Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Basques Rewriting History

When we imagine the European explorers coming over to the New World on their ships and meeting face to face with the natives, we more or less think about the late 1500s or early 1600s.  However, new evidence has been unveiled which proves that there were Europeans on the continent over a hundred years earlier by, drumroll please, the Basques!  This history-book changing info has been brought to light by an archeological team in a town near Toronto who unearthed a piece of rod iron from a Native village.

This month, a documentary called The Curse of the Ax premiered on Canadaian TV detailing this amazing find.  The archeological team found an old Huron village called Mantle.  With digital reconstruction they were able to learn that the village contained more than 90 longhouses and 3 exterior protective walls called palisades, all of which would require somewhere in the  midst of 60,000 trees worth of lumber.  With many mouths to feed (about 2,000), they also planted corn so far that their farming grounds would cover the now metropolitan area of the city itself!

An exciting dig already with about 200,000 native artifacts, when they found a piece of iron it got a shift into mega-exciting.  Iron was not made in the Americas at that time, so it had to have been from Europe.  Seeing as the village was said to have been active before the first supposed European-Native contact, the archeologists were surprised but also very excited about the possiblity of having found the oldest artifact in Canada.  Calling in for support, the team contacted a forensic archeologist who along with the help of some high-powered X-ray machines was able to figure out that the iron was rod iron and that it even had a special marking in it.  Like a brand, the iron workers at the time would carve out their own mark on their pieces.

This clue took them all the way to the Basque Country to search out the confirmation of the marking.  Landing in Hondarribia, the coastal beautiful coastal town that was well-known for their whaling skills, the archeologist headed to a small mountain village called Zelain to look at historical pieces of iron work from the 16th century up close.  Sure enough, she found the same marking on an axe there that was on the piece of iron found at the interior Canadian site!

It has been thought for a long time that the Basques reached the New World before it was officially discovered by Columbus in 1492, but since the language was not written at that time, no records exist.  After clearning out their hunting grounds of whales they had to move on to different parts of the sea.  They are known to have ventured all the way to Canada's Newfoundland area where artifacts have been found of them setting up villages during the whaling season.  There have been 16 of these fishing camps found along the Canadian coast, the oldest being in Labrador.  It has also been said that the Basques and Natives fostered a line of communication between them and that according to some historical studies, the Basques would leave a few cabin boys with the Natives during the off-season to become fluent in the local tongue for when they came back for the next whaling round.

Whaling importance is seen on this wall in Hondarribia
It seems that some of the first Basque whalers left behind an axe on one occasion when they shipped out and the Natives, who came around after they had abandoned the temporary housing areas, found the axe and saved it.  This foreign metal was traded as a valuable piece and eventually reached the inland of Canada - the Mantle village.  The archeological team along with the Basques were able to even pinpoint a couple of ships that left Euskal Herria heading towards nowday Canada that the axe probably was on.

Since trading between Europeans and Natives didn't really start until the end of the 16th century, this new information is something that is going to have to be taken into account when writing history books.  Here, the Canadians have proof that Europeans set foot on an area of their country that supposedly hadn't seen someone from across the pond for another hundred years!  What an amazing discovery.

Seeing as I don't get Canadian TV over here, I downloaded the hour and a half documentary and loved it!  I  highly recommend it if you get the chance.  I have included a little video clip that gives you a quick summary of it, but the real thing is much better!  It was an entertaining process to watch but also incredible to watch history changing before my eyes!


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