Who Were the Etruscans? DNA Study Solves Origin Mystery

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Sarcophagus of the Spouses from Villa Giulia in Rome: Etruscan art displays oriental influences, in the eyes and hair, and their gender equality scandalized their contemporaries
: Etruscan art displays oriental influences, in the eyes and hair, and their gender equality scandalized their contemporariesCredit: Sailko
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

A genetic study of DNA extracted from ancient skeletons appears to have solved a mystery that is as old as history itself and has occupied scholars for more than 2,000 years: the origin of the Etruscans.

The research published Friday in the journal Science Advances concludes that the Etruscans, a sophisticated pre-Roman civilization in central Italy, were of local stock and not migrants from the Near East as some had previously believed.

Geneticists from the Max Planck Institute, Tubingen University and the University of Florence sequenced the DNA of 82 individuals who lived in central and southern Italy between 800 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E.

The DNA of the ancient Etruscans – which were around half of the sample – turned out to be closely related to that of other local Italic populations, including their Roman archenemies, says Professor Cosimo Posth, an archaeogeneticist at Tubingen. This contradicts a longstanding theory, first proposed by Herodotus, the 5th-century-B.C.E. Greek writer considered the “father of history,” that the Etruscans were actually Greeks who had migrated to Italy from western Anatolia.

The Etruscan civilization flourished in what is today Tuscany and its neighboring central Italian regions from around 900 B.C.E. until it was conquered by the Romans at the beginning of the third century B.C.E., following multiple, bitter conflicts. The Etruscans are perhaps best known for their sprawling necropoleis, where they buried their dead in tombs decorated with spectacular frescoes, delicately sculpted sarcophagi and elaborate metalwork.

Aerial view of two Etruscan tombs, San Germano, Vetulonia (Grosseto), dated to the 6 century BCE where human remains analyzed in this study have been excavatedCredit: Paolo Nannini

Despite this archaeological wealth, we know little about their history because, while they left us some inscriptions, their language is extinct and only a few words have been deciphered.

“One of the issues is that many surviving inscriptions are funerary, so we may know how to say ‘here lies so and so’ in Etruscan but that doesn’t help us understand their history,” Posth says.

Most of what we know comes from the writings of ancient Greek and Roman historians. Even the name “Etruscans” comes from Etruria, the name the Romans gave to this region that lay immediately to the north of their capital (according to the first-century-historian Plutarch, the ancient inhabitants of Tuscany called themselves “Rasenna”). And we certainly cannot count on the Romans to not have their views colored by their long, bloody rivalry with the Etruscans. After all, Etruscan kings had reigned over Rome in its early days, and the Roman Republic was born precisely to overthrow their rule – later leading a series of wars to conquer all of Etruria.

The problem is that that very few Etruscan texts survived the Roman conquest and we don’t have a “Rosetta stone” that can help us translate them, Posth notes. What we do know is that the Etruscans used an alphabet that derived from the Greek one, but spoke a language that was most likely not Indo-European. This huge family of languages encompasses most of the tongues spoken between northern India and western Europe, including, Latin, Greek, Germanic and Slavic languages. One of the few non-Indo-European languages that survive today in Europe is Basque, spoken in parts of northern Spain and southwestern France.

So it’s understandable why historians have always wondered how a civilization with an entirely different language and culture arose in central Italy at the beginning of the Iron Age.

Dancers and musicians in the Etruscan Tomb of the Leopards, Monterozzi necropolis, Tarquinia, Italy.Credit: Yann Forget
Map of the Italian peninsula including a zoom-in (left) indicating the maximum extension of Etruscan territories and the location and number of individuals studied at each site Credit: Michelle OReilly

Herodotus lied

If we go by Herodotus, at some point at the end of the Bronze Age, the kingdom of Lydia in western Anatolia faced a major famine. The local king decided to send away a major part of the population, who eventually founded a new coalition of city states in central Italy under his son Tyrrhenus (who also gave his name to the Tyrrhenian Sea, the portion of the Mediterranean along Italy’s western coast).

Herodotus’ theory of a Greek-Anatolian origin has some merits. Besides the use of the Greek alphabet, Etruscan art displays some oriental influences, with human figures being depicted with almond-shaped eyes and braided hair. But the Etruscans were a cultured and well-travelled people who may have picked up those influences by contact. Other ancient scholars, like the first-century-B.C.E. historian Dionysus of Halicarnassus, propended for a local origin of this civilization. After all, Herodotus may have been the father of history but was notoriously unreliable, to the point that, already in antiquity, some of his more critical colleagues dubbed him “father of lies.”

