9 July 2009

Origins of the Etruscans

In 2004, a group of Italian researchers published an article with an innovative type of research about the origins of the Etruscans (see Vernesi et al, 2004). They analyzed the genetic components of bones found in Etruscan tombs and compared them with the genes of modern populations of the same areas. They found out that there were significant differences between these two populations, with a clear pattern of discontinuity which is by no means easy to explain. Suggesting a process of massive migration or population shift does not seem in accordance with archaeological evidence. The authors suggest a more plausible explanation (p. 702): “Those tombs belong [to] the social elite (...) and so the individuals we studied may represent a specific social group, the upper class. We do not know whether that group differed genetically from the rest of the population, which might be the case when a foreign elite imposes its rule, and often its language, over a region”. According to the authors, the genetic components of ancient Etruscans show similarities with those found in Near East populations, which makes them think of a possible gene flow from that area, but the results are not conclusive. In any case, the publication of this article triggered a series of research projects that have shed new light into the matter (for a complete view of the main developments you can take a look at Dieneke’s Anthropology Blog; e.g. this post). In a very recent research work (Guimaraes et al, 2009; see abstract here), the authors compared the genetic materials of ancient Etruscans, Medieval and present-day Tuscans. They found out that there is continuity between Medieval and modern populations, as expected, but not with ancient Etruscans.

I suppose in the next few years there will be more research in this area, especially with the development of newer, more accurate ways of analysing old genetic material. Although it is very difficult to interpret these data and establish possible affiliations between the various populations, it seems that the DNA analyses suggest, at least, a clear pattern of discontinuity in Etruria/Tuscany. Traditionally, the Etruscans (speakers of a non-IE language) have been seen as an autochthonous population of the Italian Peninsula, older than the Italic populations (speakers of IE languages). This view, based on a Roman-centred perspective, has rarely been challenged or tested, and has been held as undisputed truth for centuries. Now, with the development of new tools for research, it seems that the picture is exactly the opposite: it was the Etruscans, as an intrusive elite, that arrived later.

Now, the logical question is: where did they come from? Some connections with Turkish or eastern Mediterranean populations have been suggested from ther genetic data, but they don’t seem to be conclusive. I suppose there will be some more research on this, and not only in the field of genetics: it is necessary to compare the genetic data with the evidence found by archaeologists and linguists. Let’s take Mario Alinei for example. His idea that the Etruscans descended from ancient Hungarians is based on archaeological and linguistic evidence. Maybe he's right, or maybe not, but in any case his proposals are coherent (see this post for more details). One of his assumptions, namely the late arrival of the Etruscans, seems to be corroborated by independent research, as we have seen; his proposals about the chronology of Hungarian prehistory and the linguistic parallelisms between Etruscan and Hungarian are much more speculative and still need to be tested. A curious coincidence is that, according to Alinei, there are numerous Turkic elements in both the Hungarian and Etruscan languages, which he interprets in the context of Ugric-Altaic contacts in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. I remembered this when I read about the ‘Turkish’ and eastern Mediterranean component in the Etruscan genetic material. It is obvious that the terms ‘Turkic’ and ‘Turkish’ refer to completely different concepts: a language family in Asia (Turkic) and a modern country where a Turkic language is spoken (Turkey). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but who knows? I’m sure geneticists will come up with new, sometimes surprising results.

- Guimaraes et al (2009). Genealogical discontinuities among Etruscan, Medieval and contemporary Tuscans.
MBE, Advanced Access published on-line. (Abstract).
- Vernesi et al (2004). The Etruscans: a population-genetic study.
AJHG 74: 694-704.

Images (from top to bottom): 1. Sarcophagus of the Bride and Bridegrrom, 6th c. BC. Museo Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome; 2. Map of the Etruscan territories in ancient times; 3. Etruscan Musicians. From a tomb in Tarquinia, 5th c. BC.
Last Edit: 20 July 2009

1 comment:

Peter Martyn said...

The same thing was found in Hungarian DNA research. The Conquest elite (circa 900 AD ) was tested against commoner dna from graves. Apparently, the Elite (with Tat C allele marker) were not genetically related.
Conquest commoner dna was not too different from present day Hungarians. The Szekely (self designated as true Hungarians)were more Frankish, though 1 sample of 97 had the Tat C allele marker.
The big question I think is how the Hungarian language still exists! If the Elite were Magyar, then how did the language spread through the Slav-Avar-Bulgar commonfolk? A minority can't impose it's language as it will be absorbed within a generation or so.
Either the common folk were already Hungarian (which according to archaeological evidence and contemporary sources isn't so) or the Magyar elite brought in the Hungarian speakers at the time of conquest, up to about 200 years after when the first Hungarian words were recorded.
Source - http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00010/00043/pdf/HSR_2009_1-2_153-169.pdf
Along with the Elite of which at least 2 tribes were Magyar, there were the Khavar (a Khazar off-shoot) composed of 3 internal Khavar tribes and 5 others that are ethnographically unknown (Rona-Tas). So it could be possible that the Hungarians came in with their Elite Magyar but not Hungarian overlords or protectors.

Now how that can help in the Etruscan situation? I presume that there must be some kind of sociology going on here that has not been identified. This still does not detract from Alinei's assertion that Paleolithic Continuity Theory exists in this case, even though the DNA is different for ancient and present populations.
The Turk that you mention is that there are/were Turkic tribes (of which the Magyars were one) of wildly different ethnic origins. The Magyars were called 'Turkoui' at one time. A Turkic tribe was any tribe in Scithia or the steppes in historical sources. Turkic/Iranian loan words appear at different times, sometimes in parallel. No suprises there.