Who were the Etruscans?


Geneticists reveal origins of Etruscans.


The Etruscans loom large in history, having settled in northern Italy around 1000 BC. They put down solid roots in their new homeland and were soon in touch with Greek colonies in southern Italy and perhaps with the Phoenicians. Iron tools and extensive trading contracts turned the Etruscan civilization into a powerful group of trading partners who shared both highly lucrative trade and cultural traditions over a wide area. The Etruscans lived in city-states, each with substantial public buildings and fortifications. But their decentralized political organization made them vulnerable to foreign raiders, most of them warrior bands from Central Europe. The Romans evicted the ruling Etruscan dynasty from the seven hills of Rome in 509 BC and Etruscan influence and power declined after 460 BC. They were fully assimilated by the Romans by the mid-third century BC after providing many institutions that became part of Roman society.


But where did they originally come from? Etruscan origins have been puzzled over for generations, with recent research tending to favour an origin in Italy itself.


Enter the geneticists, who compared DNA from 82 Etruscan individuals, who lived between 2,800 and 1,000 years ago, from 12 archaeological sites in Central and southern Italy. The DNA revealed that the ancestry of both the Etruscans and their Latin neighbours was shared, despite striking cultural and linguistic differences. The ancestry of both groups lies among people who first arrived in their homeland from the Pontic and Caspian steppe during the Bronze Age. Thereafter their gene pool remained relatively stable until Etruscan civilization was absorbed into the Roman Empire. Then there was a major genetic shift, reflecting the constant influx of outsiders from throughout the Empire.


Image: Sarcophagus of the Spouses, showing an Etruscan couple. On show at The Louvre.