February 8, 2013

Were the Etruscans after all native Italians?

Etruscan sarcophagus
(CC by Ecelan)
A new study casts doubt on the Anatolian origin theory of Etruscan origins.

As you may know, two main theories have been proposed for the origins of the ancient Italian civilization that taught Romans nearly everything, especially in the field of architecture: on one side that they were Bronze Age arrivals from Anatolia, maybe related to ancient Trojans, which had some support on art aesthetics, the historical presence of a close relative of Etruscan language in the island of Lemnos, some classical theories and, more recently, an ancient mtDNA study (Vernesi 2004), which found the mtDNA of ancient Etruscan aristocrats to be closest (by FST) to Turks than to any other studied population, excepted (by slight margin) modern Tuscans.

The main alternative theory proposes that Etruscans were a local development, what would be also consistent with an Anatolian genetic affinity because the Italian peninsula, including Tuscany, shows repeated waves of cultural influences from the Western Balcans first (Neolithic) and from the Aegean later on (Chalcolithic especially).

The debate seems however far away from reaching any strong conclusion, notably now that a new study revising Vernesi's data finds a different and rather puzzling set of affinities for ancient Etruscans.

Silvia Ghirotto et al., Origins and Evolution of the Etruscans’ mtDNA. PLoS ONE, 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055519]


The Etruscan culture is documented in Etruria, Central Italy, from the 8th to the 1st century BC. For more than 2,000 years there has been disagreement on the Etruscans’ biological origins, whether local or in Anatolia. Genetic affinities with both Tuscan and Anatolian populations have been reported, but so far all attempts have failed to fit the Etruscans’ and modern populations in the same genealogy. We extracted and typed the hypervariable region of mitochondrial DNA of 14 individuals buried in two Etruscan necropoleis, analyzing them along with other Etruscan and Medieval samples, and 4,910 contemporary individuals from the Mediterranean basin. Comparing ancient (30 Etruscans, 27 Medieval individuals) and modern DNA sequences (370 Tuscans), with the results of millions of computer simulations, we show that the Etruscans can be considered ancestral, with a high degree of confidence, to the current inhabitants of Casentino and Volterra, but not to the general contemporary population of the former Etruscan homeland. By further considering two Anatolian samples (35 and 123 individuals) we could estimate that the genetic links between Tuscany and Anatolia date back to at least 5,000 years ago, strongly suggesting that the Etruscan culture developed locally, and not as an immediate consequence of immigration from the Eastern Mediterranean shores.

The study finds that ancient Etruscan mtDNA is closest among modern populations (by FST) to Southern Germans and, following closely, a varied array of other Europeans (totally the opposite to Vernesi's findings), and rather not too close to Turks or other Eastern Mediterranean populations.

Annotated version of Fig. S3-B, FST distances of ancient Etruscan mtDNA
(red: 0.4-0.6, orange: 0.6-0.8, yellow: 0.8-1.0)
See also Fig. S4 (multidimensional scaling graphs)
= Click to expand =

Among ancient populations, ancient Etruscans are found to be closer to Neolithic farmers from Central Europe and then to ancient Lucchesi (from Lucca, including those from the Chalcolithic era, i.e. Eneolithic):

Fig. S4-C Multi Dimensional Scaling summarizing genetic affinities between the Etruscans and (...) (C) 9 ancient populations of Europe. Population labels and sample sizes are provided in Table S2 [Neo_Farm: Neolithic Central Europeans, Med: Medieval Tuscans]

Among the study's conclusions are:

A model of genealogical continuity across 2,500 years thus proved to best fit the observed data for Volterra, and especially Casentino, but not for another community dwelling in an area also rich with Etruscan archaeological remains (Murlo), nor (as expected) for the bulk of the current Tuscan population, here represented by a forensic sample of the inhabitants of Florence. Therefore, the present analysis indicates that the Etruscan genetic heritage is still present, but only in some isolates, whereas current Tuscans are not generally descended from Etruscan ancestors along the female lines.

