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Genomic data illuminates origin, legacy of the Etruscans

Genomic data illuminates origin, legacy of the Etruscans
Etruscan art was heavily influenced by Ancient Greek culture, but new research suggests the Etruscans were Italic in origin, not migrants. Photo by Cleveland Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

Sept. 24 (UPI) -- Before the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula was dominated for several centuries by another sophisticated confederation, the Etruscans.

After centuries of debate, new genomic analysis has offered fresh insights into the origins of this mysterious Italic civilization.

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The Etruscan civilization rose to prominence in central Italy during the Iron Age, forging connections with other Mediterranean powers and leaving behind a puzzling archaeological legacy.

Their art and social structure, their pre-Indo-European language and their impressive metallurgical skills set the Etruscans apart from their neighbors.

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Ever since the last of the Etruscan cities were absorbed into the Roman Empire during the 1st century B.C., historians, ancient and modern, have argued about who exactly the Etruscans were and where they came from.

Now, new genomic data -- detailed Friday in the journal Science Advances -- suggests that the Etruscans, despite their cultural idiosyncrasies, were more like their Italic neighbors than previously thought.

Early histories of the Etruscans, including accounts penned by the Greek writer and historian Herodotus, noted the strong influence of Ancient Greek culture on the art and cultural traditions of the Etruscans.

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Herodotus and other historians argued the Etruscan culture was founded by migrants originating from Anatolian or Aegean peoples. Another Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, argued that the Etruscans emerged locally, evolving out of Bronze Age Villanovan culture.

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Most modern archaeologists have sided with Dionysius, but until now, researchers didn't have the genetic data to support a theory of autochthonous origins.

For the new study, scientists analyzed DNA extracted from remains excavated at 12 archaeological sites. The genetic data spanned 2,000 years of Italic history. Genomic analysis revealed the genetic profile of the Etruscans to be quite similar to Latins who lived in neighboring Rome.

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Researchers also identified genetic links between the Etruscans and steppe-related ancestry -- groups that arrived in central Italy during the early Bronze Age.

Though these steppe-related migrants likely brought Indo-European languages to the region -- the ancestral languages of those now spoken by billions around the world -- the pre-Indo-European language of the Etruscans persisted through the Iron Age.

"This linguistic persistence, combined with a genetic turnover, 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, possibly during a prolonged period of admixture over the second millennium BCE," study author David Caramelli, professor at the University of Florence, said in a press release.

Researchers determined that the Etruscans' gene pool was fairly stable for eight centuries, despite, from the Iron Age through the Roman Republic period. However, during the Roman Imperial period, relocated slaves and soldiers captured by the expanding Roman Empire began mixing with the Italic populations, transforming the region's gene pool.

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"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," said co-author Johannes Krause, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, genetic data suggests a growing influence of European groups, especially German migrants, on the region's genome. However, researchers found central and southern Italy's genetic makeup has remained largely stable over the last 1,000 years.

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