Basque culture and language have an ancestral relationship with the apple, as evidenced by the numerous place names and surnames that contain the root “sagar”. This link is well documented from the 9th century onwards, but what do we know about earlier times?
By now we know that the domestic apple, as we know it today, comes mainly from the Malus Sieversii of Central Asia, and that it also has a percentage of the DNA of the European wild apple, the Malus Sylvestris.
It is quite accepted that the cultivation of the apple spread in the Iberian Peninsula with the arrival of the Romans and later the Arabs, as well as other crops such as wheat or vines. However, there is evidence and theories that relate the Basques to the apple before the arrival of the Romans, and long before the Arabs.
The first evidence of the existence of the apple in the Basque Country are the archaeological remains found in some sites such as Aizpea (Aribe, Navarra, 5580-5430 BC) or Lumentxa (Lekeitio, Bizkaia, 4220-3710 BC). In these sites, remains of European wild apples (Malus Sylvestris) have been found, confirming that the wild apple was already collected for consumption in the Neolithic Age.
The remains of Aizpea, where the skeleton of a woman from 8000 years ago was also found, are among the oldest along with those of Gwoździec (Poland, 5600-5300 BC). Crab apples have also been found in Devon (England, 3800-3700 BC), Oldenburg (Germany, 3200 BC), and Nørre Sandegård (Denmark, 2800-2300 BC).
It so happens that in many cases the apples had been manipulated, halving and calcining them, probably to improve their flavor and facilitate their conservation.
Those from Aizpea are some of the oldest evidences of Europe showing that crab apples were harvested and consumed long before the apple was domesticated and the techniques of vegetative reproduction or grafting were known. Remains of sorb apples (service tree) have also been found in some of the aforementioned sites.
PRE-ROMAN PLACE NAMES
In the Basque Country there are abundant place names that contain the word “sagar” (apple), “sagasti” (apple orchard), “sagarmin” (wild apple) or “tolare” (press), among others. They constitute another important proof of the existence of apple trees and their probable use for cider for a long time. It is about hundreds of surnames and place names, documented at least since the 11th century.
The fact that there are documented surnames with the root “sagar” from the beginning of the eleventh century suggests without a doubt that the relationship with this fruit is much earlier. Even more so considering that these references appear as soon as written documents begin to proliferate.
Some have attributed the etymological origin of the word “sagarra” to the Arabic word “shajara”, which means tree. Although in Euskara, as in most languages, there are many loans from other languages such as Latin or Arabic, this is still a difficult theory to prove.
Others claim that “sagar” comes from the Latin “saccarum”, which means “sweet”. But the most plausible theory is that the word sagar is of proto-Basque origin, prior to the arrival of Romans and Arabs.
The place names that contain the word “sagar” extend beyond the current territory of the Basques, which gives us a clue as to their antiquity. These place names are frequently considered pre-Roman, and in other cases it is possible that they are due to Midel Age repopulations (11th century).
BASQUE OR IBERIAN?
The most striking case is that of the Segarra place name, which is found in different parts of Catalonia, Alicante, and Aragon. According to some scholars (Joan Corominas, Emilio Nieto), this pre-Roman place name would come from the Basque-Iberian word “sagarra”, which means apple. However, this theory has been disputed (Albert Turull, Xaverio Ballester) and there are those who attribute its origin strictly to the Iberian language.
This place name is found in various variants (Segarra, Segarreta, Segarró, Sagarras) and has also given rise to numerous surnames. The most curious thing of all is that, in addition, this place name has been recorded very early:
- IBERIAN COIN: The first written record is found on an Iberian coin dated to the third century BC. The reverse has an inscription in the Iberian alphabet where it reads «śikaŕa» (pronounced “sigara”), a possible origin of the current place name of Segarra.
- ROMAN GRAVE: In the municipality of Prats del Rei (La Segarra, Catalonia) several Roman tombstones were found dating from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. In two of them there is a reference to the “Municipium Sigarrensis”, which would later give rise to the place-name of La Segarra.
- PTOLEMY: In his “Geography” (2,6,63) Ptolemy speaks of the Lacetan village of Sígarra (2nd century AD).
As I have already mentioned, the Basque etymological origin of “Segarra” has been questioned by many scholars, despite its phonetic resemblance to the word “sagarra”. In summary, there are three theories:
- It is a place name of Basque origin.
- It is a place-name of Iberian origin but it comes from a loan from the Proto-Basque language
- It is a strictly Iberian place name.
If the theory of the Basque origin is true, it would be the first registered place name in history with the Basque root “sagar”.