Genomic data spanning 2,000 years provides insight into Etruscan origins and population changes

NEW YORK – Genomic analysis has revealed that the Etruscans who lived in central Italy during the Iron Age were closely related to neighboring populations and that their later genetic makeup was influenced by the reach of the Roman Empire.

There had been a debate about the origins of the Etruscans, who spoke a non-Indo-European language and had remarkable metallurgical skills, dating back to the ancient Greeks. The writers Herodotus and Hellanicus of Lesvos suggested that the Etruscans were from Anatolia or the Aegean Sea, while Dionysius of Halicarnassus postulated that they were from local Villanovan groups of the Bronze Age.

Using genomic data from 82 individuals who lived in Etruria and southern Italy over a period of nearly 2,000 years, an international team of researchers has reconstructed much of the genetic history of the region’s population. . As they reported on Friday in Scientists progress, the Etruscans had similar genetic profiles to their neighbors in Rome, despite their linguistic differences, and had ancestors from steppe-related groups who arrived in the region during the Bronze Age. The genetic makeup of the Etruscans thereafter remained broadly stable but changed with the establishment of the Roman Empire.

“Our genomic analyzes find an autochthonous origin of the Etruscans, supported also by archaeological evidence”, wrote the first author Cosimo Posth of the University of Tübingen in an e-mail. “I was, however, surprised to observe such… genetic homogeneity during 800 years from the Iron Age to the period of the Roman Republic.”

To establish this timeline, he and his colleagues genotyped 82 individuals who lived in Italy for three major periods: the Iron Age and the Roman Republic, the Imperial period, and between 500 and 1,000 years ago.

Most of the individuals who lived in Etruria during the Iron Age and the Roman Republic came together in a principal component analysis. This group housed three genetic ancestries associated with Anatolian Neolithic farmers, European hunter-gatherers, and Bronze Age pastoralists of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and could broadly be modeled as a mixture of other European populations, suggesting that the Etruscans originated from this region.

Moreover, the genetic ancestry of the Etruscan population of this period was similar to that of individuals of the Iron Age and the Roman Republic of Tuscany and Lazio, including the ancient city of Rome, although the Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language.

Indo-European languages ​​spread across Europe during the Bronze Age in tandem with individuals who had pastoral Steppe ancestry, Posth noted, adding that this Steppe ancestry was prevalent in Italy during the Middle Age. iron, including among Etruscan individuals.

“Therefore, we have identified here a rare example of linguistic continuity despite large-scale genetic replacement, and we suggest that this could be due to a prolonged period of mixing between incoming Steppe ancestry and local populations, which largely maintained their cultural identity, ”he said. noted.

The genetic makeup of Etruria changed during the Imperial period, with an influx of ancestry related to Near Eastern groups. “The Roman Empire had a transformative impact on the local gene pool,” Posth said, adding that he and his colleagues suspected the changes were due to the arrival of slaves, soldiers and traders from the Middle East. in Rome and in the peripheral regions.

The region again experienced an influx of genetic ancestry, this time associated with Germanic individuals, in the Middle Ages when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. But between the High Middle Ages and the present day, there has been a broad genetic continuity.

Going forward, Posth said that obtaining additional genetic data on the Bronze Age in central Italy could help analyze mixing patterns linked to Steppe ancestry and the spread of Indo-European languages, while bringing together other ancient genomes from the Imperial Roman period could help examine whether the genetic replacement seen in central Italy during this period occurred across the Italian peninsula.

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