Notice that this is always in relation to the ancient Etruscan mtDNA data, which comes from the tombs of aristocrats, not commoners. However they insist:

Because Medieval Tuscans appear directly descended from Etruscan ancestors, one can reasonably speculate that the genetic build-up of the Murlo and Florence populations was modified by immigration in the last five centuries.

Villanovan urn
(CC by Sailko)
An intriguing issue not considered apparently by the authors is the appearance of greatest genetic similitude with some populations of Central Europe. I would consider preliminarily that a possible line of interpretation of this data might be that the Etruscan elites might have arrived with the Urnfields expansion peoples (Indoeuropeans most probably) but were culturally and linguistically assimilated by the native substrate (proto-Etruscans did participate of the fashion of corpse incineration and burial of the charred remains in urns, which even led some to propose that they were Indoeuropeans in fact).

However this clashes with the fact that they also appear extremely close to Central European Neolithic peoples, which are not at all similar to modern nor Urnfields period Central Europeans. So I have to admit that a local Neolithic origin may be the most reasonable hypothesis with this data and that the irregular Central European affinities may have other explanation (such as local preservation of a mtDNA pool closer to Neolithic one than usual).

Update (Feb 15): Gail Tonnesen has researched in greater depth what haplogroups could the ancient Etruscans have specifically → LINK


  1. I offer a different take in a recent post at my blog. In my view, they are probably intrusive to Italy ca. the 8th to 12th centuries BCE, and were "pushed" their (as were the related Rhaetic people of the Alps) by expanding Indo-European populations. But, in my view they are probably ancestral with not much subsequent demographic disruption from Cardium Pottery Noelithic people of Southern France. Pliny's historical account in his Natural Histories tends to support this view and it seems quite consistent with the archeological and genetic evidence. I suggest that Lemnos was a 9th century BCE colony of people in the Etruscan linguistic family emigrating to new lands in response to similar "push" factors to those that caused the Etruscans to settle in Tuscany.

    I would attribute Indo-European culture features in Etruscans to intentional but partial cultural borrowing from a high relative status (at the time) neighboring culture, rather than assimilation of a substrate culture.

    The PCA chart, however, suggests that perhaps pre-Indo-European peoples descended from LBK peoples rather than Cardium Pottery peoples may be a better reading, although the same general narrative once the Rhaetic people find themselves fleeing to the Alps (from another direction) otherwise holds true. In this analysis, Etruscan similarites of Indo-Europeans arise from an areal cultural stew in a place formative to both Etruscans and Indo-Europeans that both draw from.

    1. u dont have to say Indo European populations u can say Italic populations we know what langauge they spoke there are so many Indo European speaking tribes. It gets confusing when u say that there not all the same. Also the INdo European speaking tribes in bronze and iron age Europe probably had mainly ancestry from the Neolithic people already there.

      I think people need to understand that Europeans ancestry period is without a doubt mainly from Pre Neolithic people of Europe. Europeans paleness for one thing proves it. Look at Finnish globe13 results extremely little med which came in the Neolithic age and Farming kid of never spread there but their actulley the palest Europeans.

      U should look at Origin of Euro palness i made it

      So the Indo European peoples u are talking about also were very descended from LBK or Cardiel depending on where they lived. I don't think u should separate everyone so easily in genetics they are all mixes.

  2. I find your argument rather convoluted and illustrates your IMO lighthearted inclination to see population replacements and re-replacements all around even in the most unlikely settings.

    Urnfields characteristics may well have been borrowed following militaristic raids and therefore a "high status" derived from military might alone. It'd be surely correct to say that Italy was relatively underdeveloped before the Etruscan and later Roman apogee relative to the Aegean or even, at some times, Iberia, but hardly Central Europe. So any prestige kind of influence should be of militaristic nature. Most other Etruscan cultural traits are actually taken from the East (Greece mainly), in what seems to be another more truly prestigious kind of influence based on cultural achievements.

    "The PCA chart, however, suggests that perhaps pre-Indo-European peoples descended from LBK peoples rather than Cardium Pottery peoples"...

