Origin and heritage of the Etruscans

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The Etruscan civilization, which flourished during the Iron Age in central Italy, has intrigued scholars for millennia. With remarkable metallurgical skills and a now extinct non-Indo-European language, the Etruscans stood out from their contemporary neighbors, which sparked intense debate from ancient Greek historian Herodotus about their geographic origins.

Now a new study by a team of researchers from Germany, Italy, the United States, Denmark and the United Kingdom, sheds light on the origin and legacy of the enigmatic Etruscans with data at l genome scale of 82 ancient individuals from central and southern Italy, spanning 800 BCE to 1000 CE. Their results show that the Etruscans, despite their unique cultural expressions, were closely related to their Italic neighbors, and reveal major genetic transformations associated with historical events.

A fascinating phenomenon

With an extinct language that is only partially understood, much of what was initially known about Etruscan civilization comes from comments by later Greek and Roman writers. A hypothesis on their origins, the one favored by Herodotus, underlines the influence of cultural elements from ancient Greece to assert that the Etruscans came from Anatolian or Aegean migratory groups. Another, defended by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, proposes that the Etruscans originated and developed locally from the Villanovan culture of the Bronze Age and were therefore an indigenous population.

Although the current consensus among archaeologists supports a local origin of the Etruscans, a lack of ancient DNA from the region has made genetic research inconsistent. The current study, with a time transect of ancient genomic information spanning nearly 2,000 years collected from 12 archaeological sites, resolves lingering questions about Etruscan origins, showing no evidence of recent population movement from Anatolia. In fact, the Etruscans shared the genetic profile of the Latins living in the nearby city of Rome, with much of their genetic profile coming from Steppe ancestry that arrived in the region during the Bronze Age.

Considering that the groups linked to the steppe were probably responsible for the spread of Indo-European languages, now spoken around the world by billions of people, the persistence of a non-Indo-European Etruscan language is an intriguing and as yet unexplained phenomenon that will require more archaeological, historical, linguistic and genetic research.

“This linguistic persistence, combined with genetic renewal, challenges simple assumptions that genes are equal to languages ​​and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community,” perhaps for an extended period of mixing in the second millennium BCE, ”says David Caramelli, professor at the University of Florence.

Periods of change

Despite some individuals from Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Central Europe origins, the Etruscan gene pool remained stable for at least 800 years, spanning the Iron Age and the period of the Roman Republic. The study, however, reveals that during the subsequent Roman Imperial period, central Italy experienced large-scale genetic change, resulting from mixing with the populations of the eastern Mediterranean, which likely included slaves and soldiers. displaced throughout the Roman Empire.

“This genetic change clearly describes the role of the Roman Empire in the large-scale displacement of people in an era of upward or downward socio-economic and geographic mobility,” said Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute of evolutionary anthropology.

Looking at the beginning of the more recent Middle Ages, researchers identified ancestors from northern Europe who spread to the Italian peninsula after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. These results suggest that Germanic migrants, including individuals associated with the newly established Lombard kingdom, may have left a traceable impact on the genetic landscape of central Italy.

In the regions of Tuscany, Lazio and Basilicata, the ancestry of the population has remained largely continuous between the early Middle Ages and today, suggesting that the main gene pool of present-day people from the center and the southern Italy largely formed at least 1,000 years ago.

Although older DNA from all over Italy is needed to support the above conclusions, ancestry changes in Tuscany and northern Lazio similar to those reported for the city of Rome and its environs suggest that the Historical events during the first millennium AD had a major impact on genetics. transformations over a large part of the Italian peninsula.

“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,” says Cosimo Posth, professor at the University of Tübingen and Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and the Paleoenvironment.

Reference: Posth Cosimo, Zaro Valentina, Spyrou Maria A., et al. The origin and heritage of the Etruscans through a 2000-year archeogenomic transect. Sci Adv. 7 (39): eabi7673. doi: 10.1126 / sciadv.abi7673.

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