Etruscan historical genetics done right

i-b96acebec8a6436b47da6fc5491f83e1-etruria.jpgMost of you know that I believe there are serious problems with much of contemporary historical population genetics. Grand unfounded narratives, and scientists who lack requisite historical knowledge, litter the field. But, narrow, precise and crystal clear studies do emerge now and then. This is a case in point, Mitochondrial DNA Variation of Modern Tuscans Supports the Near Eastern Origin of Etruscans:

Interpopulation comparisons reveal that the modern population of Murlo, a small town of Etruscan origin, is characterized by an unusually high frequency (17.5%) of Near Eastern mtDNA haplogroups. Each of these haplogroups is represented by different haplotypes, thus dismissing the possibility that the genetic allocation of the Murlo people is due to drift. Other Tuscan populations do not show the same striking feature; however, overall, â¼5% of mtDNA haplotypes in Tuscany are shared exclusively between Tuscans and Near Easterners and occupy terminal positions in the phylogeny. These findings support a direct and rather recent genetic input from the Near East....

Sometimes history can be extremely well illuminated by simple genetic studies. This is one such case. The origins of the Etruscans are (were?) "mysterious." Some would hold that they are indigenous to the Italian peninsula, while others promote a more exotic provenance. Here is Herodotus, the father of lies:

The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia....

Tyrrehnia is Etruria, modern Tuscany. When I first encountered the "Lydian hypothesis," I was rather skeptical. After all, how plausible is it that Anatolians around ~1000 BCE set off and colonized the northwest coast of the Italian peninsula? It seemed to me that a more likely possibility was that the Etruscans emerged from the indigenous non-Indo-European substratum of Italy, and that any coincidences with Anatolian cultural forms were happenstance or due to diffusion. This is a common model in archeology, people do not move, cultural elements do, and parallelism is a common tendency. An anti-migration bias probably is a backlash against the assumption in the early half of the 20th century that entire populations took flight or were displaced in the ancient world. The British imagined themselves descended from Anglo-Saxon Germans, not the Celts they conquered. The Arab speaking peoples of course were descended from Arabs who conquered the indigneous people of the Middle East, who dissipated over time. And so on. But the reality is clealry very different, a general trend seems to be that cultural elites can have great impact and transform the mores of a subject population, and that this was more common than wholesale replacement. Nevertheless, there are counter examples, and the Etruscans seem to be one. It is particularly instructive that female genetic data, mitochondrial haplotypes, were used to point to their likely exogenous origin, because colonizing groups usually take local wives. That the Anatolians brought their women suggests that this was a folk wandering of massive proportions, more like the British settlement of the eastern North American seaboard than the Spanish colonization of Latin America. According to Oxford classicist Robin Lane Fox the Greek colonial expeditions, which barely post-dated the putative Anatolian emigration, were characterized by a very strong male bias in sex ratios. It seems that the Greek colonial policy was driven by overpopulation and political troubles at home, disruptive were men simply sent off overseas. If Etruscan men and women journeyed across the Mediterranean that suggests a wholesale transplation, not just the emigration of a slice of the population which needed to be got rid of.

In any case, I do find it interesting that the Romans concocted a tale of their Trojan origins, because Troy is located to the north and west of the ancient Lydian homeland. Surely coincidence, but a deliciously amusing one nonetheless.

Technical Notes: The diversity of haplotypes from the Near East suggests that large number of immigrants who represented the full range of Near Eastern diversity. If only a small group arrived but reproduced prolifically founder effect would blow up the inevitable sampling error from the source population. The Etruscans would have been a more distorted slice of the Middle Eastern mtDNA landscape. Similarly, if the peculiarity was due to genetic drift pushing up a the frequency of an exotic allele, then that would have extinguished most of the variation and resulted in one lineage being predominant. The diversity tends to argue against this.