In fact, modern archaeologists have tended to side with Dionysus, because they see strong similarities between the Etruscan culture of the Iron Age and the so-called Villanovan culture, which preceded it in Bronze Age central Italy. However, a decade ago, a series of genetic studies of modern Tuscan populations found that the locals had a strong component of ancestry, more than 17 percent, from the Near East, ostensibly strengthening the idea of an Anatolian origin.

So was Herodotus right all along? No.

Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon, Etruscan bronze statue, 400-380 BCECredit: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Comm

The new study published by Posth and colleagues shows that the Near Eastern contribution to modern central Italians happened long after the Etruscan civilization fell – and we’ll get more into how that happened in a bit.

When sequencing the DNA of actual ancient Etruscans, the researchers found that their genome was pretty indistinguishable from genetic material previously extracted from the remains of ancient Romans. They could all trace their ancestry to a roughly fifty-fifty mix of local Neolithic farmers and Bronze Age pastoralists from the steppe. This is pretty par for the course for all of Iron Age Europe, not just Italy. It was already known that in the Bronze Age, between 2,800 and 2,500 B.C.E., Europe experienced a population influx from the Russian steppes. These nomadic people gradually mixed with the locals and are credited by scholars with bringing the first Indo-European languages to the continent.

While this admixture also clearly happened to the ancestors of the Etruscans, it seems that in their case the new Indo-European culture didn’t stick. Why? We don’t know.

It’s possible that the proto-Etruscans were already a fairly advanced civilization at the time – while the proto-Romans were still uncouth brutes – and therefore it was the newcomers from the steppes who absorbed the local culture rather than the other way around.

Be that as it may, until the Roman conquest, the Etruscans did not maintain their genetic distinctiveness but definitely kept alive their distinctive culture, which was unique to the region not just in linguistic terms, Posth notes. For example, they are believed to have had a relatively more egalitarian approach to gender relations, he notes. Women in Etruscan art are depicted as equals to men, appearing at banquets and other public social functions in a way that scandalized their Roman and Greek contemporaries.

The new study did find some individuals that could trace some of their ancestry to other regions, including North Africa, central Europe and the Near East. But these were a few outliers whose presence is more easily explained by the fact that the Etruscans had strong contacts with other civilizations across the Mediterranean, especially the Greeks and Carthaginians, Posth says.

Etruscan sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia TlesnasaCredit: Gryffindor

Freed slaves

Etruscan woman buried at Poggio Renzo necropolis, Siena, dated to around the 7th century BCECredit: Paolo Nannini

But what to make of those recent studies that showed a genetic link between modern Tuscans and the Levant? In the research of Posth and colleagues this genetic contribution only starts to appear in central Italian skeletons from the time of the Roman Empire, from the first century B.C.E. onwards. In fact, a huge influx of people from the Eastern Mediterranean is also apparent in previous genetic mapping of the inhabitants of Rome itself, but it was not known to involve the rural areas outside the capital, Posth tells Haaretz.

The researchers connect this phenomenon to the huge mobility of people that characterized the multiethnic Roman Empire – and specifically to the transfer of slaves from distant provinces to Italy. Over time, these slaves or their descendants would earn their freedom and mix in with the local population, the researchers speculate.

Since Romans were pretty much equal-opportunity enslavers it is not clear why only slaves from the Near East left such a strong genetic mark on the Italian genetic map. More research is needed to understand the cause of this phenomenon as well as how far into Europe it reached, Posth says.

“This huge genetic shift in imperial times transforms Italians from a people firmly within the genetic cloud of Europe into a genetic bridge between the Mediterranean and the Near East,” he says.

Skulls genetically analyzed from the site of Casenovole (Grosseto). These individuals represent an Etruscan family of 1st or 2nd degree relatednessCredit: Stefano Ricci

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century and the start of the Middle Ages, researchers begin to see genetic components from northern Europe appearing in central Italy. These were likely brought by the Germanic peoples, like the Longobards, who ruled over most of northern and central Italy after the fall of Rome.

Following this final admixture, the genetic makeup of central Italians doesn’t change much until today. All of this gives us a fascinating picture of the population history of Italy. But, going back to the Etruscans, it shows that one mustn’t fall into the facile stereotype of believing that the emergence of a culture, with unique features for its time and place, necessarily indicates a population influx, says Professor David Caramelli, an anthropologist from the University of Florence and one of the authors of the new study.

The research, he says, “challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario” for the rise of the great Etruscan civilization.

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