Category Archives: Etruscans

Were the Etruscans after all native Italians?

Etruscan sarcophagus
(CC by Ecelan)

A new study casts doubt on the Anatolian origin theory of Etruscan origins.

As you may know, two main theories have been proposed for the origins of the ancient Italian civilization that taught Romans nearly everything, especially in the field of architecture: on one side that they were Bronze Age arrivals from Anatolia, maybe related to ancient Trojans, which had some support on art aesthetics, the historical presence of a close relative of Etruscan language in the island of Lemnos, some classical theories and, more recently, an ancient mtDNA study (Vernesi 2004), which found the mtDNA of ancient Etruscan aristocrats to be closest (by FST) to Turks than to any other studied population, excepted (by slight margin) modern Tuscans.
The main alternative theory proposes that Etruscans were a local development, what would be also consistent with an Anatolian genetic affinity because the Italian peninsula, including Tuscany, shows repeated waves of cultural influences from the Western Balcans first (Neolithic) and from the Aegean later on (Chalcolithic especially).
The debate seems however far away from reaching any strong conclusion, notably now that a new study revising Vernesi’s data finds a different and rather puzzling set of affinities for ancient Etruscans.
Silvia Ghirotto et al., Origins and Evolution of the Etruscans’ mtDNA. PLoS ONE, 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055519]

The Etruscan culture is documented in Etruria, Central Italy, from the 8th to the 1st century BC. For more than 2,000 years there has been disagreement on the Etruscans’ biological origins, whether local or in Anatolia. Genetic affinities with both Tuscan and Anatolian populations have been reported, but so far all attempts have failed to fit the Etruscans’ and modern populations in the same genealogy. We extracted and typed the hypervariable region of mitochondrial DNA of 14 individuals buried in two Etruscan necropoleis, analyzing them along with other Etruscan and Medieval samples, and 4,910 contemporary individuals from the Mediterranean basin. Comparing ancient (30 Etruscans, 27 Medieval individuals) and modern DNA sequences (370 Tuscans), with the results of millions of computer simulations, we show that the Etruscans can be considered ancestral, with a high degree of confidence, to the current inhabitants of Casentino and Volterra, but not to the general contemporary population of the former Etruscan homeland. By further considering two Anatolian samples (35 and 123 individuals) we could estimate that the genetic links between Tuscany and Anatolia date back to at least 5,000 years ago, strongly suggesting that the Etruscan culture developed locally, and not as an immediate consequence of immigration from the Eastern Mediterranean shores.
The study finds that ancient Etruscan mtDNA is closest among modern populations (by FST) to Southern Germans and, following closely, a varied array of other Europeans (totally the opposite to Vernesi’s findings), and rather not too close to Turks or other Eastern Mediterranean populations.
Annotated version of Fig. S3-B, FST distances of ancient Etruscan mtDNA
(red: 0.4-0.6, orange: 0.6-0.8, yellow: 0.8-1.0)
See also Fig. S4 (multidimensional scaling graphs)
= Click to expand =

Among ancient populations, ancient Etruscans are found to be closer to Neolithic farmers from Central Europe and then to ancient Lucchesi (from Lucca, including those from the Chalcolithic era, i.e. Eneolithic):

Fig. S4-C Multi Dimensional Scaling summarizing genetic affinities between the Etruscans and (…) (C) 9 ancient populations of Europe. Population labels and sample sizes are provided in Table S2 [Neo_Farm: Neolithic Central Europeans, Med: Medieval Tuscans]

Among the study’s conclusions are:

A model of genealogical continuity across 2,500 years thus proved to best fit the observed data for Volterra, and especially Casentino, but not for another community dwelling in an area also rich with Etruscan archaeological remains (Murlo), nor (as expected) for the bulk of the current Tuscan population, here represented by a forensic sample of the inhabitants of Florence. Therefore, the present analysis indicates that the Etruscan genetic heritage is still present, but only in some isolates, whereas current Tuscans are not generally descended from Etruscan ancestors along the female lines.

Notice that this is always in relation to the ancient Etruscan mtDNA data, which comes from the tombs of aristocrats, not commoners. However they insist:

Because Medieval Tuscans appear directly descended from Etruscan ancestors, one can reasonably speculate that the genetic build-up of the Murlo and Florence populations was modified by immigration in the last five centuries.

Villanovan urn
(CC by Sailko)

An intriguing issue not considered apparently by the authors is the appearance of greatest genetic similitude with some populations of Central Europe. I would consider preliminarily that a possible line of interpretation of this data might be that the Etruscan elites might have arrived with the Urnfields expansion peoples (Indoeuropeans most probably) but were culturally and linguistically assimilated by the native substrate (proto-Etruscans did participate of the fashion of corpse incineration and burial of the charred remains in urns, which even led some to propose that they were Indoeuropeans in fact).

However this clashes with the fact that they also appear extremely close to Central European Neolithic peoples, which are not at all similar to modern nor Urnfields period Central Europeans. So I have to admit that a local Neolithic origin may be the most reasonable hypothesis with this data and that the irregular Central European affinities may have other explanation (such as local preservation of a mtDNA pool closer to Neolithic one than usual).

Update (Feb 15): Gail Tonnesen has researched in greater depth what haplogroups could the ancient Etruscans have specifically → LINK