture.

A substance needed by all humans for good health, even survival, would make a good tax generator. Everyone had to buy it, and so everyone would support the state through salt taxes. The debate about the salt tax had its roots in Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 b.c. In Confucius’s time the rulers of various Chinese states assembled what would today be called think tanks, in which selected thinkers advised the ruler and debated among themselves. Confucius was one of these intellectual ad-visers. Considered China’s first philosopher of morality, he was disturbed by human foibles and wanted to raise the standard of human behavior. He taught that treating one’s fellow human beings well was as important as respecting the Gods, and he emphasized the importance of respecting parents.

Confucius’s students and their students built the system of thought known as Confucianism. Mencius, a student of Confucius’s grandson, passed teachings down in a book called the Mencius. Confucius’s ideas were also recorded in a book called The Analects, which is the basis of much Chinese thought and the source of many Chinese proverbs.

During the two and a half centuries between Confucius and Li Bing, China was a grouping of numerous small states constantly at war. Rulers fell, and their kingdoms were swallowed up by more powerful ones, which would then struggle with other surviving states. Mencius traveled in China explaining to rulers that they stayed in power by a “mandate from heaven” based on moral principles, and that if they were not wise and moral leaders, the gods would take away their mandate and they would fall from power. But another philosophy, known as legalism, also emerged. The legalists insisted that earthly institutions effectively wielding power were what guaranteed a state’s survival. One of the leading legalists was a man named Shang, who advised the Qin (pronounced chin) state. Shang said that respect for elders and tradition should not interfere with reforming, clearing out inefficient institutions and replacing them with more effective and pragmatic programs. Legalists struggled to eliminate aristocracy, thereby giving the state the ability to reward and promote based on achievement.

The legalist faction had a new idea about salt. The first written text on a Chinese salt administration is the Guanzi, which contains what is supposed to be the economic advice of a minister who lived from 685 to 643 b.c. to the ruler of the state of Qi. Historians agree that the Guanzi was actually written around 300 b.c., when only seven states still remained and the eastern state of Qi, much under the influence of legalism, was in a survival struggle, which it would eventually lose, with the western state of Qin.

Among the ideas offered by the minister was fixing the price of salt at a higher level than the purchase price so that the state could import the salt and sell it at a profit. “We can thus take revenues from what other states produce.” The adviser goes on to point out that in some non-salt-producing areas people are ill from the lack of it and in their desperation would be willing to pay still higher prices. The conclusion of the Guanzi is that “salt has the singularly important power to maintain the basic economy of our state.” By 221, Qin defeated its last rivals, and its ruler became the first emperor of united China. China would continue to be ruled by such emperors until 1911.

The proposals in the Guanzi, which became Qi policy, now became the policy of the Qin and the emperor of China. The Qin dynasty was marked by the legalists’ tendency for huge public works and harsh laws. A price-fixing monopoly on salt and iron kept prices for both commodities excessively high. It is the first known instance in history of a state-controlled monopoly of a vital commodity. The salt revenues were used to build not only armies but defensive structures including the Great Wall, designed to keep Huns and other mounted nomadic invaders from the north out of China. But the harsh first dynasty lasted less than fifteen years. The Han dynasty that replaced it in 207 b.c., ended the unpopular monopolies to demonstrate better, wiser government. But in 120 b.c., expeditions were still being mounted to drive back the Huns, and the treasury was drained to pay for the wars with “barbarians” in the north. The Han emperor hired a salt maker and ironmaster to research the possibility of resurrecting the salt and iron monopolies. Four years later, he put both monopolies back into place.

China at the time was probably the most advanced civilization on earth at what was a high point of territorial expansion, economic prosperity, and trade. The Chinese world had expanded much farther than that of the Romans. Rome had an empire by conquest, was at the zenith of its power as well, but was menaced by the Gauls and Germanic tribes and even more threatened by internal civil wars. The Chinese had first learned of the Roman Empire in 139 b.c., when the emperor Wudi had sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, past the deserts to seek allies to the west. Zhang Qian traveled for twelve years to what is now Turkistan and back and reported on the astounding discovery that there was a fairly advanced civilization to the west. In 104 b.c. and 102 b.c., Chinese armies reached the area, a former Greek kingdom called Sogdiana with its capital in Samarkand, where they met and defeated a force partly composed of captive Roman soldiers.

