The Etruscans formed a high culture in north-central Italy in the eight centuries preceding the birth of Christ. With their remarkable metalworking skills and a now-extinct non-Indo-European language, the Etruscans distinguished themselves from their contemporary neighbours. So their geographical origins remain controversial to this day. New genetic analyzes of the DNA of individuals from the period 800 BC to AD 1000 indicate that the people’s roots go back to Italy – and not, as other archaeologists have assumed, to Asia Minor.
The debate over the origin of the Etruscans goes back to the time of the ancient philosophers. The Greek historian Herodotus presented a thesis around 500 BC that the ancestors of the Etruscans migrated to Italy from Lydia – a region on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey – around 1000 BC. About 500 years later, Dionysius of Halicarnassus defended the thesis that the Etruscans arose from the Villanova culture of the Bronze Age and developed locally. Although recent analysis of the genetic makeup of the current population of the Etruscans has shown influences from Asia Minor, most archaeologists today assume that the culture originated locally. However, genetic evidence for this assumption has so far been scarce.
Ancient DNA from nearly 2,000 years ago
A team led by Cosimo Post of the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena has recorded ancient DNA from the fossilized bones and teeth of 82 individuals from twelve archaeological sites in the Etruscan region, spanning the period from 800 BC to 1000 BC. NS. 48 individuals came from the Etruscan period in the eight centuries BC, six from the period from 1 to 500 AD and 28 from the early Middle Ages from 500 to 1000 AD.
The result: “Out of 48 individuals from the first time period, we were able to assign 40 individuals to a common genetic group that show clear similarities with the genetic makeup of today’s Spaniards,” according to the researchers’ report, and they concluded: “The Etruscans did not appear to have resulted from population movements from regions Neighborhood originated in the East. The Etruscans have a local genetic profile that they share with other neighboring populations such as the Latins from Rome and the surrounding area, despite the cultural and linguistic differences between the two neighboring groups.”
Same genes, different language
According to the analysis, a significant part of the genetic profile of the Etruscans comes from the steppe peoples who arrived in Italy and most of Europe during the Bronze Age. Their influence is a genetic and cultural determinant of our continent. This result is remarkable in light of the fact that the distribution of Indo-European languages can be traced back to this group, while the Etruscans of all people spoke a non-Indo-European language. “This linguistic stability in relation to genetic variation raises questions about the simplistic assumptions that genes are the same languages,” the researchers wrote. Rather, it is likely the complex scenarios, where there was a genetic admixture while simultaneously preserving the Etruscan culture and linguistic community.
The analyzes also showed that the Etruscan gene pool remained largely stable during the 800 years from the Iron Age to the Roman Republic. Only eight out of 48 individuals have different genetic ancestry – from North Africa, Central Europe and the Middle East. “The apparent genetic stability in Etruria over a period of nearly a thousand years is in line with historical records, which describe the assimilation of the Roman Republic as a political rather than demographic process, as well as thanks to the preservation of the Etruscan culture and language in the region for centuries,” the researchers explain.
Visual historical events in the gene pool
That changed with the advent of the Roman Empire. The six individuals from the period 1 to 500 AD have genetic profiles significantly different from the Etruscans from the past 800 years. “This genetic shift clearly demonstrates the role of the Roman Empire in the large-scale resettlement of people at a time of increased social, economic and geographic mobility,” says Post Fellow Johannes Krause. About 50 percent of the former Etruscan gene pool was exchanged, possibly due to the influence of slaves and soldiers from the eastern Mediterranean.
Researchers noticed another gene disorder in the early Middle Ages. The results indicate that Germanic immigrants spread across the Italian peninsula after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and left traces in the genomes of 28 examined individuals from the period between AD 500 and 1000. The gene pool of these individuals is very similar to that of people still living in the area today. “Our analyzes therefore show a broad population continuity between the early Middle Ages and the present day in the regions of Tuscany, Lazio and Basilicata, indicating that the major gene pool of today’s populations in central and southern Italy formed at least 1,000 years ago,” Post and colleagues write.
In order to better understand the genetic history of the Etruscans and their ancestors and descendants, according to the researchers, additional samples of ancient DNA from all over Italy will be needed.
Source: Cosimo Posth (Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena) et al., Science Advances, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abi7673
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