DNA evidence has recently put an end to speculation regarding the origin of the ancient Etruscans.
The remains of the ancient civilizations can be found in nowadays’ Italy.
Genomic data spanning over the past 2,000 years, gathered from a dozen sites across the country, revealed that the mysterious civilization didn’t emigrate from Anatolia (which is now part of Turkey), but it presented a similar genetic heritage with individuals who lived in ancient Rome.
All of the ancient Etruscans were descended from pastoralists who went to the region from the steppes in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age.
Since the steppes were believed to be the places where Indo-European languages emerged, the discovery shifted the spotlight on another mystery surrounding the Etruscan people – Their (now extinct) non-Indo-European language, which persisted for many centuries.
David Caramelli, an anthropologist from the University of Florence in Italy, stated:
“This linguistic persistence, combined with a genetic turnover, challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages […] and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community, possibly during a prolonged period of admixture over the second millennium BCE.”
There are lots of questions surrounding the Etruscans. Some evidence of their presence still persists to date, though. It’s known that they were amazing craftspeople, had some knowledge in the field of metalworking, and were also politically sophisticated.
However, we only partly understand their language, which went extinct a while ago, and that made finding out their true origins a lot more complicated, especially as we are facing a considerable absence of solid genetic evidence.
One old theory is that Etruscans migrated into Italy from the Aegean or from Anatolia, and their culture was reminiscent of Greek origins.
However, modern scholars seem to reject that interpretation, as archaeologists found very little evidence to support the theory of migration.
Another option suggests that the Etruscan civilization appeared from an indigenous population that was already present in the region, also known as autochthonous civilization.
Cosimo Posth, an anthropologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany, conducted an extensive study with the help of an international team of researchers, aiming to get to the bottom of the mystery by analyzing ancient DNA.
They gathered genetic samples from 82 individuals, which helped them cover a time period between 800 BCE to 1000 CE across the southern part of Italy and Etruria. They compared the samples to other ancient and modern populations.
They discovered that the Etruscans had common genetic profiles with nearby populations, like the Latins that lived in Rome at the same time, though the members of the two ethnic groups were very different in terms of culture and language.
The Etruscan language isn’t entirely unique. It belongs to a proposed group known as the Tyrsenian languages. Unfortunately, all of the languages of that group are extinct.
A hypothesis suggests that the languages might have spread via a sea-borne expansion from the Mediterranean, but that theory also isn’t supported by the genetic profile of the Etruscans.
The research performed by the team highlighted the results of major changes in Italy.
When the Roman Empire ascended and grew, the ancient DNA showed that the Etruscan people underwent a significant genetic shift due to the mix between eastern Mediterranean people and the Italian population. It’s believed that it could be the result of the Roman importation of soldiers and slaves.
Johannes Krause, an anthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, stated:
“This genetic shift clearly depicts the role of the Roman Empire in the large-scale displacement of people in a time of enhanced upward or downward socioeconomic and geographic mobility.”
Soon after the collapse of the Roman Empire, genetic profiles shifted again as northern European ancestries began spreading throughout the Italian peninsula. That could have been a result of the invasion of the Lombards, who conquered and ruled most of Italy between 568 and 774 CE.
However, starting from 1,000 CE, the genetic profiles of people in Tuscany, Lazio, and Basilicata stayed mostly constant.
That discovery is on par with the genetic makeup of people in Rome, according to the researchers.
Future studies will certainly help bring some light into that matter.
“The Roman Empire appears to have left a long-lasting contribution to the genetic profile of southern Europeans, bridging the gap between European and eastern Mediterranean populations on the genetic map of western Eurasia,” added Post.