Ancient Symbols in the New World, Part II
Editor's Note: Our guest writer Byron Augustin is a retired university professor who lives in Valladolid. Every once in awhile, he indulges his interest in local history and investigates and writes about something that has caught his eye. This is Part II of a fascinating article about a symbol that he started seeing on his trips around Yucatan. He started investigating its origin, and this three-part series is the result of his explorations. You can read Part I here.
The Mysterious Basques
In Part One of this series, we set about the task of determining the origin of the ancient symbols which we have found scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula, and which we know now is called Basque lauburu. We determined that this would require a more thorough knowledge and better understanding of the Basque people and their history. Many anthropologists and archaeologists have suggested that the Basques are older than all other European cultures. The Basques themselves have a saying that illustrates that opinion, “Before God was God and boulders were boulders, Basques were Basques.” Yet, the Basques are not well known.
I believe a number of factors contribute to the lack of familiarity with the Basques. They have lived in isolation for several millennia. Their homeland is in a remote area of southwestern France and northeastern Spain, separated by the rugged Pyrenees Mountains. Seven provinces, three in France and four in Spain, comprise the Basque region. The area covers an estimated 8,125 square miles (21,043 sq. km.), which is about the size of the state of New Jersey, and contains approximately three million people.
A majority of Basques refer to the region as Euskal Herria, in their official language, Euskera. Euskera is considered the oldest and most complicated language in Europe and is not related to any other European language. In fact, the language helped contribute to the isolation of the Basques because so few people knew or understood it. Even if you understood Euskera, Basques did not create a lot of written documents or books. The first book published entirely in Euskera was printed in 1545. From a social interaction standpoint, the Basques hold their cards close to the chest and are a bit skeptical about outsiders.
Some researchers have suggested that the Basques are ancestors of Cro-Magnon man who may have occupied the area up to 40,000 years ago. Mark Kuriansky, in his delightful book, , lists a litany of possibilities. So-called experts in the 19th century studied Basque skulls and professed that the Basques were either Turks, Tartars, Magyars, Germans, Laplanders, or the Berbers of North Africa. Another writer who had observed Basque men in skirts postulated that they were clearly descendants of Scots. An additional theory suggested Adam and Eve spoke Euskera, and Basque historian Esteban de Garibay wrote that Basques were descendants of Tubal, Noah’s grandson. He also traced the Basque language to the Tower of Babel. Other researchers offered the opinion that the Basques were a Celtic tribe or Etruscans. In 1900, J. Espagnolle, a French cleric, was sure the Basques were Jews who were actually the lost tribe of Israel. Ultimately, some would suggest that Basques were survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis or aliens from outer space. Both locations are a long way from Mérida, so where does that leave us? Beam me up, Scotty!
Just recently, on September 15, 2015, it would seem that the question of Basque origin was finally answered. A team of researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden completed a scientific study of eight Stone Age human skeletons discovered in El Portalón Cave, near the Basque Country and close to the Spanish provincial borders of Burgos and Álava. The remains are believed to be between 3,500 to 5,500 years old. DNA analysis indicates these skeletons have the strongest comparison to modern-day Basques, more than any other group in Europe. The research suggests that Basques descend from a group of farmers who mixed with local hunters and gathers. What appears to make them different is their isolation for several millennia from other European groups and their success, for the most part, at keeping invading armies outside their borders.
A small population, isolated for a long period of time, may have lead to a certain amount of inbreeding. Basques seldom married outside their homeland. This had a very significant effect on blood type, which is a defining characteristic for Basques. More than 50 percent of Basques have Type O blood, the highest concentration of Type O in the world. Basques also have the highest incidence of Rh-negative factor blood in the world. Pregnant women with Rh-negative blood and carrying a developing fetus with positive blood historically contributed to high numbers of miscarriages and stillborn births. This may be one of the more important explanations why the Basque population growth rates were among the lowest in Europe.
