Iberian Ethnicity

From Gibraltar to the Pyrenees

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the Iberian Peninsula region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Spanish, Portuguese, Hispanic

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

Iberian Peninsula Ethnicity

Separated from the rest of continental Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains, the Iberian Peninsula lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Gibraltar, at the peninsula’s southern tip, is just a little over nine miles from the north coast of Africa. This proximity would play a major part in the history and identity of Spain and Portugal.

People of Prehistoric Iberia

The Iberian Peninsula has been inhabited for more than a million years, from the Paleolithic Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals to modern Homo sapiens. A number of Iberian civilizations had developed by the Bronze Age and were trading with other Mediterranean communities. Celtic tribes arrived from central Europe and settled in the northern and western parts of the peninsula, intermixing with the local populations. Phoenician colonies (later controlled by the powerful Carthaginians) dotted the Mediterranean coast. The Greeks named the region “Iberia,” after the Ebro River.

Romanization

The Carthaginians were the naval superpower of their day, controlling most of the maritime trade in the western Mediterranean. They ran afoul of the growing Roman Empire in the 3rd century B.C., however. Local disputes between city-states in Sicily escalated into a broader conflict between the two empires, triggering the Punic Wars (264 B.C. to 146 B.C.).

Iberia was a major source of manpower and revenue for the Carthaginian military, which relied heavily on mercenary soldiers. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal led the Iberian forces in a surprise assault on northern Italy—and even Rome itself—by marching his armies, including several dozen war elephants, over the Alps. Although Hannibal was a brilliant strategist and won several victories against the Romans, his invasion ultimately failed. He was forced to retreat to Carthage, and the Iberian colonies and territories that had been controlled by Carthage became a province of the Roman Empire known as Hispania.

Rome launched a number of campaigns to conquer the remainder of the peninsula, bringing most of the region under Roman rule. Latin replaced almost all of the locally spoken languages and eventually evolved into modern Spanish and Portuguese. One exception is the Basque language, which survived in the remote foothills of the Pyrenees. Many scholars believe Basque pre-dates the arrival of the Indo-European languages, brought by the Celtic and Iberian tribes during the Bronze Age.

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Germanic Visigoth Kingdom

The Migration Period, or Völkerwanderung, was a vast movement of primarily Germanic tribes throughout Europe, beginning around 400 A.D. These wandering tribes completely transformed central and western Europe, conquering and displacing populations over the course of centuries. The Roman Empire had already been divided into two parts, with the emperor ruling from the new eastern capital in Byzantium. The Western Empire, including Rome itself, was overrun by successive waves of Germanic invaders, including the Visigoths and the Vandals. The Visigoths continued west from Italy and established the Visigoth Kingdom, which occupied the majority of the Iberian Peninsula. They converted to Catholicism around 589 A.D. and were completely assimilated by the indigenous Hispano-Roman population, as evidenced by the loss of the Gothic language and a lack of any substantial genetic difference between the groups.

Islamic rule

North Africa remained part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires for centuries after the defeat of Carthage. But in the late 7th century, the region was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate, a vast Muslim empire based in Syria. The North African Muslims consisted mostly of indigenous Berbers and an Arab minority, collectively called "Moors" by the Europeans.

In 711 A.D., the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered the Visigoth Kingdom and most of Iberia, forcing the Christian Visigoths to retreat to the northern part of the peninsula. Iberia became a province of the Umayyad Caliphate called Al-Andalus. While many converted to Islam and adopted the Arabic language, the majority of the population remained Christian and spoke Latin.

The duration of Muslim rule varied, lasting only a few decades in the north and nearly 800 years in the south. Al-Andalus broke away from the Caliphate after the overthrow of the Umayyads in Syria and became an independent emirate ruled by a succession of Muslim dynasties. From 722 to 1492, the Christian kingdoms of the north fought to regain control of the peninsula in a campaign called “the Reconquista” (or re-conquest), but they made limited headway until the 13th century. By then, Muslim rule had fractured into a number of smaller, competing emirates, which made them more vulnerable.

Age of Discovery

In 1469, the Christian kingdoms of Leon, Castile, and Aragon were brought together by the marriage of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II. Although the thrones technically remained separate, their royal union created a new political entity, España, laying the foundation for the modern kingdom of Spain. Portugal was also established as a distinct country at this time, and the boundaries between the two nations have remained virtually unchanged since then.

The year 1492 was especially busy for Ferdinand and Isabella. They issued the “Alhambra Decree,” which expelled all Jews from Spain, scattering them throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Middle East. They also defeated the last Muslim stronghold at Grenada, bringing an end to the Reconquista. In addition, Ferdinand and Isabella financed the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World, beginning a period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of the Americas. Called the Age of Discovery, it led to immense wealth and power for Spain, as they became an unmatched maritime power and extracted gold, silver, and other resources from their colonies across the Atlantic. To this day, Spanish remains the second-most widely spoken language in the world. Portugal kept pace with its neighbors, establishing the first trade route around the southern tip of Africa, as well as numerous colonies, including Brazil.

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