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This mysterious ancient civilization’s DNA was not what we thought it was 

The origins of the ancient Etruscans had remained an unsolved mystery hidden in their DNA — until now.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz Etruscan sculpture GETTY

Unearthing ancient relics can tell you many things about a ghost civilization, but where you found those relics is not necessarily where those long-lost people came from.

For years, the origins of the Etruscans remained an unsolved mystery. They inhabited central Italy for two thousand years before the Roman Empire flourished and were thought to have emerged there. However, there were suspicions that they migrated from somewhere else (not in an Ancient Aliens type of way). Where their strange — and now dead — language came from is unknown, but it was definitely not Indo-European. So how did they materialize?

Researcher Cosmio Psoth of the University of Tübingen, who recently coauthored a study in Science Advances, revealed they crossed the steppes of what is now Russia and Ukraine to reach the Italian peninsula of Etruria. This disproves the assumption that language and origins are always related in some way or another. Etruscan genes were relatively stable until the Roman Empire took over, and conquering rulers seized foreign lands and brought in new blood.

“The Etruscans carried the steppe-related genetic component derived from populations that likely spread Indo-European languages across Italy. Nevertheless, they preserved their cultural and linguistic identity,” Psoth told SYFY WIRE.

Psoth and his colleagues investigated the secrets that the Etruscans had been hiding for thousands of years because they wanted to trace the genetic origin of a population that had either already been in Italy for millennia or come out of nowhere. They weren’t the only people in Europe to speak a non-Indo-European language. The Basque of Iberia (who now live in Spain and Southwestern France) are another population who still speak a language unrelated to those considered to be European. What happened with the Basque was a result of intermarriage, so the same possibly happened with the Etruscans.

What is now known through the analysis of ancient DNA is that the ancestry of the Etruscans is linked to other Bronze Age peoples who spread Indo-European languages throughout Europe. Ancient Greek historians like Herodotus assumed an Anatolian or Aegean origin of the Etruscans because they saw what could have been cultural elements that evidenced this in Etruria. No shade, but Herodotus, who dragged the Scythians for being  barbarian drug addicts, had a penchant for exaggerating. Later hypotheses thought the Etruscans were a local population.

Liz Etruscan bas-relief GETTY

“If the Etruscan language were indeed a relic language that predated Bronze Age expansions, then it would represent one of the rare examples of language continuity despite extensive genetic discontinuity, challenging previous hypotheses about an Anatolian origin,” Psoth said.

Even though they came from elsewhere, the genetic profiles of the Etruscans and the Latins who lived in Rome are rather similar despite their cultural and linguistic differences. Extracting DNA from bones and teeth showed both share steppe ancestry. Maybe, like the Basque, the Etruscans merged with other populations in Italy over a long stretch of time, through the Roman Empire. This can only be proven with substantial sequencing of genomes from individuals who lived in central Italy during the Bronze Age.

So what was the Etruscan language closest to? Rhaetic and Lemnian, two other dead languages that originated in the Eastern Alps and the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, are related. These languages are considered Tyrsenian — paleo-European tongues that predated anything Indo-European. The Tyrrhenian people who spoke these languages were not Greek (sorry Herodotus). Though there are several hypotheses for the origins of Tyrsenian languages, how they arose is still not certain. Etruscan eventually assimilated with Latin and died out.

“During the Roman Imperial period, central Italy experienced a 50% genetic shift, as a result of admixture with eastern Mediterranean populations, to a great extent likely slaves, but also military units and merchants,” Posth said.

Like their language, the Etruscans would also go on to assimilate with other peoples in the ancient Roman empire, so their genetic profile did not stay intact, but some of their genes still live on. Maybe you are descended from the Etruscans and don’t even realize it.