In China the salt and iron monopolies, whose revenue financed many of these adventures, remained controversial. In 87 b.c., Emperor Wudi, considered the greatest emperor of the four-century Han dynasty, died and was replaced by the eight-year-old Zhaodi. In 81 b.c., six years later, the now-teenage emperor decided, in the manner of the emperors, to invite a debate among wise men on the salt and iron monopolies. He convened sixty notables of varying points of view from around China to debate state administrative policies in front of him.

The central subject was to be the state monopolies on iron and salt. But what emerged was a contest between Confucianism and legalism over the responsibilities of good government—an expansive debate on the duties of government, state profit versus private initiative, the logic and limits of military spending, the rights and limits of government to interfere in the economy.

Though the identities of most of the sixty participants are not known, their arguments have been preserved from the Confucian point of view in written form, the Yan tie lun, Discourse on Salt and Iron.

On the one side were Confucians, inspired by Mencius, who, when asked how a state should raise profits, replied, “Why must Your Majesty use the word profit? All I am concerned with are the good and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I profit my state?’ your officials will say, ‘How can I profit my family?’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I profit myself?’ Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit, the state will be in danger.”

On the other side were government ministers and thinkers influenced by the legalist Han Feizi, who had died in 233 b.c. Han Feizi, who had been a student of one of the most famous Confucian teachers, had not believed that it was practical to base government on morality. He believed it should be based on the exercise of power and a legal code that meted out harsh punishment to transgressors. Both rewards and punishments should be automatic and without arbitrary interpretation. He believed laws should be decreed in the interest of the state, that people should be controlled by fear of punishment. If his way was followed, “the State will get rich and the army will be strong,” he claimed. “Then it will be possible to succeed in establishing hegemony over other states.”

In the salt and iron debate, legalists argued: “It is difficult to see, in these conditions, how we could prevent the soldiers who defend the Great Wall from dying of cold and hunger. Suppress the state monopolies and you deliver a fatal blow to the nation.” But to this came the Confucian response, “The true conqueror A Mandate of Salt 33 does not have to make war; the great general does not need to put troops in the field nor have a clever battle plan. The sovereign who reigns by bounty does not have an enemy under heaven. Why do we need military spending?”

To which came the response, “The perverse and impudent Hun has been allowed to cross our border and carry war into the heart of the country, massacring our population and our officers, not respecting any authority. For a long time he has deserved an exemplary punishment.”

It was argued that the borders had become permanent military camps that caused suffering to the people on the interior. “Even if the monopolies on salt and iron represented, at the outset, a useful measure, in the long term they can’t help but be damaging.” Even the need for state revenues was debated. One participant quoted Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius and founder of Daoism, “A country is never as poor as when it seems filled with riches.”

The debate was considered a draw. But Emperor Zhaodi, who ruled for fourteen years but only lived to age twenty-two, continued the monopolies, as did his successor. In 44 b.c., the next emperor, Yuandi, abolished them. Three years later, with the treasury emptied by a third successful western expedition to Sogdiana in Turkistan, he reestablished the monopolies. They continued to be abolished and reestablished regularly according to budgetary needs, usually related to military activities. Toward the end of the first century a.d., a Confucian government minister had them once more abolished, declaring, “Government sale of salt means competing with subjects for profit. These are not measures fit for wise rulers.”

The state salt monopoly disappeared for 600 years. But it was resurrected. During the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt. Aristocrats showed off their salt wealth by the unusual extravagance of serving pure salt at the dinner table, something rarely done in China, and placing it in a lavish, ornate saltcellar. Over the centuries, many popular uprisings bitterly protested the salt monopoly, including an angry mob that took over the city of Xi’an, just north of Sichuan, in 880. And the other great moral and political questions of the great debate on salt and iron—the need for profits, the rights and obligations of nobility, aid to the poor, the importance of a balanced budget, the appropriate tax burden, the risk of anarchy, and the dividing line between rule of law and tyranny—have all remained unresolved issues.

