Monday, October 19, 2015

Toward A New Understanding of Etruscan Origins

As this now archived thread on Anthrogenica shows, the two sides to the Etruscan debate are like ships passing in the night.  They can't seem to agree on much.  This post attempts to reconcile them, sort of, while debunking what I call the Contemporaneous Anatolian Origin of the Etruscans (CAOE) Model.

When talking about the origins of a people, it is important to specify timing as well.  Even the best scientists are guilty of disobeying this rule when they speak or write in shorthand.  The most obvious example is this: do you have any African blood?  Do you have an African origin?  You might answer, "no" if you took the question to mean in the genealogical time period (the last 500 years) or even during the post-Paleolithic time period (the last 40,000 years)!

But, as you know, everyone on the planet has an African origin if you go back long enough.  All modern humans migrated out of Africa.  So the same statements, "that population is of African origin" is both true and false, depending on the time context.

Let's apply this to the Etruscans.

What we have learned recently is that ALL Europeans descend from three primary groups:  Western European Hunter Gatherers (who originated in Western Europe during the Mesolithic), Farmers (who migrated from the Near East during the Neolithic), and Steppe People (who migrated from the flatlands between Europe and Asia during the early Bronze Age).

When the CAOE "Etruscans are exotic" folks ply their wares, they argue that Etruscans had an origin in Anatolia or the Aegean, right before they appeared in Italy.  Now, the first Etruscan sites date from approximately 900 BC.  We have clear Etruscan inscriptions dating to 750 BC, so they were probably writing by 800 BC.

I have always doubted there was a mass migration of Etruscans (from the Near East) before their appearance in Italy.  There are just too many facts weighing against it.

Then it dawned on me: we *all* came from the Middle East at some point.  Is it possible this argument is one of degrees?  That the CAOE folks have their timing wrong?  That the CAOE folks should have the "C" knocked off their theory, and the disagreements would be synthesized?

Here is how it might have worked:

There was mass migration to Europe of farmers from the Near East, and it appears to have been quite strong around 3000 BC.  The final waves of farmers were migrating to Europe around 2500 BC.  Now is it proper to call these "Anatolians" or "Aegeans" or "Near Easterners."  Insofar as those designations are intended to mean anything beyond geography: no.  This was pre-race, and since these people "became" modern Europeans, any such designation is pretty meaningless.  Most modern Europeans are about 40% descended from these people.

Is it possible that the Etruscans, having a stable, affluent, consistent civilization, retained more of their cultural practices, traditions, and indeed language, and thus some vague collective memory of this mass migration?  Is it possible that the first Italian culture to have writing was able to transmit more culture down between the generations because of it?  Because that is how it works.

In other words, ALL peoples in Europe then and now are partly descended from farmers who originated in the Middle East a long time ago.  If the Etruscan people (bringing the language) was from one of the later waves, and the Etruscan society was stable and had the ability to transmit culture, could these transmissions and uniqueness be the signals that the CAOE folks misinterpret and cite as evidence for a later Anatolian origin of the Etruscans?

Let's be clear: the land of the Etruscans overlaps perfectly with the land of the Villanovans, and there is no evidence for discontinuity or rapid replacement or trauma when Villanovan culture becomes unequivocally Etruscan.  I firmly believe the odds of an Etruscan "migration" event around 900-750 BC is sheer fantasy.

BUT, I think it is possible that of the peoples in Italy, the Etruscans, by holding the richest, most fertile, most well-defended, and most defendable pieces of real estate, simply did not suffer any further migrations and inflows after they established themselves in say, 2000 BC.  In other words, the Indo-Europeanized peoples of Italy ALSO descend from Western Hunter Gatherers and Neolithic Farmers (and the genetic evidence CERTAINLY backs me up on this point), BUT the Indo-Europeanized peoples of Italy (Latins, Umbrians, Oscans), experienced a more recent inflow of both people and genes, which resulted in language and culture change.  The Etruscans, for reasons already given, did not.

To this day there is very little genetic difference between the people of Tuscany and their neighbors in Italy.  The ancient Etruscans cluster with Southern Italians genetically, which would be consistent with this theory: that the ancient Etruscans had a smidge more Neolithic Farmer, plus cultural continuity, because they did not suffer an upheaval like the other peoples, when the Iron Age Indo European speaking Steppe people invaded.

This makes good sense.  This would explain also why the Etruscan language survived as a relic amidst a sea of Indo-European.

So next time you meet someone who thinks the Etruscans were contemporaneous (and ethnic) migrants to Italy from the Near East, remind them of the wealth of evidence against it.  And then, if they are the reasonable type, explain to them how ALL Europeans descended in a large part from people, who DID migrate to Europe from the same areas, just 1000 years before.  They could be spouting a mere truism, and be off by 1000 years or so.

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