R1b-L23-rich Bell Beaker-derived Italic peoples from the West vs. Etruscans from the East


New paper (behind paywall) Ancient Rome: A genetic crossroads of Europe and the Mediterranean, by Antonio et al. Science (2019).

The paper offers a lot of interesting data concerning the Roman Empire and more recent periods, but I will focus on Italic and Etruscan origins.

NOTE. I have updated prehistoric maps with Y-DNA and mtDNA data, and also the PCA of ancient Eurasian samples by period including the recently published samples, now with added sample names to find them easily by searching the PDFs.

Apennine homeland problem

The traditional question of Italic vs. Etruscan origins from a cultural-historical view* lies in the opposition of the traditional way of life during the Bronze Age as opposed to increasingly foreign influences in the Final Bronze Age, which eventually brought about a proto-urban period in the Apennine Peninsula.

* From a modern archaeological perspective, as well as from the (unrelated) nativist view, “continuity” of ancient cultures, languages, and peoples is generally assumed, so this question is a no-brainer. Seeing how population genomics has essentially supported the cultural-historical view, dismissing the concepts of unscathed genomic or linguistic continuity, we have to assume that different cultures potentially represent different languages, and that genetic shift coupled with radical cultural changes show a strong support for linguistic change, although the later Imperial Roman period is an example of how this is not necessarily the case.

Early Bronze Age cultures ca. 2200 – 1750 BC. See full maps.

A little background to the Italic vs. Etruscan homeland problem, from Forsythe (2006) (emphasis mine):

While the material culture of the Po Valley developed in response to influences from central Europe and the Aegean, peninsular Italy during the late Bronze Age lagged somewhat behind for the most part. Inhumation continued to be the funerary practice of this region. Although agriculture doubtless remained the mainstay of human subsistence, other evidence (the occupation of mountainous sites not conducive to farming, the remains of cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, and ceramic vessels used for boiling milk and making cheese) indicates that pastoralism was also very widespread. This suggests that transhumance was already a well-established pattern of human existence. In fact, since the material culture of central and southern Italy was relatively uniform at this time, it has been conjectured that this so-called Apennine Culture of c. 1600–1100 B.C. owed its uniformity in part to the migratory pattern characteristic of ancient Italian stockbreeding.

During the first quarter of the twelfth century B.C. the Bronze-Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean came to an abrupt end. The royal palaces of Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae in mainland Greece were destroyed by violence, and the Hittite kingdom that had ruled over Asia Minor was likewise swept away. The causes and reasons for this major catastrophe have long been debated without much scholarly consensus (see Drews 1993, 33–96). Apart from the archaeological evidence indicating the violent destruction of many sites, the only ancient accounts relating to this phenomenon come from Egypt. The most important one is a text inscribed on the temple of Medinet Habu at Thebes, which accompanies carved scenes portraying the pharaoh’s military victory over a coalition of peoples who had attempted to enter the Nile Delta by land and sea.


Iron metallurgy did not reach Italy until the ninth century B.C., and even then it was two or more centuries before iron displaced bronze as the most commonly used metal. Thus, archaeologists date the beginning of the Iron Age in Italy to c. 900 B.C.; and although the Italian Bronze Age is generally assigned to the period c. 1800–1100 B.C. and is subdivided into early, middle, and late phases, the 200-year interval between the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age has been labeled the Final Bronze Age.

During this period the practice of cremation spread south of the Po Valley and is attested at numerous sites throughout the peninsula. Since this cultural tradition developed into the Villanovan Culture which prevailed in Etruria and much of the Po Valley c. 900–700 B.C., modern archaeologists have devised the term “Proto-Villanovan” to describe the cremating cultures of the Italian Final Bronze Age.