More like this

In response to the Etruscan story comments like this keep popping up: The articles in the press keep mentioning the Etruscans coming from Lydia. Lydian was an indo-european language. So, although there may be a linguistic link to Lemnos and a genetic link to Western Asia, there is no obvious link…
Opposition to Turkey entering the EU is building and the Turks themselves are apparently ambivalent, but they once were one of the most successful immigrant groups Europe had ever seen. At least that's the conclusion of Professor Alberto Piazza, from the University of Turin, Italy, who is set to…
The Etruscan timeline: a recent Anatolian connection: The origin of the Etruscans (the present day Tuscany, Italy), one of the most enigmatic non-Indo-European civilizations, is under intense controversy. We found novel genetic evidences on the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) establishing a genetic link…
In a well known quote, the nineteenth century historian and classicist Theodore Mommsen said that the origins of the Etruscans was "neither capable of being known nor worth the knowing". He had no idea of the results made possible by molecular genetic studies, naturally, as nobody did at that time…

This is great stuff, it's nice to see on SB. You've got a new loyal reader.

By Robert P. (not verified) on 14 Feb 2007 #permalink

I was under the impression that X chromosomes would have given the requisite fine resolution between local populations, but that mtDNA was just barely capable of placing a person on the right continent.

I was under the impression that X chromosomes would have given the requisite fine resolution between local populations, but that mtDNA was just barely capable of placing a person on the right continent.

nope. also, i think you mean Y chromosomes. the issue you're pointing to is that the mtDNA sequence is small compared to the nr-Y so it is harder to make fine resolution distinctions (aside from generalized patrilocality).

Interesting. Might the migration have something to do with the explosion of Thera and the subsequent appearance of the Sea Peoples/Philistines. Say, a indigenous population fleeing the newcomers/raiders and after wandering west for a bit finally finding relatively open land is modern day Tuscany?

Could there be traces of their travels in the mDNA of the descendents of the peoples they encountered on the way?

Might the migration have something to do with the explosion of Thera and the subsequent appearance of the Sea Peoples/Philistines.

1)i think too early

2) the eruption itself was way earlier than the sea peoples migrations. rather, there is some conjecture that thera had something to do with the rise of the mycenaeans at the expense of the minoans (yes, some of the mycenaeans become the sea peoples later)

Could there be traces of their travels in the mDNA of the descendents of the peoples they encountered on the way?

prolly too genetically close to the ones in the aegean. martin has a point, mtDNA is low resolution. the tuscan signature is discernable cuz anatolian stuff is far different from italian stuff.

Recent work on Y chromosomes (yes indeed, I mistyped before) has shed some fascinating light on the 5th-6th century migration of the "Anglo-Saxons" to Britain. According to Old English historical sources, these people came from the area either side of Denmark's southern border. But linguistically, Old English is much closer to Old Frisian than to what's known about the language spoken in southern Denmark. And guess what Continental population shows the closest similarity to males in small English towns? Yep, Frisians.

I was wondering if you are familiar with the Dutch linguist, and historian Beekes and his very interesting analysis of historic records which show a north Anatolian
origin of the Etruscans, and their ties to the local Meonians. Its a very interesting read. Their ties to the
Pelasgians is also worth considering, but not with the idea that they were early IE Greeks.

By Fred Hamori (not verified) on 06 Apr 2007 #permalink

Why do people continue to bash poor Herodotus with extremist titles like "Father of Lies"? Keep grounded people. Some skepticism is healthy but it can go too far and become delusional like in this case. There are truths in Herodotus' claims but is he 100% accurate? No. Who is? Is Massimo Pallottino or Nancy DeGrummond? (Bite my tongue, bite my tongue...)

Anyways, I always find this naive assumption that genetics is going to solve everything very irritating. I know where this is coming from. A false opposition has been built up in laymen's heads that "historical linguistics" is the "froofroo, wishywashy" science and genetics is the "empirical, non-froofroo" science. Geneticists good, historians evil. Long before this genetic hooplah, there was already ample evidence showing linguistic and cultural ties with Anatolia and the environs but people are refusing to pay attention long enough to notice. But ooooh genetics. Ooooh. How fab! Alas, the woes of this world!

Concerning the Thera eruption, the interesting question is how this might have affected Minoan economy. Now, maybe I'm out on a limb here, but I figure a giant tsunami sweeping hundreds or thousands of Minoan colonists to their deaths would be a teensy bit devestating to any economy, if not just discouraging to general morale. We have evidence of a general decline with economic and political turmoil ensuing. One of those pieces of evidence is the event recorded by Merneptah and Ramses III of a list of multiple peoples who sought to overthrow Egypt. This event is situated temporally between the Thera catastrophe and the migration of Etruscans to Italy. I think there is room for at least an indirect connection between the two events, no?