There She Blows
Basque society continued to mature and by the Middle Ages, the Basques were profitably engaged in farming, mining, timber harvesting, iron manufacturing, whaling and fishing. During the 15th century, the Basques were known throughout Europe for their iron working skills. Their foundries produced agricultural instruments, shipbuilding materials, and weapons. In fact, estimates suggest that one-third of Basque iron production was used for ship construction, one-third for agricultural instruments and weapons, and one-third for export. Although the foundries were originally located close to the iron mines, they were gradually moved to river valleys near the coast, to utilize waterpower for more efficient production. Farming and livestock practices produced the food for an increasingly urban society, and timber cutting supplied lumber for shipbuilding. Whaling and fishing produced large profits for risk-taking Basque investors.
The Basques honed their sailing skills, first in the Bay of Biscay and later in the North Atlantic, fishing for cod and hunting whales. The Basque are credited with the invention of the rudder in Europe in the 12th century. Recently, Dr. Michael Barkam uncovered the oldest civil document written in Canada. Written and signed on May 15, 1563, the document is the original will of a Basque sailor named Domingo de Luca. In the will, de Luca requested to be buried in the cemetery of Placentia, Newfoundland, “in the place where those who die are usually taken.” The Canadian Park Service claims to have documents proving that Basques were in North America in 1517. Did the Basques arrive in North America before the first trip of Christopher Columbus to the New World? I believe that archaeological evidence will prove that fact in the next few years.
Basques and Christopher Columbus
It is impossible to overestimate the link between Basque shipbuilding and sailing in the conquest of the Americas. These activities positioned the Basques for a dominating role in the discovery and development of New World colonies. It begins with the journey of Christopher Columbus in 1492, with the Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta. The Santa Maria was built in a Basque shipyard and owned by Juan de la Cosa, a Basque. In addition, nine Basque sailors were aboard the Santa Maria, six sailed on the Niña, and two were part of the crew on the Pinta.
On December 25, 1492, the Santa Maria shipwrecked off the coast of present day Haiti. Crews from all three ships salvaged the wood from the Santa Maria and built the first Spanish-American settlement in the New World. The settlement was named La Navidad, marking the date of the wreck on Christmas Day. Diego de Arana, a Basque, was placed in command. Thirty-nine additional crewmembers remained in La Navidad, while Columbus and the rest of the explorers returned to Spain.
When Columbus returned to La Navidad on his second trip, he discovered La Navidad in ashes and all 39 who had remained behind were dead. Columbus made two more trips to the New World and on his final trip encountered Maya traders off the coast of Honduras. Columbus confiscated a large shipment of cargo, including fine cotton, from the Maya canoe. This was the initial sign for the Maya that bad “mojo” was on its way.
Basques in South America
In 1498, Juan de la Cosa, the Basque owner of the Santa Maria, was the first European to see South America. One year later he discovered Venezuela. In 1502, Basque merchant, Juan de Vergara, established the first colony on the South American continent and named it Santa Cruz, in present day Columbia. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, which opened the possibilities of a pathway to the enormous gold and silver in the Inca Empire and beyond. Several Basques accompanied Balboa, including Pedro de Arbolancha, one of the future founders of Panama City, and its first alderman.
Basques Come to Yucatan
Finally, in 1517, there happened the event that would open Mexico to the conquistadors, including a large number of Basques. Francisco de Córdoba led a three-ship exploration from Cuba across the Yucatan channel to the Yucatan Peninsula. Lopez Ochoa Cayzedo, a Basque, owned two of the three ships and other Basque sailors were included in the group. Their first stop was at Isla Mujeres. Córdoba gave the island its name, taken from the numerous clay images of women believed to have been associated with the legendary Maya goddess, Ixchel. There was a stone temple on the southern end of the island that the explorers thought was a temple dedicated to Ixchel. Some gold, silver and clay statues were discovered in and near the temple. Of course, the sight of gold was exactly what the expedition was hoping to find.
Leaving Isla Mujeres, Córdoba sailed north to Cape Catoche where he had an unpleasant encounter with Maya warriors from Ecab, now called Boca Iglesias. The Spanish could see tall, stone pyramids rising above the jungle and called the site, “Great Cairo.” The next day, the explorers were invited to visit the settlement of Ecab. It was a planned ambush, but thanks to superior weapons, crossbows and muskets, the group escaped with only 15 injuries and two deaths.