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The Basque History of the World

Chapter One
1.The Basque Myth

The Basques share with the Celts the privilege of indulging in unrivaled extravagance on the subject of themselves. —Miguel de Unamuno quoting Ampère, HISTORY OF FRENCH LITERATURE BEFORE THE TWELFTH CENTURY, 1884

The Basques seem to be a mythical people, almost an imagined people. Their ancient culture is filled with undated legends and customs. Their land itself, a world of red-roofed, whitewashed towns, tough green mountains, rocky crests, a cobalt sea that turns charcoal in stormy weather, a strange language, and big berets, exists on no maps except their own.

Basqueland begins at the Adour River with its mouth at Bayonne-the river that separates the Basques from the French pine forest swampland of Landes-and ends at the Ebro River, whose rich valley separates the dry red Spanish earth of Rioja from Basqueland. Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France. The entire area is only 8,218 square miles, which is slightly smaller than New Hampshire.

Within this small space are seven Basque provinces. Four provinces are in Spain and have Basque and Spanish names: Nafaroa or Navarra, Gipuzkoa or Guipúzcoa, Bizkaia or Vizcaya, and Araba or Alava. Three are in France and have Basque and French names: Lapurdi or Labourd, Benafaroa or Basse Navarre, and Zuberoa or Soule. An old form of Basque nationalist graffiti is "4 + 3 = 1."

As with most everything pertaining to Basques, the provinces are defined by language. There are seven dialects of the Basque language, though there are sub-dialects within some of the provinces.

In the Basque language, which is called Euskera, there is no word for Basque. The only word to identify a member of their group is Eushaldun-Euskera speaker. Their land is called Euskal Herria-the land of Euskera speakers. It is language that defines a Basque.

The Central Mystery Is: Who are the Basques? The early Basques left no written records, and the first accounts of them, two centuries after the Romans arrived in 218 B.C., give the impression that they were already an ancient-or at least not a new-people. Artifacts predating this time that have been found in the area-a few tools, drawings in caves, and the rudiments of ruins-cannot be proved to have been made by Basques, though it is supposed that at least some of them were.

Ample evidence exists that the Basques are a physically distinct group. There is a Basque type with a long straight nose, thick eyebrows, strong chin, and long earlobes. Even today, sitting in a bar in a mountainous river valley town like Tolosa, watching men play mus, the popular card game, one can see a similarity in the faces, despite considerable intermarriage. Personalities, of course, carve very different visages, but over and over again, from behind a hand of cards, the same eyebrows, chin, and nose can be seen. The identical dark navy wool berets so many men wear-each in a slightly different manner-seem to showcase the long Basque ears sticking out on the sides. In past eras, when Spaniards and French were typically fairly small people, Basque men were characteristically larger, thick chested, broad shouldered, and burly. Because these were also characteristics of Cro-Magnons, Basques are often thought to be direct descendants of this man who lived 40,000 years ago.

Less subjective physical evidence of an ancient and distinct group has also surfaced. In the beginning of the twentieth century, it was discovered that all blood was one of three types: A, B, or O. Basques have the highest concentration of type O in the world-more than 50 percent of the population-with an even higher percentage in remote areas where the language is best preserved, such as Soule. Most of the rest are type A. Type B is extremely rare among Basques. With the finding that Irish, Scots, Corsicans, and Cretans also have an unusually high incidence of type O, speculation ran wild that these peoples were somehow related to Basques. But then, in 1937, came the discovery of the rhesus factor, more commonly known as Rh positive or Rh negative. Basques were found to have the highest incidence of Rh negative blood of any people in the world, significantly higher than the rest of Europe, even significantly higher than neighboring regions of France and Spain. Cro-Magnon theorists point out that other places known to have been occupied by Cro-Magnon man, such as the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Canary Islands, also have been found to have a high incidence of Rh negative.

Twenty-seven percent of Basques have O Rh negative blood. Rh negative blood in a pregnant woman can fatally poison a fetus that has positive blood. Since World War II, intervention techniques to save the fetus have been developed, but it is probable that throughout history, the rate of miscarriage and stillborn births among the Basques was extremely high, which may be one of the reasons they remained a small population on a limited amount of land while other populations, especially in Iberia, grew rapidly.

Before Basque blood was studied as a key to their origins, several attempts were made to analyze the structure of Basque skulls. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a researcher reported, "Someone gave me a Basque body and I dissected it and I assert that the head was not built like that of other men."
Studies of Basque skulls in the nineteenth century concluded, depending on whose study is believed, that Basques were either Turks, Tartars, Magyars, Germans, Laplanders, or the descendants of Cro-Magnon man either originating in Basqueland or coming from the Berbers of North Africa.

