Scientists solve the mystery of the Etruscans' origins

An Etruscan funerary urn showing the abduction of Helen by Paris, the mythical event said to have caused the advent of the Trojan War.
An Etruscan funerary urn showing the abduction of Helen by Paris, the mythical event said to have caused the of the Trojan War. (Image credit: Albert Ceolan / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

A new genetic analysis may have finally revealed the origin of the Etruscans — a mysterious people whose civilization thrived in Italy centuries before the founding of Rome.

It turns out the enigmatic Etruscans were local to the area, with nearly identical genetics to their Latin-speaking neighbors.

This finding contradicts earlier theories that the Etruscans — who for centuries spoke a now extinct, non-Indo-European language that was remarkably different from others in the region — came from somewhere different from their Latin-speaking neighbors. 

Related: 7 bizarre ancient cultures that history forgot

Instead, both groups appear to be migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppe — a long, thin swath of land stretching from the north Black Sea around Ukraine to the north Caspian Sea in Russia. After arriving in Italy during the Bronze age, the early speakers of Etruscan put down roots, assimilating speakers of other languages to their own culture as they flourished into a great civilization.

The finding "challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community," David Caramelli, an anthropology professor at the University of Florence, said in a statement.  

With cities as sophisticated as those of the ancient Greeks; trade networks as lucrative as the Phoenicians’; and a vast wealth to rival ancient Egypt’s, the Etruscan civilization, the first known superpower of the Western Mediterranean, had a brilliance matched only by the mystery surrounding its language and its origins. Rising to the height of its power in central Italy in the 7th century B.C., Etruria dominated the region for centuries until the advent of the Roman republic, which had all but conquered the Etruscans before the middle of the 3rd century B.C., fully assimilating them by 90 B.C. 

An Etruscan bronze figurine depicting Sleep (Hypnos) and Death (Thanatos) carrying away Sarpedon after he was slain by Patroclus during the Trojan War.  (Image credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Archaeologists have long known that the Etruscans had bequeathed to the later Roman Republic their religious rituals, metalworking, gladiatorial combat and the innovations in architecture and engineering, which transformed Rome from a once crude settlement into a great city. However, not much was known about the geographical origins of the Etruscans or their enigmatic, partially-understood language — making them the subject of more than 2,400 years of intense debate.

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus (widely considered to be the first historian) believed that the Etruscans descended from Anatolian and Aegean peoples who fled westward following a famine in what is now western Turkey. Another Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, countered that the pre-Roman civilization, despite their Greek customs and non-Indo-European language, were natives of the Italian peninsula. 

While recent archaeological evidence, which shows little evidence of migration, has been tilting in favor of Halicarnassus’ argument, "a lack of ancient DNA from the region has made genetic investigations inconsistent," the study researchers said in the statement. To resolve this, the scientists collected ancient genomic information from the remains of 82 individuals who lived between 2,800 and 1,000 years ago across 12 archaeological sites in central and southern Italy. 

After comparing DNA from those 82 individuals with that of other ancient and modern peoples, the scientists discovered that despite the strong differences in customs and language, the Etruscans and their Latin neighbors shared a genetic profile with each other. In fact, the ancestry of both groups points to people who first arrived in the region from the Pontic-Caspian steppe during the Bronze Age. After these early Etruscans settled in northern and eastern Italy, their gene pool remained relatively stable — across both the Iron Age and the absorption of the Etruscan civilization into the Roman Republic. Then after the rise of the Roman Empire, there was a great influx of new genes, likely as a result of the mass migrations the empire brought about. 

"This genetic shift clearly depicts the role of the Roman Empire in the large-scale displacement of people in a time of enhanced upward or downward socioeconomic and geographic mobility," Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropologyin Germany, said in the statement.

Now that the ancient debate could have finally been settled, the scientists plan to conduct a broader genetic study using ancient DNA from other regions of the Roman Empire. This will help them to not only pin down further details of the origins of the Etruscans and their strange, now extinct, language, but to discover the movements of peoples that transformed their descendants into the genetically diverse citizens of a global superpower.

The researchers published their findings Sept. 24 in the journal Science Advances

Originally published on Live Science.

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.