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The Origins of the Etruscans

The Etruscans occupied the region to the north of Rome, between the Arno and Tiber Rivers to the west of the Apennine Mountains. The Romans were first a subject people of the Etruscans and later their conquerors. The Etruscan culture was well-developed and advanced but distinctively different from the cultures of the other peoples in the region. This distinctive difference immediately led to the question of where did the Etruscans originate. This question was subject to active speculation among the Greeks.

Some Greeks held that the Etruscans were a branch of the Pelasgians, aboriginal inhabitants of the Aegean region, others such as Virgil thought they came from Lydia, a kingdom of western Anatolia. The Greek master historian Herodotus also ascribes the origin of the Etruscans to Lydia. Herodotus says the ancestors of the Etruscans were forced to emigrate from Lydia because of 18 years of hard times. The Lydians built ships and half of the population left under the leadership of Tyrrhenus, the son of the king of Lydia.

The Pelasgians may have been the Sea People who around 1200 B.C. invaded the Egyptian Empire. The Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his Early History of Rome dismissed these theory and argued that the Etruscan were the aboriginal inhabitants of their area.

The question became more intriguing when, in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that most of the languages of Europe belonged to one big language family called Indo-European but Etruscan was not one of them.

Although the early history of the Etruscans is uncertain the later history is well known. By about 700 B.C. the major Etruscan cities had been founded. The Etruscan culture was flourishing during the the sixth century B.C.; i.e., the century of the 500's B.C. As the Etruscan culture burgeoned it ran into constraint on its expansion due to strong cultures and geographic confinements bordering its home region. This led to an expansion into the Po River Valley to the northeast. Also at this time there was an aggressive expansion of Greek culture on the Italian Peninsula, the islands of Corsica and Sicily and what is now the south coast of France. Commercial rivalry of the Etruscans and Greeks led to military confrontation which, on balance, the Etruscans lost. By about 500 B.C. the Etruscans were losing not only to the Greeks but also to former tributary peoples such as the Romans. By 400 B.C. the Etruscans were being politically subordinated to the Romans. The Romans adopted numerous elements of Etruscan culture, including the Etruscan alphabet which the Etruscans had adopted from the Greeks. The Latin letters of European civilization, the letters which you see before you, had their origin in the Etruscan alphabet. Of course this alphabet and that of the Greeks had their origin in the alphabet of the Phoenicians.

The Origin of the Etruscans

The question of the origin of a people necessarily has a complex answer. The matter of the origin of the culture of a people has to be separated from genetic origins of the people who practice that culture. The culture of a people may, and generally does, have multiple roots. Consider the origins of the people of Mexico. The genetic origins are mixed between aboriginal people of the region and people from Europe predominantly Spain. The culture likewise has mixed origins. The cultural mix is predominantly European as in the case of the language spoken but the genetic mix is predominantly aboriginal. The conquest of Mexico by the conquistadors was probably typical of what occurred throughout history.

What probably occurred in Tuscany was a numerically small element coming from who knows where settled and conquered the iron age population. The invaders brought a culture, including perhaps the language, which the conquered population adopted in part. The genetic origin of the people who became the Etruscans could well have been predominantly the aboriginal population. The aboriginal population may have settled in the area millenia prior to the invasion. The aboriginal people may have been the people of the Villanovan Culture.

The technology of DNA analysis has been applied to the question of origins. A study published in the April 2007 issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics reports finding eleven lineages of mitochondrial DNA in Tuscany that have not been found elsewhere in Europe but do occur in the Near East.

A brilliant line of investigation was followed by Marco Pellecchia and Paolo Ajmone-Marsan of the Catholic University in Piacenza. They examined the mitochondrial DNA of cattle in Tuscan and found some breeds were genetically related to breeds of cattle in the Near East. The other breeds were European in origin. What these two studies indicate is that there were some Near Eastern sources for the Etruscans. The other possibility is that the Pelasgians, if they were the same as the Sea People, may have settled in the Near East as well as in Tuscany. The Sea People were the origin of at least the name Palestinians. But, in any case, the migrants from the sea probably were not the dominant genetic basis for the Etruscan population.