The fact that some of the earliest urnfield sites of peninsular Italy are located on the coast (e.g. Pianello in Romagna and Timmari in Apulia) is interpreted by some archaeologists as an indication that cremating people had come into Italy by sea, and that their migration was part of the larger upheaval which affected the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (so Hencken 1968, 78–90). On the other hand, the same data can be explained in terms of indigenous coastal settlements adopting new cultural traits as the result of commercial interaction with foreigners. In any case, by the end of the Final Bronze Age inhumation had reemerged as the dominant funerary custom of southern Italy, but cremation continued to be an integral aspect of the Villanovan Culture of northern and much of central Italy.

Diffusion of the Villanovan culture (after M. Torelli, ed., Gli Etruschi, Milan, 2000, p. 45). Modified from The Etruscan World (2013), by Turfa.

There is a myriad of linguistic reasons why eastern foreign influences can be attributed to Indo-European (mainly Anatolian, including a hypothetic influence on Latino-Faliscan) or Tyrsenian – as well as many other less credible models – and there is ground in archaeology to support any of the linguistic models proposed, given the long-lasting complex interactions of Italy with other Mediterranean cultures.

NOTE. The lack of theoretical schemes including integral archaeological-linguistic cultural-historical models due to the radical reaction against the excesses of the early 20th century have paradoxically allowed anyone (from archaeologists or linguists to laymen) to posit infinite population movements often based on the simplest similarities in vase decoration, burial practices, or shared vocabulary.

However, recent studies in population genomics have simplified the picture of Bronze Age population movements, identifying radical changes related to population replacements as opposed to more subtle admixture events. As of today, (France Bell Beaker-like) Urnfield stands as the most likely vector of Celtic languages; NW Iberian Bell Beakers as the vector of Galaico-Lusitanian; NW Mediterranean Beakers as the most likely ancestors of Elymian; the Danish Late Neolithic as representative of expanding Proto-Germanic; or Central-East Bell Beakers of Proto-Balto-Slavic.

With this in mind, the most logical conclusion is to assume that Alpine Bell Beakers (close to the sampled Italian Beakers from Parma or from southern Germany) spread Italo-Venetic languages, which is deemed to have split in the early to mid-2nd millennium BC, with dialects found widespread from the Alps to Sicily by the early 1st millennium BC.

Therefore, the two main remaining models of Italian linguistic prehistory – with the information that we already had – were as follows, concerning Tyrsenian (the ancestor of Etruscan and Rhaetian):

  1. It is a remnant language of the Italian (or surrounding) Chalcolithic, which survived in some pockets isolated from the Bell Beaker influence;
  2. It was a foreign language that arrived and expanded at the same time as the turmoil that saw the emergence of the Sea Peoples.

NOTE. Read more on Italo-Venetic evolution and on the likely distribution of Old European and Tyrsenian in the Bronze Age.

Languages of pre-Roman Italy and nearby islands. Italo-Venetic languages surrounded with shadowed red border. I1, South Picene; I2, Umbrian; I3, Sabine; I4, Faliscan; I5, Latin; I6, Volscian and Hernican; I7, Central Italic (Marsian, Aequian, Paeligni, Marrucinian, Vestinian); I8, Oscan, Sidicini, Pre-Samnite; I9, Sicel; IE1, Venetic; IE2, North Picene; IE3, Ligurian; IE4, Elymian; IE5, Messapian; C1, Lepontic; C2, Gaulish; G1-G2-G3, Greek dialects (G1: Ionic, G2: Aeolic, G3: Doric); P1, Punic; N1, Rhaetian; N2, Etruscan; N3, Nuragic. Image modified from Davius Sanctex.


A Proto-Villanovan female from Martinsicuro in the Abruzzo coast (ca. 890 BC), of mtDNA hg. U5a2b, is the earliest mainland sample available showing foreign (i.e. not exclusively Anatolia_N ± WHG) ancestry:

Martinsicuro is a coastal site located on the border of Le Marche and Abruzzo on central Italy’s Adriatic coast. It is a proto-Villanovan village, situated on a hill above the Tronto river, dating to the late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (…) finds from the site indicate an affinity with contemporaries in the Balkans, suggesting direct trade contacts and interaction across the Adriatic. In particular, the practice of decorating ceramics with bronze elements was shared between the Nin region in Croatia and Picene region of Italy, including Martinsicuro.

