Thursday 21 October 2021

Did the Etruscans really originate in Anatolia?

A September 2021 genetic study carried out on Etruscan skeletal remains throws new light on the question of whether the Etruscans really originated in Anatolia, during the 8th to 6th centuries BC, as first proposed by Herodotus and Hellanicus of Lesbos, and supported by later genetic studies of modern individuals living in and near Murlo, central Tuscany. Click the following link for a good summary of the facts and theories until now about who the Etruscan were and where they came from.

Origin of the Etruscans

In summary, present-day Tuscan mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) demonstrate a relationship with current Anatolian populations that has been interpreted as evidence for a recent Near Eastern (Lydian) origin of the Etruscans, as proposed as early as Herodotus. This was supported by early studies on mtDNA from Etruscan-associated individuals that did not find any evidence of genetic continuity between Etruscans and present-day populations from the same region, except for some isolated locations in Tuscany

However, the study recently published in Science Advances based on genomic analyses of 82 ancient individuals from Tuscany, Lazio, and Basilicata spanning ca. 2000 years of Italian history, have revealed major episodes of genetic transformation. Across the first interval of the study's central Italian temporal transect (800 to 1 BC), most individuals form a homogenous genetic cluster (designated C.Italy_Etruscan), indicating that the sporadic presence of individuals with ancestry tracing back to other regions did not leave a substantial local genetic legacy. In particular, in agreement with the "local origin" proposal of the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BC, the Etruscan-related gene pool does not seem to have originated from bronze-age (800 to 600 BC) population movements from the Near East. Etruscans carry a local genetic profile shared with other neighboring populations such as the Latins from Rome and its environs despite the cultural and linguistic differences between the two neighboring groups. Furthermore, according to this new study, a large proportion of the C.Italy_Etruscan genetic profile can be attributed to Iron Age steppe-related ancestry (i.e. not Anatolian), confirming a trend observed in most other European regions.

So what about the Etruscan language? Although Etruscan is a non-Indo-European relict language, which survived in central Italy until the Imperial Period, it was not completely isolated. Instead, Etruscan seems to be linked to both Rhaetic, a language documented in the eastern Alps in a population that ancient historians claim to have migrated from the Po valley, and to Lemnian, a language putatively spoken on ancient Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. The relationship with Rhaetic is hard to account for, but the Anatolian-origin theory proposed that Lemnos was a stepping stone in the migratory path from nearby Lydia in Anatolia to Tuscany. However, the new model proposes that while the Etruscan language remained in place, eastern Mediterranean ancestries replaced a large portion of the native Etruscan-related genetic profile during the Roman Imperial period and not between 800 and 600 BC. This seems exceptionally odd since in almost every other historical example of replacement of a local population by Indo-European invaders, the local language as well as the genes were replaced.

This new study is sure to generate plenty of discussion. For example, the authors do not consider the possibility put forward by some historians that the Etruscans did not replace the native Umbrian population when they arrived from Anatolia but formed a ruling class, as did the Longobards much later, which left genetic markers only rarely (e.g. in the current population around Murlo in Tuscany).

The Volterra Estruscan Museum

The Gods, Goddesses and Mythology of the Etruscans

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