Geneticists have added an edge to a 2,500-year-old debate over the origin of the Etruscans, a people whose brilliant and mysterious civilization dominated northwestern Italy for centuries until the rise of the Roman republic in 510 B.C. Several new findings support a view held by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus — but unpopular among archaeologists — that the Etruscans originally migrated to Italy from the Near East.
Though Roman historians played down their debt to the Etruscans, Etruscan culture permeated Roman art, architecture and religion. The Etruscans were master metallurgists and skillful seafarers who for a time dominated much of the Mediterranean. They enjoyed unusually free social relations, much remarked on by ancient historians of other cultures.
“Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom,” wrote the Greek historian Theopompos of Chios in the fourth century B.C. “Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. Further, they dine not with their own husbands, but with any men who happen to be present.”
He added that Etruscan women “are also expert drinkers and are very good looking.”
Etruscan culture was very advanced and very different from other Italian cultures of the time. But most archaeologists have seen a thorough continuity between a local Italian culture known as the Villanovan that emerged around 900 B.C. and the Etruscan culture, which began in 800 B.C.
Because Italians take pride in the Roman empire and the Etruscan state that preceded it, asserting a foreign origin for the Etruscans has long been politically controversial in Italy. Massimo Pallottino, the dean of modern Etruscan studies in Italy who died in 1995, held that because no one questioned that the French, say, developed in France, the same assumption should be made about the Etruscans. “Someone who had a different position didn’t get a job in archaeology,” said Antonio Torroni, a geneticist at the University of Pavia.
Even so, a nagging question has remained. Could the Etruscans have arrived from somewhere else in the Mediterranean world, bringing their sophisticated culture with them?
One hint of such an origin is that the Etruscan language, which survives in thousands of inscriptions, appears not to be Indo-European, the language family that started to sweep across Europe sometime after 8,500 years ago, developing into Latin, English and many other tongues. Another hint is the occurrence of inscriptions in a language apparently related to Etruscan on Lemnos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey. But whether Lemnian is the parent language of Etruscan, or the other way around, is not yet clear, said Rex Wallace, an expert on Etruscan linguistics at the University of Massachusetts.
An even more specific link to the Near East is a short statement by Herodotus that the Etruscans emigrated from Lydia, a region on the eastern coast of ancient Turkey. After an 18-year famine in Lydia, Herodotus reports, the king dispatched half the population to look for a better life elsewhere. Under the leadership of his son Tyrrhenus, the emigrating Lydians built ships, loaded all the stores they needed, and sailed from Smyrna (now the Turkish port of Izmir) until reaching Umbria in Italy.
What has brought Italian geneticists into the discussion are new abilities to sequence DNA and trace people’s origins. In 2004, a team led by Guido Barbujani at the University of Ferrara extracted mitochondrial DNA from 30 individuals buried in Etruscan sites throughout Italy. Their goal was to see whether Etruscans’ DNA was more like that of modern Italians or of people from the Near East.
But this study quickly came under attack. Working with ancient DNA is extremely difficult, because most bones from archaeological sites have been carelessly handled. Extensively contamination with modern human DNA can swamp the signal of what little ancient DNA may still survive.Hans-Jürgen Bandelt, a geneticist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, wrote that the DNA recovered from the Etruscan bones showed clear signs of such problems.
With the geneticists in disarray, archaeologists had been able to dismiss their results. But a new set of genetic studies being reported seems likely to lend greater credence to Herodotus’ long-disputed account.
Three new and independent sources of genetic data all point to the conclusion that Etruscan culture was imported to Italy from somewhere in the Near East.
One study is based on the mitochondrial DNA of residents of Murlo, a small former Etruscan town in an out-of-the-way place whose population may not have changed all that much since Etruscan times.
The Murlo residents’ lineages are quite different from those of people in other Italian towns. When placed on a chart of mitochondrial lineages from Europe and the Near East, the people of Murlo map closest to Palestinians and Syrians, a team led by Dr. Torroni and Alessandro Achilli reports in the April issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.
In Tuscany as a whole, part of the ancient Etruscan region of Etruria, the Torroni team found 11 minor mitochondrial DNA lineages that occur nowhere else in Europe and are shared only with Near Eastern people. These findings, the teams says, “support a direct and rather recent genetic input from the Near East, a scenario in agreement with the Lydian origin of the Etruscans.”
Dr. Torroni said he had data awaiting publication that are based on Y chromosomes and point to the same conclusion.
A third source of genetic data on Etruscan origins has been developed by Marco Pellecchia and Paolo Ajmone-Marsan at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza. Tuscany has four ancient unusual breeds of cattle, including the giant Chianina. Analyzing the mitochondrial DNA of these and seven other breeds of Italian cattle, Dr. Ajmone-Marsan found that the Tuscan breeds genetically resembled cattle of the Near East, whereas the other Italian breeds grouped with cattle of northern Europe.
One explanation could be that people in Etruria had imported cattle from the Near East at some time. But given Dr. Torroni’s finding that the people, too, have a Near Eastern signature in their genes, the best explanation is that “both humans and cattle reached Etruria from the Eastern Mediterranean by sea,” Dr. Ajmone-Marsan and his colleagues said in a report published online in February in The Proceedings of the Royal Society. This explanation fits with Herodotus’ remark that the Etruscans brought with them everything they needed.
The data from the cattle DNA has also let the researchers calculate that the time at which the Tuscan and the Near Eastern cattle were part of the same population was 6,400 to 1,600 years ago, implying that the Etruscans set sail in this period.
The new findings may prompt specialists to look for an arrival date compatible with the archaeological and linguistic data, which essentially means before the proto-Villanovan culture of 1100 to 900 B.C.
“I’m willing to believe that people speaking a prehistoric form of Etruscan came from the Near East — who knows where? — and settled in Italy at some point in the early Bronze Age,” said Dr. Wallace.
The Bronze Age in Europe began around 1800 B.C. Dr. Tuck, the archaeologist, said he supposed that “three clear genetic threads linking a Tuscan population, human or bovine, to groups in the Near East is pretty compelling evidence.”
If the proto-Villanovan culture signifies the Etruscans’ arrival, it is surprising that no similar culture is known from ancient Turkey, he said.
Maria Bonghi Jovino, an Etruscan expert at the University of Milan, said the cultural discontinuity seen at the beginning of the proto-Villanovan culture probably represented the arrival of small groups of traders or prospectors, not a mass immigration.
As for Herodotus, Ms. Jovino said she believed, liked most modern historians, “that he does not always report real historical facts.” often referring to oral tradition.
But at least on the matter of Etruscan origins, it seems that Herodotus may yet enjoy the last laugh.