The origin and legacy of the Etruscans: A new study reports genome-wide data of ancient Italian individuals to trace the origins of the Etruscans and their contribution to later populations

Scholars have been fascinated for millennia by the Etruscan civilization. It flourished in central Italy's Iron Age. The Etruscans were distinguished by their extraordinary metallurgical skills, and their non-Indo European language. This led to heated debate among historians Herodotus about their geographic origins.
A new study by scholars from the UK, USA, Denmark, Germany and Italy sheds light on the origins and legacy of the mysterious Etruscans. The genome-wide data was gathered from 82 ancient people from central and south Italy. It spans 800 BCE to 1,000 CE. Their findings show that Etruscans were, despite having unique cultural expressions and major genetic mutations related to historical events.

A fascinating phenomenon

An extinct language makes it difficult to understand much of what we know about Etruscan civilization. Much of what we do know is derived from later Greek and Roman writers. Herodotus's preferred hypothesis regarding their origins points to the influence ancient Greek cultural elements. This suggests that the Etruscans are descendants of migrating Anatolian and Aegean groups. Dionysius from Halicarnassus supports another hypothesis that the Etruscans were born and developed in the Bronze Age Villanovan culture, and are therefore an autochthonous people.

Although archaeologists agree that the Etruscans are a local race, genetic studies have been inconsistent due to a lack ancient DNA from the area. This study, which includes a time transect containing ancient genomic information that spans almost 2000 years, was done at 12 archaeological sites. It resolves any lingering questions regarding Etruscan origins and shows no evidence of a recent migration from Anatolia. The Etruscans shared the same genetic profile as the Latins who lived nearby Rome. A large portion of their genetic profiles came from steppe-related ancestry, which arrived in the region during Bronze Age.

Given that Indo-European languages were spread by steppe-related groups, it is not surprising that a non-Indo European Etruscan language has remained. This intriguing phenomenon will need further archaeological, historical, and genetic research.


Professor at the University of Florence, David Caramelli says, "This linguistic persistence combined with a gene turnover challenges simple assumptions that languages equal genes and suggests a more complicated scenario that may have involved early Italic speakers assimilation by the Etruscan Speech Community, possibly during an extended period of admixture over a second millennium BCE."

Periods of Change

Despite the presence of a few people from the eastern Mediterranean, central Europeanorgins and northern African regions, the Etruscan-related gene pools remained stable for at most 800 years. This spans the Iron Age and Roman Republic periods. However, the study shows that central Italy suffered a significant genetic shift during the Roman Imperial period. This was likely due to admixture with eastern Mediterranean populations. These may have included soldiers and slaves who were relocated throughout the Roman Empire.

Johannes Krause, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, says that "this genetic shift clearly depicts how the Roman Empire impacted large-scale displacement of people during a period of increased upward or downward socioeconomic mobility"

The researchers looked at the Early Middle Ages and found that northern European ancestors were spread across the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. These results indicate that Germanic migrants, such as those associated with the newly founded Longobard Kingdom might have had a significant impact on central Italy's genetic landscape.

The ancestry of the people in the Tuscany, Lazio and Basilicata regions remained relatively constant between the Early Medieval and present times, suggesting that central and southern Italy's main gene pool was formed at least 1000 years ago.

While more ancient DNA is required from Italy to support these conclusions, ancestry shifts reported in Tuscany and northern Lazio that are similar to those reported for Rome and its environs suggest that the genetic transformations of much of the Italian peninsula were influenced by historical events.

"The Roman Empire seems to have made a lasting contribution to the genetic profile of south Europeans," said Cosimo Posth of the University of Tbingen's Senckenberg Centre of Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment.