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As Barandiaran pointed out, "the distribution of the human settlements of a country is influenced by its hydrographic network and, taking that further, we could argue that the manifestations of human life on the land are mirrored by the distribution of the means of livelihood, or in other words, on the geography of basic necessities. It has quite rightly been said, therefore, that any human settlement is the amalgamation of a little humanity, a little land and a little water".

Habitation is one of the manifestations of human activity that is most closely linked to geographical phenomena, but housing is a complex aspect, where not only geographical, but also social and historical factors come into play[1].

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Latitudinal settlement patterns

Basically, two types of settlements, one dispersed with more or less isolated homes and the other concentrated, are to be found in the Basque Country as a whole. In the second case, there are no isolated houses outside the concentration. This pattern also has a north-south gradient. The houses are dispersed throughout the territory in the northernmost area, on the Atlantic side of the watershed. In other words, the population is disperse and the houses are scattered throughout the territory in northern Álava, Montaña of Navarre, the whole of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, as well as in Labourd, Lower Navarre and Zuberoa.

In a large part of Álava —Llanada, Valle de Kuartango and Montaña Alavesa—, in other words, in the middle part, along with the sub-Pyrenees and mid-Navarre, the villages are small groups of houses close together, thus offering a panorama that is both concentrated and disperse.

In the southernmost strip —Rioja Alavesa and Ribera of Navarre—, the population is mainly concentrated into large towns that are far apart. It is the grouped housing system[2].

Historical and geographical factors

The population dispersion in the Atlantic area fundamentally depends on geographical factors. The sunny slopes, the proximity of rivers and springs, the nearness of the natural communication routes between the valleys, the confluence of rivers and greater ease of farming or shepherding or both things simultaneously, condition the location of rural houses. Each homestead was usually in the centre of its land and that usually helped to maintain the disseminated habitation system[3].

On the Mediterranean side of the watershed, particularly in the districts closest to the River Ebro, the geographical factors have had hardly any influence on each of the specific houses, but rather the set of them, in other words, the whole town or village, are impacted by those factors as a unit.

On the Atlantic side of the watershed, each family and, consequently, each house behaves as a whole, independently from the other houses, and adapts to the physical environment as an approach that tends to acquire the maximum degree of social autonomy and economic self-sufficiency. Therefore, each house acts as if it were a whole settlement in this system. The term baserria (baso = forest + herria = village), used to identify each of these isolated houses in large areas of the Basque Country, rather suggests this.

Dispersed settlements

The so-called Basque homestead always has been the typical example of dispersion.

The homestead has a clear calling to be isolated and never shares its side walls with other neighbouring dwellings, nor does it abide by street alignments, nor form squares, nor organised areas of collective use. However, total dispersion is not the rule of settlement. Only, in some minority cases, does the homestead appear standing alone in the fields surrounded by its land in large estates. On the other hand, it is more frequently found associated in hamlets known as auzo, neighbourhood or brotherhood, forming groups of five or ten dwellings that share the ownership of a shall chapel and which are also linked by a set of customary rules that impose cooperation and mutual assistance obligations[4].

Historical background

We have relied on Alberto Santana when considering the origin of the homesteads, and even though this author focuses on those of Gipuzkoa, that data that he provides can be extended to most of the northern territory of the Basque Country. According to Santana, the meaning of "homestead" is ambiguous as it refers to both the economic institution and the building of the dwelling that houses it. If the homestead is interpreted in its broadest economic sense, in other words, as the basic family production cell in a mountain farming society, it can then be said to be an institution of medieval origin that emerged between the 12th and 13th centuries. If, on the other hand, homestead is taken to be a certain type of building, in other words, a architectural model with a specific identity, we would then be talking about a regional formula of a modern farmstead that is no older than half a millennium; an age that none of the rural buildings to be found today in Gipuzkoa would exceed.

Establishing new homesteads

There are several authors who have considered the process where new houses are created using the existing one. In general, the focus has been on the homestead.

As has been considered in an earlier section, the old folds were the origin of many homesteads, each one of which has been at some time the main house which led to others being established.

Barandiaran described how a homestead would turn what had been a hut for livestock in a higher area into a dwelling. Over time, the same would occur with the hut that had been turned into a house and the hut that it had, in turn, higher up the hillside. The very names of the houses preserve traces of that evolution. Thus, in Sara (L) Xuritegia is the main house andy Xuritegiko borda is the house deriving from the former, which is a farmstead, and in turn, it has a pastoral farm known as Xuritegiko bordako ardiborda.

Concentrated settlements


The concentration of houses in the area adjacent to the River Ebro generally takes the form of a walled city and with fortifications. Along with the lack of disperse houses outside the wall, that fact suggests that the concentration was for defence reasons. Moreover, this is the area of the country where historians focus their attention on most events from the past[5].

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Middle Ages, there were many settlements of grouped houses protected by walls and towers in the southern area, a circumstance inherited from earlier times where there was a need for the inhabitants to defend themselves against raids. That meant that the settlement had to be concentrated in places that were easier to defend and be fortified.

In the northern area, particularly along the Cantabrian coast, due to its specific geographical situation, there was not such a pressing need for defence and the population continued to adapt to the land. However, over time, at the end of the Middle Ages, groups of houses also began to form there and created numerous charter towns[6].

It was around the 12th century when a trend began to concentrate the population which led to those towns. In general, the founding of charter towns and cities began first in Navarre and Álava (12th century) and then in Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia (13th century).

Growth of the current settlements

From the second half of the 19th century and particularly during the 20th century, there was a spectacular concentration phenomenon around many of those urban centres created in the Middle Ages. The movement of the population then reversed the trend in medieval times: first in the Atlantic area (Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa) and subsequently on the Mediterranean side of the watershed (Álava and Navarre). This concentration was fundamentally due to industrialisation and the ensuing new ways of life.

In those housing agglomerations, the house even lost its common name; blocks, flats and apartments are the names use to refer to the dwelling and its location[7].

  1. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Los establecimientos humanos en el Pirineo vasco” in Revista de la Academia de Ciencias Exactas XVI (1932) pp. 38-62 and in Obras Completas. Volume V. Bilbao, 1974, pp. 363-387. The majority of ideas set out in this chapter come from this article and from: Ander MANTEROLA. “Etxea” in Euskaldunak. Tomo III. Bilbao: 1980, pp. 537-600
  2. Ibidem, p. 541.
  3. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “De Etnología Vasca. Sistemas de poblado y ambiente natural” in Yakintza, I (1933) p. 307
  4. Alberto SANTANA. “Los caseríos vizcaínos” in Narria. Núm. 61-62 (1993) pp. 3-4.
  5. Ander MANTEROLA. “Etxea” in Euskaldunak. Volume III. Bilbao: 1980, p. 541.
  6. José Miguel de BARANDIARAN. “Los establecimientos humanos en el Pirineo vasco” in Revista de la Academia de Ciencias Exactas XVI (1932) pp. 38-62.
  7. Ander MANTEROLA. “Etxea” in Euskaldunak. Volume III. Bilbao: 1980, pp. 544-545.