Etruscans Again

When DNA Second-Guesses History… and Is Wrong

In a new article in the European Journal of Human Genetics (17/5:693), the enigmatic Etruscans of antiquity are again the subject of a DNA investigation. This time, the study, called “The Etruscan timeline:  A Recent Anatolian Connection,” uses mitochondrial DNA to probe the ultimate origins of the people, who appeared on the stage of history in about the eighth century BCE. We know this time frame is fairly accurate because the Romans started their calendar in 753 BCE with the founding of Rome and dated all records A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of Rome”). Roman historians beginning with Ennius and Livy also recount how early Rome was conquered by the Etruscans and made subject to Etruscan kings for the first few centuries of its existence.

That is why it is strange that the present article estimates “an [sic] historical time frame for the for the arrival of Anatolian lineages to Tuscany ranging from 1.1=/-0.1 to 2.3+/-0.4 kya B.P.” Based, then, on the retrospective coalescence of DNA, this calculates the Etruscans’ migration from an original homeland in Anatolia (modern Turkey) to as late as 1200 CE and as early as 390 BCE. What is going on? The Etruscans were clearly seated in Italy 450 years before 390 BCE, and by 1200 CE, they were long since gone as an entity. In fact, by the time of the emperor Claudius, who wrote a lost history of them around 1 CE, the Etruscans were already considered historical oddities and their language dead.

So are geneticists trying to rewrite history? I think it is a case of a fundamental fallacy in their work. Calculation of a time to coalescence is obviously limited by the validity and reliability of the sample, but it is also very often illusory. To take the example of Native Americans, just because geneticists arrive at a time to coalescence of 10,000 years before present, doesn’t mean the place of coalescence has to be in Mongolia/Siberia, where they derive all Native Americans. It could just as well be in the Americas. DNA doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about geography. But it is often pressed into service to prop up a theory about human migrations. Let us remember, though, that such constructs are just constructs, so DNA cannot be evidence, only confirmation of someone’s historical or racial construct.

If one wishes to speak about evidence in a strict sense, however, it is interesting that the researchers (Francesca Brisighelli et al.) found, by mtDNA sequencing, a “novel autochthomous Tuscan brand of haplogroup U7.” This can mean that the same U7 turning up elsewhere may be a sign of Etruscan movements.

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