    In this study there is no Cardium Pottery data. Other studies (West of Italy) have shown them to have rather similar mtDNA pools to Central European Neolithic peoples, and, like them, therefore, to be quite different from modern populations.

    1. I think u need to remember mtDNA is is not everything. These are 14 mtDNA samples from Iron age Estrucans if u gp by the idea they came to Italy in the bronze age they had time to inter marry we might be looking at Italian mtDNA. Also Indo Europeans does not define race sure Y DNA spread by Germanic Italo Celts and Balto Slavs in dominate in Europe but that is not full ancestry.

      The fact Europeans are so pale not just in skin color but also hair and eye color. Is proof they are not descended from mid eastern Neolithic people. Look at Finnish they have almost no med in globe13 test which came with farming and farming barelly even spread that far north. but their as white as French actulley paler in hair and eye color. So without a doubt Europeans ancestry is mainly from Pre Neolithic Europeans.

      U should look at Origin of European paleness(Skin, hair, and eye color)

      So who ever the proto Germanic Italo Celtic speakers were all we can say is they were a mix of native Europeans around Ukraine and Russia and migrating R1b1a2a L23 or R1b1a2 M269 or R1b1a P297 people out of the north mid east. Who knows if western Europeans trace most of their ancestry to the invaders who where mainly European or the natives in western Europe. So Italian people probably probably mainly descend from the pre Italic tribes of Italy who come form the Neolithic ones. We know proto Italo speakers came from Urnfield central Europe probably no diff from people in modern day central Europe are Italians no so right there we know there was not a population replacement.

      So Italic tribes also the proto ones in central Europe probably had mtDNA mainly from the Neolithic people in Europe. I orignazed all Neolithic and Copper age mtDNA the ones in Europe totally show continuity with modern Europeans defintley when u include more than LBK and the more LBK they find the more it fits with modern Europeans. The idea that there is Neolithic mtDNa not in Europe today or not the same percentages is not true.

  3. Or let's see if I can explain myself better: the Bronze Age populations we know from Germany are not at all like LBK peoples but much more like modern ones. There is uncertainty to what may have happened in the Chalcolithic but I'd say with great certainty that either in the Chalcolithic or in the Bronze Age itself there was a (partial?) replacement of populations in Central Europe. This may be related to the expansion of Northern "neo-Paleolithic" Funnelbeaker phenomenon, Western Megalithism (partly related to the former) or Indoeuropean Kurgan-derived cultures (or possibly all them cumulatively). Whatever the case we have no reason to imagine late Bronze Age Western Indoeuropeans from Central Europe (Urnfields culture in our debate) as direct descendants of LBK peoples.

    Additionally I miss a haplogroup by haplogroup comparison here. Statistical inferences are nice but maybe treating the genetic pool of ancient Etruscans as a single set is wrong to begin with, having complex origins itself.

    1. "Additionally I miss a haplogroup by haplogroup comparison here."

      There is no mention of haplogroups in the paper, and it appears they did not attempt to assign the ancient DNA samples to haplogroups, so I looked at the 30 ancient mtDNA haplotypes listed in Table S1.

      Seven of them appear to be U5, although they only identified the U5 defining mutation 16270 in two of the seven, and they seem to have missed several other mutations that should be present. For example, samples Hap4 and Hap5 are both U5a2a (based on the combination of 16114a and 16294). U5a2a should also have mutations at 16256, 16270 and 16526, but they miss all 3 of these in Hap4, while they only found 16256 in Hap5. So based on the U5 samples, they appear to have a high error rate of missed markers in their results.

      Eight of the samples appear to be JT, based on the mutation at 16126. Two of the samples might be H1b based on the mutation at 16356. I can't identify haplogroups for any of the remaining 13 samples. Six of the samples are CRS, but given that they missed 16270 in most of the apparent U5 samples, it is really impossible to guess what haplogroup the CRS samples might be.

      Figure 3, the median joining network, has the haplotypes scrambled in a way that has no connection to their actual relationship in the phylogeographic tree. So that makes me wonder if the rest of their analysis is meaningful.

