Before the glory of Rome, the Etruscans ruled much of what is now Italy. Some of Rome’s first kings were from Etruria, and Etruscans may have founded the city-state that would dominate much of the known world for centuries.
With a unique and still largely unknown language, this early civilization was substantially different from other Iron Age societies, boasting a sophisticated knowledge of farming, metalworking and sculpture that strongly influenced ancient Greek and Roman culture.
“[T]he first known superpower of the Western Mediterranean,” in the words of Live Science’s Ben Turner, the Etruscans thrived for centuries, only to be conquered by the Romans in the third century B.C.E. and fully assimilated into the Roman Republic by 90 B.C.E.
For generations, researchers have wondered who the Etruscans were and where they came from. As early as the fifth century B.C.E., Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the enigmatic people first lived in a faraway land before migrating to the Italian Peninsula.
Now, reports Ariel David for Haaretz, a sweeping genetic survey has confirmed the Etruscans’ origins, suggesting they were local—and proving Herodotus wrong. The new DNA analysis, which was centered on 82 individuals who lived between 800 B.C.E. and 1000 C.E., shows that these ancient people shared many of the same genes as their Roman neighbors. Researchers collected genetic samples from skeletons found across the former region of Etruria, which spanned Tuscany in northern Italy and the central part of the peninsula, as well as the island of Corsica.
As the study’s authors write in the journal Science Advances, “[T]he local gene pool [was] largely maintained across the first millennium B.C.E.” That finding changed dramatically during the time of the Roman Empire, when imperial expansion sparked the incorporation of populations from across the Mediterranean.
“This huge genetic shift in imperial times transforms Italians from a people firmly within the genetic cloud of Europe into a genetic bridge between the Mediterranean and the Near East,” lead author Cosimo Posth, a geneticist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, tells Haaretz.
Earlier archaeological and genetic research indicated that Italy was initially settled about 8,000 years ago by people migrating from Stone Age Europe and, later, the Eurasian steppes and Anatolia.
“The Etruscans look indistinguishable from Latins, and they also carry a high proportion of steppe ancestry,” Posth tells Andrew Curry of Science magazine.
The civilization’s still mostly indecipherable language is noticeably different from other societies of that era but bears some commonalities with Greek, including similar alphabets; indeed, Herodotus once speculated that the Etruscans were actually ancient Greeks from Anatolia.
According to Michelle Starr of Science Alert, the new study suggests the Etruscans managed to resist absorption by later migrations of Indo-European peoples and retain their unique language—at least for a time.
“Usually, when Indo-European arrives, it supplants the languages that were there before,” study co-author Guus Kroonen, a linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, tells Science. “So why do the Etruscans speak a non–Indo-European language?”
The fact that the Etruscans were able to maintain their language despite waves of later migration testifies to the strength of their culture. The study suggests that the ancient society passed along linguistic characteristics to other civilizations that later emerged on the Italian Peninsula.
“This linguistic persistence, combined with a genetic turnover, challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages,” says study co-author David Caramelli, an anthropologist at the University of Florence in Italy, in a statement.
He adds that this “suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community, possibly during a prolonged period of admixture over the second millennium B.C.E.”
Though the language lasted for centuries after the collapse of its society, Etruria was eventually absorbed by Rome. Later, Etruscan language and culture similarly disappeared. Next, the researchers plan to find out why the civilization lasted as long as it did and how it finally ended.