Or do clothes hold the secret to Basque origins? A twelfth-century writer, Aimeric de Picaud, considered not skulls but skirts, concluding after seeing Basque men in short ones that they were clearly descendants of Scots.
The most useful artifact left behind by the ancient Basques is their language. Linguists find that while the language has adopted foreign words, the grammar has proved resistant to change, so that modern Euskera is thought to be far closer to its ancient form than modern Greek is to ancient Greek. Euskera has extremely complex verbs and twelve cases, few forms of politeness, a limited number of abstractions, a rich vocabulary for natural phenomena, and no prepositions or articles.

Etxea is the word for a house or home. "At home" is etxean. "To the house" is etxera. "From home" is etxetik. Concepts are formed by adding more and more suffixes, which is what is known as an agglutinating language. This agglutinating language only has about 200,000 words, but its vocabulary is greatly extended by almost 200 standard suffixes. In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary was compiled from a data base of 60 million words, but English is a language with an unusually large vocabulary. It is sometimes said that Euskera includes just nouns, verbs, and suffixes, but relatively simple concepts can become words of formidable size. Iparsortalderatu is a verb meaning "to head in a northeasterly direction."

Euskera has often been dismissed as an impossible language. Arturo Campión, a nineteenth-century Basque writer from Navarra, complained that the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defined Euskera as "the Basque language, so confusing and obscure that it can hardly be understood." It is obscure but not especially confusing. The language seems more difficult than it is because it is so unfamiliar, so different from other languages. Its profusion of ks and xs looks intimidating on the page, but the language is largely phonetic with some minor pitfalls, such as a very soft b and an aspirated h as in English, which is difficult for French and Spanish speakers to pronounce. The x is pronounced "ch." Etxea is pronounced "et-CHAY-a." For centuries Spanish speakers made Euskera seem friendlier to them by changing xs to chs as in echea, and ks, which do not exist in Latin languages, to cs, as in Euscera. To English speakers, Basque spellings are often more phonetic than Spanish equivalents. The town the Spanish call Guernica is pronounced the way the Basques write it-Gernika.

The structure of the language-roots and suffixes-offers important clues about Basque origins. The modern words aitzur, meaning "hoe," aizkora, meaning "axe," aizto, meaning "knife," plus various words for digging and cutting, all come from the word haitz or the older aitz, which means "stone." Such etymology seems to indicate a very old language, indeed from the Stone Age. Even though the language has acquired newer words, notably Latin from the Romans and the Church, and Spanish, such words are used in a manner unique to this ancestral language. Ezpata, like the Spanish word espada, means "sword." But ezpatakada means "the blow from a sword," ezpatajoka means "fencing," and espatadantzari is a "sword dancer."

Though numerous attempts have been made, no one has ever found a linguistic relative of Euskera. It is an orphan language that does not even belong to the Indo-European family of languages. This is a remarkable fact because once the Indo-Europeans began their Bronze Age sweep from the Asian subcontinent across Europe, virtually no group, no matter how isolated, was left untouched. Even Celtic is Indo-European. Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are the only other living European languages that are not related to the Indo-European group. Inevitably there have been theories linking Finnish and Euskera or Hungarian and Euskera. Did the Basques immigrate from Lapland? Hungarian, it has been pointed out, is also an agglutinating language. But no other connection has been found between the Basque language and its fellow agglutinators.

A brief attempt to tie the Basques to the Picts, ancient occupants of Britain who spoke a language thought to be pre-Indo-European, fell apart when it was discovered the Picts weren't non-Indo-European at all, but were Celtic.
If, as appears to be the case, the Basque language predates the Indo-European invasion, if it is an early or even pre-Bronze Age tongue, it is very likely the oldest living European language.

If Euskera is the oldest living European language, are Basques the oldest European culture? For centuries that question has driven both Basques and non-Basques on the quest to find the Basque origin. Miguel de Unamuno, one of the best-known Basque writers, devoted his earliest work, written in 1884 when he was still a student, to the question. "I am Basque," he began, "and so I arrive with suspicion and caution at this little and poorly garnered subject."