      Obviously they need to do additional sequencing on 13 of the 30 samples to identify their haplogroup. But the results we have so far seem to show the ancient Etruscans samples dominated by haplogroups J and U5.

    2. This you say is most interesting and relevant. Maybe we are trying to understand ancient Etruscans without really understanding their mtDNA.

      Do you feel like writing a short text, maybe with a complementary image (or table that I'd turn into image easily) so I can add as update with due credit to you? Or, if it ends up being a long text, as a separate article? If so, send me an email with the result to lialdamiz[at]gmail[dot]com. Thanks in advance.

    3. I'll put together a table tomorrow and send it to you. Hopefully they still have sample material available to do additional coding region testing?

    4. Hope (but don't expect) so. Otherwise much aDNA would be resequenced and, sadly, it's not the case.

      I await for whatever you can find, which may well be the best that can be done.

  4. "I miss a haplogroup by haplogroup comparison here".

    Yes. The real story is likely to be quite complicated. As I see it, though:

    "Among ancient populations, ancient Etruscans are found to be closer to Neolithic farmers from Central Europe and then to ancient Lucchesi"

    These people probably spoke an Anatolian language because it seems very likely that is where they started out from. And that makes sense of Maju's comment:

    "I would consider preliminarily that a possible line of interpretation of this data might be that the Etruscan elites might have arrived with the Urnfields expansion peoples (Indoeuropeans most probably) but were culturally and linguistically assimilated by the native substrate"

    The 'original' language survived. But Indo-European speaking people came to dominate further south in Italy and, ultimately (Rome), to take over.

    "I suggest that Lemnos was a 9th century BCE colony of people in the Etruscan linguistic family"

    As a result of this paper I think that is the most likely explanation for any connection.

  5. "the Etruscans’ biological origins, whether local or in Anatolia."

    Even if the Etruscans were originally a sea-based intrusion wouldn't the most likely explanation - possibly from quite soon after the original colonization - be both?

    Taking Carthage or any of the Greek colonies as an example wouldn't the coastal colony itself have the most external DNA, the remote hinterland the least and the near hinterland the most mixed. Over time, especially as the coastal colony cities are likely to bear the brunt of various wars over the centuries the percentage might then shift more towards the local end of the spectrum.

    Similarly if the original colony contained more men than women there'd be more local mtdna anyway even in the colonies.

    (Actually not just Carthage but more recently countries like Brazil where the majority of colonists were male and the percentage of original dna in the current population varies with remoteness from the coastal colonies.)

    1. The matter is that we have to deal only with mtDNA, which is certainly both the more likely to stay put after colonization or conquest (because of gender bias in such matters) and is also in my experience the one more likely to reflect most of the autosomal DNA apparent origins - Y-DNA's influence is almost always minor, unless, as happened in Latin America, the colonization was sustained, repeated, generation after generation, century after century. This could be the case of Magna Graecia or as you suggest the Phoenician colonies, but probably not of the Etruscan colonization, if it was such at all, which would seem to correlate (assuming early Proto-Villanovan chronology) with the the very end of the pre-IE states of the Aegean (i.e. Trojan War, Hittite and Mycenaean expansion, etc.), which would hardly be able to provide then repeated waves of male settlers with the "correct" ethno-cultural background anymore.

    2. "with the the very end of the pre-IE states of the Aegean (i.e. Trojan War, Hittite and Mycenaean expansion, etc.), which would hardly be able to provide then repeated waves of male settlers with the "correct" ethno-cultural background anymore."

      That was my thinking. Even if the cultural origin was Anatolian given the timing the dna element may have been submerged quite early because of lack of further reinforcement.

  6. Please check the new entry by GailT: http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com.es/2013/02/guest-article-by-gail-tonnesen-comments.html

  7. I get sick of people basing things on mtDNA haplogroups. Europeans and mid eastern period have so many of the same groups. With only 12 mtDNA samples of Estrucans that is not enough to really form an opinion on where they originated. If they are foreigners form Anatolia who came to Italy in the bronze age maybe 4,500-3,000ybp do u really think they could stay 100% Anatolian and not inter marry with the natives in Italy. Dont u think Estrucan men when they first arrived in Italy could have inter married with Italians women to keep peace between tribes i know that has happened alot in history. Like when the Indo Iranian speaking tribes spread across asia when they went into India they did not stay 100% European they became assimilated. Look at the tarim mummies the 4,000 year old ones they are very early Indo Iranian speaking tribes in Asia and they where total European east Asian mixes.