Córdoba’s fleet rounded Cape Catoche and entered the Gulf of Mexico. They sailed along the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula,noting more sites with stone pyramids. They stopped in present day Campeche for water but received an unfriendly welcome. Desperate for fresh water, they moved on to Champotón, a significant Chantal Maya trading port. When the Spaniards tried to collect fresh water for their return trip to Cuba, Maya warriors attacked them, outnumbering the Spanish by an estimate of more than two hundred to one. The result was devastating. Fifty men were killed, five died later and two were captured. Córdoba was hit by at least a dozen arrows and died ten days after his return to Cuba. As Francisco Montejo would discover later, the Maya were going to be formidable enemies to Spanish colonization.
Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now
The survivors, however, talked of rumors of riches that were up for grabs in the interior of this newly discovered land. There was no stopping the onslaught now. Hernan Cortéz, with the aid of a large number of Basque conquistadors and sailors, toppled the Aztec Empire. Francisco Pizarro gained control of the Inca Empire and Latin America was opened for exploitation.
No group was better positioned to lead the exploitation then the Basques. Between 1520 and 1580, eighty percent of the ships making voyages between Spain and the new colonies in the Americas were either Basque-manned and/or owned by Basque interests. Between 1580 and 1610, fifty percent of ships and commerce were controlled by Basques engaged in New World Trade. William O. Douglass, the elder statesman of Basque studies at the University of Nevada-Reno, quoted in one of his books, “The Basque area was the nursery for Spanish seamen, which supplied most of the manpower on the American run.”
Basque domination was so complete, that of 47 ships built in Spain between 1615 and 1682, all were built in Basque shipyards. In addition, many of the administrators, officers, and crew were also Basque. Why do we see so few notations of the Basque role in the Age of Discovery? The answer is simple! Researchers and writers considered the Basques to be Spaniards, because they lived in Spain and not in an independent Basque nation. Ask a Basque if they are a Spaniard first and a Basque second and a large majority will reply, “We have always been Basques first and Spaniards second.” By the way, it seems that Yucatecans feel the same way about their relationship to Mexico!
The best example of this lack of respect and recognition can be found in the story of Basque navigator, Juan Elcano. Ask most schoolchildren who was the first man to sail around the world, and they will almost certainly reply, “Ferdinand Magellan.” Magellan started a voyage to circumnavigate the globe, but he did not finish. Magellan organized a fleet of five ships, all built in Basque shipyards. His crew was composed of 265 members, 36 of whome were Basques, including the captains of three of the ships. Three of the five ships made it to the Philippines after losing two in the dangerous waters off Cape Horn. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and the natives refused to return his body even after a significant bribe was offered. No one knows what happened to his body, but it did not sail around the world.
Juan Eclano assumed command of the Victoria and planned the return trip to Spain. One more ship was lost and only the Victoria, which Eclano commanded, made it home. The ship had covered an estimated 42,000 miles. There were only eighteen survivors, including Eclano, and three of them were Basques. David Goodman, a naval historian calls Eclano’s accomplishment, “The most outstanding feat in the history of navigation.” Do you see Eclano’s name in many textbooks? I rest my case.
Basques Leave Their Mark
Other than Spaniards, more Basques immigrated to the Yucatan Peninsula during the remarkable era of the first two hundred years of colonization than any other group, with the exception of immigrants from the Canary Islands. They were dominant in commercial businesses, import-export trade, the military, the church, and cattle ranching.
Basques like Lorenzo de Evia, who founded Hacienda Uxmal, received large land grants from the Spanish monarchy for their services to the throne. Other Basques used profits from investments and their professional occupations to purchase large blocks of land for ranching. They also built fine colonial houses in Merida, Valladolid, and other early colonial cities.
It was these early Basque immigrants who adorned their door lentils and hacienda gateposts with their beloved lauburus. Many of these symbols can be attributed to the first wave of Basque immigrants or later arrivals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the symbols have survived for three centuries, a remarkable testimony to the cultural pride and unity of the Basque people. However, equally important was the answer to a question that had plagued me for more than a year…what did these symbols represent?
In Part III of this series, we will look at the meaning of the Basque lauburu, where you can find them on the Yucatan Peninsula, and some of our favorite Basques who have shaped the history of the Yucatan, Mexico, Latin America and the world.