As Unamuno pointed out, and this is still true today, many researchers have not hesitated to employ a liberal dose of imagination. One theory not only has Adam and Eve speaking Euskera but has the language predating their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The name Eve, according to this theory, comes from ezbai, "no-yes" in Euskera. The walls of Jericho crumbled, it was also discovered, when trumpets blasted a Basque hymn.

The vagaries of fact and fiction were encouraged by the fact that the Basques were so late to document their language. The first book entirely in Euskera was not published until 1545. No Basques had attempted to study their own history or origins until the sixteenth-century Guipúzcoan Esteban de Garibay. Spanish historians of the time had already claimed that Iberia was populated by descendants of Tubal, Noah's grandson, who went to Iberia thirty-five years after the Flood subsided. Garibay observed that Basque place-names bore a resemblance to those in Armenia where the ark landed, and therefore it was specifically the Basques who descended from Tubal. Was not Mount Gorbeya in southern Vizcaya named after Mount Gordeya in Armenia? Garibay traced Euskera to the Tower of Babel.

In 1729, when Manuel de Larramendi wrote the first book of Basque grammar ever published, he asserted that Euskera was one of seventy-five languages to have developed out of the confusion at the Tower of Babel. According to Juan Bautista de Erro, whose The Primitive World or a Philosophical Examination of Antiquity and Culture of the Basque Nation was published in Madrid in 1815, Euskera is the world's oldest language, having been devised by God as the language of Adam's Paradise, preserved in the Tower of Babel, surviving the Flood because Noah spoke the language, and brought to present-day Basque country by Tubal.

In one popular legend, the first Basque was Aïtor, one of a few remarkable men who survived the Flood without Noah's ark, by leaping from stone to stone. However, Aïtor, still recognized by some as the father of all Basques, was invented in 1848 by the French Basque writer Augustin Chaho. After Chaho's article on Aïtor was translated into Spanish in 1878, the legend grew and became a mainstay of Basque culture. Some who said Aïtor was mere fiction went on to hypothesize that the real father of all Basques was Tubal.

Since then, links have been conjectured with languages of the Caucasus, Africa, Siberia, and Japan. One nineteenth-century researcher concluded that Basques were a Celtic tribe, another that they were Etruscans. And inevitably it has been discovered that the Basques, like so many other peoples, were actually the lost thirteenth tribe of Israel. Just as inescapably, others have concluded that the Basques are, in reality, the survivors of Atlantis.

A case for the Basques really being Jews was carefully made by a French clergyman, the abbot J. Espagnolle, in a 1900 book titled L'Origine des Basques (The Origin of the Basques). For this theory to work, the reader first had to realize that the people of ancient Sparta were Jewish. To support this claim, Espagnolle quotes a historian of ancient Greece who wrote, "Love of money is a Spartan characteristic." If this was not proof enough, he also argues that Sparta, like Judea, had a lack of artisans. The wearing of hats and respect for elders were among further evidence offered. From there, it was simply a matter of asserting, as ancient Greek historians had, he said, that the Spartans colonized northern Spain. And of course these Spartan colonists who later became Basques were Jewish.

With issues of nationhood at stake, such seemingly desperate hypotheses may not be devoid of political motives. "Indigenous" is a powerful notion to both the French and Spanish states. Both define their history as the struggle of their people, the rightful indigenous occupants, to defend their land against the Moors, invaders from another place, of another race, and of another religion. In Europe, this heroic struggle has long been an essential underpinning of both nationalism and racism. The idea that Basques were in their European mountains, speaking their own indigenous European language, long before the French and the Spanish, is disturbing to French and Spanish nationalists. Unless the Basques can be shown to be from somewhere else, the Spanish and French are transformed into the Moorish role-outside invaders imposing an alien culture. From the sixteenth century on, historians receiving government salaries in Madrid wrote histories that deliberately minimized the possibility of indigenous Basques.

But the Basques like the idea, which most evidence supports, that they are the original Europeans, predating all others. If true, it must have been an isolating experience, belonging to this ancient people whose culture had little in common with any of its neighbors. It was written over and over in the records of those who observed the Basques that they spoke a strange language that kept them apart from others. But it is also what kept them together as a people, uniting them to withstand Europe's great invasions.

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