    So i would not really put any trust in Etruscan mtDNA from the Iron age when f u go by the idea they came in the bronze age they already had time to inter marry with the native's in Italy. the Urnfield culture in the bronze age(3,300-2,700ybp) in central Europe spoke Italic and Celtic languages. The group that spread to Italy and later formed into Villnoeaven culture where the original Italic tribes u know they where the first Italian speakers. Just like their brother group the Hallstatt/La Tene Gauls in central and western Europe they would have been dominted by R1b S28. Which is why it is so popular in Italy today. It most popular around where Estrucans lived proving they inter married. I am pretty sure their our records of Roman Estrucan marriages. So the Estrucans even if originally where from Anatolia would have assimilated with Italians genetically they would have kept their culture and language i guess they where probably influenced by Greeks like Italians where.

    If u look at the painting's of Estrucans and compare them tp painting's of pre Roman Italy and of Roman Italy. U can see a obvious skin color difference the Estrucans are almost always brown while the Italians white. To me that is pretty good evidence they had mid eastern origin. But that doesn't match up with what i was saying before about them blending in with Italians. If u look at their painting's i have seen some of parties. And u see a bunch of brown skinned people dancing like 10 and one white person maybe a visitor. I know Italians are darker than most Europeans but their not brown something is wrong with Estrucan paintings.

    Also when u look at globe13 aust dna. The southwest asian and west asian shows trends in Europe. It is basicalley the same from Germany, France, British isles, Switzerland, and southern Scandnavia about 5-9% west asian and 3-5% southwest asian. Then in Iberia around 5% west asian and 5% southwest asian, east of Germany and north of Romania u get a little more southwest asian and little less west asian.

    But then all of sudden in Italy and Greece u get 20-24% west Asian and 15-18% southwest asian and southeast Europe period both over 10%. I checked the southwest Asian and west Asian percentages vs each other their are trends in Europe and one trend is Italy, Greece, and southwest Europe. Showing it came from the same event and same time. the more south u go in Italy the higher it gets and in southeast Europe it peaks in Greece, Obviously is came in Greco Roman age. So why couldn't estucans be apart of that. There kind of a mystery though.

    1. "If they are foreigners form Anatolia who came to Italy in the bronze age maybe 4,500-3,000ybp do u really think they could stay 100% Anatolian and not inter marry with the natives in Italy".

      No. But it's possible that the aristocracy had a distinct status from the plain people and married mostly among them. After all the ancient tombs are all aristocratic. BTW, c. 1300 BCE anyhow is the date I usually manage for the Anatolian model, which would be at the beginning of the Villanova culture.

      In any case, even modern Tuscans consistently appear in autosomal analysis to be more oriental than other Italians, what should mean that the Aegean impact was quite important in demographic terms, enough to survive the Roman repression and acculturation, the cosmopolitanism of the Middle Ages, etc. So it was something affecting not just the aristocracy but the general population, much as (most) Mexicans, for example, are not anymore just Native Americans but about 50% European by ancestry.

      The same that Mexicans now have lots of European mythology (although often conflated with native ones), probably ancient Etruscans retained some Aegean myths like the legend of Aeneas, which was later adopted by Romans (who were the more Etruscan of all Latins, being at the border and having not just Etruscan monarchs but architects and seers). This legend points to an specifically Trojan connection.

      "... something is wrong with Estrucan paintings".

      Maybe it's a matter of cultural preferences (they are not "brown" anyhow, just the usual Mediterranean tan colors), for example the more liberal Etruscans may have enjoyed more the sun than the more austere Romans. IDK, I haven't really ever looked at this issue with any methodology so I would appreciate objective data. Maybe it's just dirt on the paints, you know that restored pictures (or the originals) almost always appear much brighter than old worn ones.

