“Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire”
(John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1950)
When does history become legend and myth? What is real and factual and what is imagined and fictional in History? If History as the discipline to analyze the past means time—chronological and historical time—and memory is essentially the mechanism to remember or not-forget it, then what role do written and oral memory play in our understanding of history?
What happens when the transfer of our knowledge and collective memory get lost and buried in the mists of time, waiting to be awaked? How can we make sense of our history when some of the oldest vestiges of our common past are considered unreliable and non-scientific sources by Western academic standards?
With the development of History as a modern academic discipline during the 19th century in Western Europe, it was generally agreed that the events and stories narrated, for instance, in the Bible, in the Ancient Greek literature, and in many of the Medieval chronicles never had happened. These are, for example, the stories of the biblical “cities of the plain,” which included Sodom and Gomorrah, the Homeric’s city of Troy in Ancient Greece, and Monmouth’s story about the population of Ireland by the “Basclenses”—the ancient Basques, according to author Julio César Santoyo. That is to say, Sodom and Gomorrah, Troy and its famous Trojan War and the romantic story between Paris and Helen had never existed, and obviously Ireland’s current inhabitants had nothing to do with the Basclenses, whoever they might be. These historical sources were defined as literary, epic, and mythical manuscripts that described supposedly factual events that had taken place several hundred years before recording them. Consequently, these documents and other many similar ones were thought to be untruthful and unreliable sources of history.
However, some historians and archaeologists believed that there might be some truth to these myths and legends, though they did not faithfully represent actual events. There was also some degree of attraction of finding something it was thought to be lost forever or discovering some scientific evidence that could question some historical unadulterated truth it was thought to be unchallengeable. In this regard, in the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann, following Homer’s geographical descriptions, discovered some ruins that were identified with Homer’s Troy (2,500 BC) in the northwest of Anatolia (Turkey). The mythological city where a war took place between the Trojans and the Achaeans as described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (900-800 BC) had actually existed.
The Hebrew Bible (200 BC) mentions how Yahweh punished and destroyed by fire and brimstone the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their unrepentant sins. In the 1960s, the Early Bronze Age (3,200-1,950 BC) sites Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, located nearby the Dead Sea in Jordan, were identified as the possible places for Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively. Although there is no scientific consensus on the cities’ real location, most historians do not question their existence. According to geologists their destruction could have been most likely caused by an earthquake as the settlements were suddenly abandoned.
The History of the Kings of Britain (ca 1136) is a compilation of various earlier books, being the oldest from the 6th century, and which were expanded by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It recounts the history of Britain from its foundation by Trojan War exile Brutus, and it includes a detailed chronology of legendary kings of Britain. In the Chapter XII of the Book III, Monmouth recounts the story between the King Gurguit Barbtruc and Partholoim (or Partholón) and his people settlement (2,000 BC) in today´s Ireland:
“When Gurguit Barbtruc was returning home via the Orkney Islands after his victory, he came upon thirty ships full of men and women. Gurguit asked what they were doing there. Their leader, whose name was Partholoim, went up to Gurguit, did obeisance to him and asked for his pardon and peace. Partholoim then described how he had been expelled from certain regions in Spain and how he was now cruising in those waters in search of a land where he might settle. When Gurguit Barbtruc learned that these men came from Spain and were called Basclenses, and when he understood just what they wanted of him, he ordered his representatives to go with them to the island of Ireland, which at that time was a completely uninhabited desert. He granted the island to them. They have increased and multiplied there and they still hold the island today.”
Could the Basclenses be identified with today’s Basques? Do the Irish and the Basque share a common origin? Despite the fact that the historicity of many of the events described in historical sources including The History of the Kings of Britain are still subject to heated debate, the passage of time has also given scientists the opportunity to develop new tools to unearth the past.
The Genographic Project Basque Map: “Basque genetic uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula some 7,000 years ago” (Map source: The Genographic Project, National Geography, March 2012)
Here, for instance, is The Genographic Project, which was launched in 2005. The project aims at carrying out research on Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA with the goal of tracing genes to reconstruct past human mobility in order to understand how our ancestors populated the planet. Back in 2010, Brendan Loftus’ research team have sequenced the first entire genome of an Irish person. By comparing common similarities between the Irish and the Basques, the genetic evidence shows that “The Irish and Basques share by far the highest incidence of the [Y-DNA] R1b gene in Europe, which has a frequency of over 90% in Basque country and almost 100% along parts of Ireland’s western seaboard.” In other words, “both, the Irish and the British are Basques.” According to scientist Stephen Oppenheimer, the ancestors of current Basques had settled in this part of northwestern Europe at the end of the last Ice Age (15,000-7,500 BC) by just walking at the time when the sea levels were low. Evidence also suggests that there is a genetic continuity between contemporary Basques and the population that lived in the same region at least for the last 8,000 years.
Could these findings corroborate Monmouth’s story about the Basclenses migrating from Iberia to ancient Ireland? What do you think?