Geneticists have added an edge to a 2,500-year-old debate over the origin of the Etruscans, a people whose brilliant and mysterious civilization dominated northwestern Italy for centuries until the rise of the Roman republic in 510 B.C. Several new findings support a view held by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus - but unpopular among archaeologists - that the Etruscans originally migrated to Italy from the Near East.
Though Roman historians played down their debt to the Etruscans, Etruscan culture permeated Roman art, architecture and religion. The Etruscans were master metallurgists and skillful seafarers who for a time dominated much of the Mediterranean. They enjoyed unusually free social relations, much remarked on by ancient historians of other cultures.
Etruscan culture was very advanced and very different from other Italian cultures of the time. But most archaeologists have seen a thorough continuity between a local Italian culture known as the Villanovan that emerged around 900 B.C. and the Etruscan culture, which began in 800 B.C.
"The overwhelming proportion of archaeologists would regard the evidence for eastern origins of the Etruscans as negligible," said Anthony Tuck, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts.
Even so, a nagging question has remained. Could the Etruscans have arrived from somewhere else in the Mediterranean world?
One hint of such an origin is that the Etruscan language, which survives in thousands of inscriptions, appears not to be Indo-European, the language family that started to sweep across Europe sometime after 8,500 years ago, developing into Latin, English and many other tongues. Another hint is the occurrence of inscriptions in a language apparently related to Etruscan on Lemnos, a Greek island. But whether Lemnian is the parent language of Etruscan, or the other way around, is not yet clear, said Rex Wallace, an expert on Etruscan linguistics at the University of Massachusetts.
An even more specific link to the Near East is a short statement by Herodotus that the Etruscans emigrated from Lydia, a region on the eastern coast of ancient Turkey. After an 18-year famine in Lydia, Herodotus reports, the king dispatched half the population to look for a better life elsewhere. Under the leadership of his son Tyrrhenus, the emigrating Lydians built ships, loaded all the stores they needed, and sailed from Smyrna (now the Turkish port of Izmir) until reaching Umbria in Italy.
Despite the specificity of Herodotus's account, archaeologists have long been skeptical of it. There are also fanciful elements in Herodotus's story, like the Lydians' being the inventors of games like dice because they needed distractions to take their minds off the famine. And Lydian, unlike Etruscan, is definitely an Indo-European language. Other ancient historians entered the debate. Thucydides favored a Near Eastern provenance, but Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared the Etruscans native to Italy.
What has brought Italian geneticists into the discussion are new abilities to sequence DNA and trace people's origins. In 2004, a team led by Guido Barbujani at the University of Ferrara extracted mitochondrial DNA from 30 individuals buried in Etruscan sites throughout Italy.
But this study quickly came under attack. Working with ancient DNA is extremely difficult, because most bones from archaeological sites have been carelessly handled. Extensive contamination with modern human DNA can swamp the signal of what little ancient DNA may still survive. Hans-Jurgen Bandelt, a geneticist at the University of Hamburg, wrote that the DNA recovered from the Etruscan bones showed clear signs of such problems.
But a new set of genetic studies being reported seems likely to lend greater credence to Herodotus's long-disputed account. New and independent sources of genetic data suggest that Etruscan culture was imported to Italy from somewhere in the Near East.
One study is based on the mitochondrial DNA of residents of Murlo, a small former Etruscan town whose population may not have changed all that much since Etruscan times.
When placed on a chart of mitochondrial lineages from Europe and the Near East, the people of Murlo map closest to Palestinians and Syrians, a team led by Torroni and Alessandro Achilli reports in the April issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.
In Tuscany as a whole, the Torroni team found 11 minor mitochondrial DNA lineages that occur nowhere else in Europe and are shared only with Near Eastern people.
Another source of genetic data on Etruscan origins has been developed by Marco Pellecchia and Paolo Ajmone-Marsan at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza. Tuscany has four ancient breeds of cattle. Analyzing the mitochondrial DNA of these and seven other breeds of Italian cattle, Ajmone-Marsan found that the Tuscan breeds genetically resembled cattle of the Near East. The other Italian breeds were linked northern Europe.