      "... mtDNA is is not everything".

      In most cases mtDNA has a good correlation with autosomal DNA, while Y-DNA doesn't. There are exceptions maybe but they are rare.

      "The fact Europeans are so pale not just in skin color but also hair and eye color. Is proof they are not descended from mid eastern Neolithic people".

      I don't think that's proof of anything at all. First of all Europeans are diverse and there are no radical differences in skin color between West Asian and European regions at the same latitude. Second, West Asians are also diverse and they were probably less admixed among them in the distant past. There are many blonds in Turkey or even Iraq and you can see red hair even in Somalia or Sudan, side by side with dark brown ("black") skin color.

      "Look at Finnish"...

      Those are an outgroup. You can't discuss Europe based on one of the most extreme, endogamous and peculiar populations.

      "U should look at Origin of European paleness(Skin, hair, and eye color)"...

      We do not know enough: there have been hypothesis floating but "U" (what a fucking annoyance, why can't you type "you" like everybody?) should look in this blog as well, maybe you learn something:


      Your RedHair idol does not know shit anyhow: he seems a Nazi propagandist to my eyes, not at all any serious aficionado to genetics or anthropology. There is a "no racism" clause for comments in this blog, so you are on thin ice already. He can't even spell "Samaritan": how can you trust someone who is unable to write and does not even post a source to all his wild speculations? That guy is an ideologue, not any reference, I would ask you to refrain from trying to give me "lessons" based on that crap (no more links to Fire Haired posts, please, serious: he's just creepy and crappy).


    2. ...

      "So who ever the proto Germanic Italo Celtic speakers were all we can say is they were a mix of native Europeans around Ukraine and Russia"...

      No. The Western IE group (which includes those languages but also Balto-Slavic) originates in Central Europe, with a key step in Corded Ware (although the exact details after that are a bit confuse). Corded Ware does of course have Eastern European precursors, both via the local Central European seed cultures (Baalberge → Luboń → Globular Amphorae, already quite expansive) but also, it seems, via a Catacomb-related group that acted as catalyzer at the origin of Corded Ware and may be the reason behind the Centum-Satem differences within the Western IE languages.

      But attributing their origins to Russia-Ukraine without a lot of caveats is not valid. The seed of all IE languages and cultures is over there (especially Samara Valley) but the Western branch had a secondary origin in East Germany and Poland, and later also played a very important role the Southern German area (Tumuli, Urnfields, Hallstatt, La Tène). So it's largely a Central European genesis, whose details sometimes we do not fully understand.

      "... and migrating R1b1a2a L23 or R1b1a2 M269 or R1b1a P297 people out of the north mid east".

      Don't waste my time with that shit, please. R1b-S116, the most important R1b subclade clearly originated in France, so it has nothing to do with your "Aryan race" madness. Finns don't have it and Germans only very weakly: it's a Western European thing (Iberia, France, Atlantic Islands with some weak scatter eastward).

      I do not think you want to keep any serious nor respectful dialogue, just patronize me with your know-nothing dogma. My patience is wearing fast and unless you change radically I will have no problems in banning you. I do not have to put up with racist nordocentric patronizing dogmatic jerks. The Internet is full of people, many of which are just fine, it's just a few who cause all the trouble and the best thing to do is to isolate them in a gagged limbo.

      "So Italic tribes also the proto ones"...

      The only "proto" here is you: proto-banned. Go write your own blog if you think you have so much to share.

      "U should look at Origin of Euro palness i made it"...

      So you are Fire Head. More reason to ban you. That guy is a know-nothing jerk with megalomaniac Eurocentric barely concealed racist ideas.

      Please do not post here anymore. I'm not interested nor are most of my readers, I'm pretty sure.


Please, be reasonably respectful when making comments. I do not tolerate in particular sexism, racism nor homophobia. Personal attacks, manipulation and trolling are also very much unwelcome here.The author reserves the right to delete any abusive comment.

Preliminary comment moderation is... ON (sorry, too many trolls).