It is perhaps appropriate to note here that genetic information can sometimes be misinterpreted. For example, a study of the genetic origin of the Greeks claimed that they had a sub-Saharan origin. The was probably done just for sensationalism. What was really involved is that there were genetic sources for the population of Crete among the semitic elements of the Near East. The source of the Ethiopian culture was a pre-Islamic migration of semitic Arabs from south Arabia into the Horn of Africa Region. Thus by identifying genetic elements from semitic migrations into the Greece and Ethiopia the investigators came up with a sensational but fallacious claim for a sub-Saharan origin for the ancient Greeks.

But genetic origins may be less important than cultural origins. The origin of the culture of the Etruscans would be the more interesting question. But even if migrants brought the dominant element of the Etruscan culture the aboriginal people may have retained some elements of the old culture. This could have included the language or some substantial share of the language. For example, the origin of the Bulgarian state is from the conquest of a Slavic people by the Bulgar Turks who had previously resided about a thousand miles to the east. The language of the Bulgarians is the Slavic language of the conquered people and the about the only residue of the conquerors in Bulgaria is the name of the people and the country.

When people raise the question of the origins of the Etruscans they are primarily concerned with the distinctive features of Etruscan culture. Although it is not clear where these cultural features came from it is clear that there is a strong possibility that they came from the Near East.

The literature on the question of Etruscan origins groups the various positions into

1. Northern Origins
2. Oriental (eastern) Origins
3. No Origins Outside of Etruria

The Northern Origins advocates point to similarities of features of region to the cultures of the peoples of the Alps. This includes such things as the terramare villages. Quite likely the aboriginal peoples of North Italy did have their origins to the north. The cultural features of the Etruscans is a different matter and the affinities with the cultures of the Middle East are quite striking.

The question of the linguistic relationships of the Etruscan language is not necessarily the same as the affinities of the rest of the culture. Although the 10,000 samples of Etruscan writings have not been deciphered enough is known to conclude that Etruscan was not a member of the Indo-European language family. There are many interesting possible relationships but none have been established. It may well be, as in the case of Basque, that there are no other surviving members of its family.

So the question of the origins of the cultural features of the Etruscans has to be answered without the help of linguistic analysis. Much attention has been focused on the funerary practices of the people of North Italy. The Etruscans cremated their dead and put the ashes in elaborate funeral urns. The funerary practices of the Etruscans could well be that of the aboriginal population with the art and technology of the invading people enhancing the old practice with fancy urns. So the question of the origins of Etruscan art will probably not be settled by establishing the origins of other aspects of Etruscan culture. If it can be settled at all it will have to settled on the basis of the affinities of the art with that of the other major cultures of the region.

The Etruscans' Naval Prowess

Greek sources speak of the domination of the eastern and western seas by Etruscan pirates. The Etruscans established colonies on Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearic Isles and perhaps even Spain. The Adriatic Sea, the sea to the east of the Italian Peninsula, was named after the Etruscan port of Adria. The sea west of the peninsula was called the Tyrrhenian Sea after Tyrrhenus a supposed founder of the Etruscans from Lydia in western Anatolia.

In the Etruscan ruins there are craft objects from Greece, North Africa, southern France and Iberia. These could have been brought by Greek or Phoenician traders to Etruria but given the naval prowess of the Etruscan there is no reason to doubt that Etruscan traders were involved in bringing those craft objects to Etruria. In any case the exports of Etruria was probably copper and iron from the local mines.

In the mythology and literature of the Greeks there are also references to Pelasgian piracy, which since some Greeks believed the Etruscans were Pelasgians, could have been references to Etruscans.

Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans, Penguin Books, 1956.

Some background information:

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