Monday, June 18, 2007

Etruscans - don't know nothing about DNA   posted by Razib @ 6/18/2007 12:00:00 PM

The Etruscan origin story is now in the news again after the lead researcher presented his findings that these ancient people show strong evidence of a genetic affinity with Anatolians at a conference. I put a quick round up over at ScienceBlogs, but this piece in the LA Times is a bit disconcerting. Here are some archaeologists:
"I guess I would have to say that I am unconvinced at this stage," said archeologist Anthony Tuck of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is excavating an Etruscan site in Italy. "It is premature to declare the issue resolved on our current understanding of this genetic evidence."

Archeologist Jean Macintosh Turfa of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology was more dismissive. "There is really no sound archeological evidence that shows the influx of a big migration, or any kind of influx, from Asia Minor," she said. "There is never a sharp break in cultures, no destroyed villages, etcetera."

Turfa and Tuck hold to the view that the Etruscans evolved from the Villanovan culture, which emerged in central Italy. But the genetic findings will force a harder look at the evidence about their origins.

I really hope that the reporter didn't go quote mining until he found someone with a "dissenting" view, that's just bad journalism. Let's review the lines of evidence:

1) Y chromosomal lineages suggest a link with Anatolians.

2) mtDNA, both ancient and modern, suggest a link with Anatolians. The ancient mtDNA results (from 2004) was argued by some to have been possible contamination, etc., but I think that the findings from modern mtDNA (combined with other data) should force us to reorient our priors in evaluating that previous finding.

3) mtDNA from cattle suggests a parallel phylogenetic relationship between Anatolian and Tuscan populations.

These genetic arrows are now converging upon one conclusion: that there was some link between ancient Anatolians and Etruscans beyond what we would expect. One could dismiss one or two findings, but the alignment here should be worth noting. But that's not all. The island of Lemnos yields evidence that a language closely related to Etruscan before the Athenian conquest of the 6th century BCE was in use. Lemnos is the north Aegean. One plausible explanation is that an Etruscan trading colony was long resident here. Another explanation is that the inhabitants of Lemnos are part of the same "Lydian" Diaspora as the Etruscans. The Etruscans-are-native-to-Italy hypothesis would imply that the former explanation is what we should accept, but in light of the new data the Lemnos records should, I think, be taken as evidence of the latter scenario. The ancient scholars who addressed the origin of the Etruscans offered three alternative scenarios, that they were indigenous to Italy, that they were from Anatolia, or that they were from northern Europe. What is the likelihood that out of the sample space of possibilities Anatolia (as opposed to Greece, Libya, Egypt, etc.) would be selected as a possible point of origin? Prior to the emergence of these strong genetic data I do think one could imagine it was a flight of fantasy, but now it seems likely that its selection was not arbitrary.

The genetic data seems strong to me. That being said, the archaeologists have long noted continuities between the Villanovan Culture and the Etruscans. What gives? I think the solution is simple: the Etruscans had a non-trivial (genetically detectable to the present) exogenous element, but it also drew upon the local substrate. Taking a step outside of this particular issue that should be pretty clear & obvious. The Greeks show this hybrid tendency, a large proportion of words in their language show no Indo-European cognates. There are legends of Pelasgians, a confused term which might have referred to unassimilated elements amongst the non-Greek speaking inhabitants of the peninsula. The same dynamic can be seen in north India, where a hybrid culture arose which exhibited both pre-Aryan and Aryan elements. The archaeological continuity might very well be a reality in Tuscany simply because that the Etruscans did not exterminate the local peasantry, but rather, entered into a relationship of overlordship and subsequent cultural absorption. The continuity of material culture might be due to the fact that the folkways of Anatolia (housing structure and material, field arrangments, crops, etc.) were not applicable to the ecological needs of north-central Italy, or that the original settler Etruscans were a particular occupational slice of their peoples, perhaps a mercantile elite who were oriented toward the sea (they were well known traders) as opposed to agriculture. Just as Christian peasants and landlords in Anatolia were absorbed into the culture and identity of their Turkic rulers after 1100 over a period of time, so it seems that a possible model is one where Etruscan elite culture had this pull upon locals whom they ruled. Subjects of the Roman Empire absorbed some elements of Romanitas from their culture elites (language and religion), but they did not all become the villagers of Latium in replica form simply due to the local ecological constraints (dwelling architecture and farming techniques suitable for the Mediterranean don't transplant that well to northern Gaul). New data forces us to construct amenable hypotheses, not simply dismiss it.

Note: I put Lydian in quotes because it is likely an anachronism. The Etruscans were as Lydian as the tribes who resided on the north shore of lake Superior in 1500 were "Canadian."

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