NOTE. These are just some of the models I have tried, most of them unsuccessfully. The standard errors that I get are too high, but I am not much interested in this sample that seems (based on its position in the PCA and the available qpAdm results) mostly unrelated to Italic and Etruscan ethnogenesis.

The sample clusters close to the Early Iron Age sample from Jazinka (ca. 780 BC), from the central Dalmatian onomastic region, on the east Adriatic coast opposite to Abruzzo, possibly related to the south-east Dalmatian (or Illyrian proper) onomastic region to the south. However, there is no clear boundary between hydrotoponymic regions for the Bronze Age, and it is quite close to the (possibly Venetic-related) Liburnian onomastic region to the north, so the accounts of Martinsicuro belonging to the Liburni in proto-historical times can probably be extrapolated to the Final Bronze Age.

NOTE. Based on feminine endings in -ona in the few available anthroponyms, Liburnian may have shared similarities with personal names of the Noricum province, which doesn’t seem to be related to the more recent (Celtic- or Germanic-related?) Noric language. On the other hand, anthroponyms are known to show the most recent hydrotoponymic layer of a region, so these personal names might be unrelated to the ancestral language behind place and river names.

Toponyms ending in -ona (after S. Čače 2007).


A Villanovan sample from the powerful Etruscan city-state of Veio in the Tyrrhenian coast (ca. 850 BC), to the north of Rome, shows a cluster similar to later Etruscans and some Latins. Veio features prominently in the emergence of the Etruscan society. From The Etruscan World (2013) by Turfa:

In the final phase of the Bronze Age (mid-twelfth to tenth century bc) the disposition of settlements appears to be better distributed, although they are no longer connected to the paths of the tratturi (drove roads for transhumance of flocks and herds) as they had been during the Middle Bronze Age. As evidence of the intensive exploitation of land and continuous population growth there are now known in Etruria at least 70 confirmed settlements, and several more sites with indications of at least temporary occupation. The typical town of this chronological phase generally occupies high ground or a tufa plateau of more than five hectares, isolated at the confluence of two watercourses. These small plateaus, naturally or artificially protected, are not completely built up: non-residential areas within the defenses were probably intended as collecting points for livestock or zones reserved for cultivation, land used only by certain groups, or areas designated for shelter in case of enemy attack.

Taken together, the data seem to indicate the presence of individuals or families at the head of different groups. And in the final phase of the Bronze Age, there must have begun the process that generated (at least two centuries later) a tribal society based on families and the increasingly widespread ownership of land.

In the ninth century bc the territory is divided instead into rather large districts, each belonging to a large village, divided internally into widely spaced groups of huts, and into a small number of isolated villages located in strategic positions, for which we can assume some form of dependence upon the larger settlements.

Schematic reconstruction of the birth of a proto-urban center (after P. Tamburini, II Museo
territoriale del Lago di Bolsena. Vol 1. Dalle origini alperiodo etrusco, Bolsena 2007). Modified from The Etruscan World (2013), by Turfa.

Compared to the preceding period, this type of aggregation is characterized by a higher concentration of the population. To the number of villages located mostly on inaccessible plateaus, with defensive priority assigned to the needs of agriculture, are added settlements over wide plains where the population was grouped into a single hilltop location. It is a sort of synoikistic process, so, for example, at Vulci people were gathered from the district of the Fiora and Albegna Rivers, while to Veii came the communities that inhabited the region from the Tiber River to Lake Bracciano, including the Faliscan and Capenate territories. The reference to Halesos, son of Saturn, the mythical founder of Falerii in the genealogy of Morrius the king of Veii (Servius, Commentary on Aeneid 8.285) may conceal this close relationship between Veii and the Ager Faliscus (the territory of the historical Faliscans).

The great movement of population that characterizes this period is unthinkable without political organizations that were able to impose their decisions on the individual village communities: the different groups, undoubtedly each consisting of nuclei linked by bonds of kinship, located within or outside the tufa plateaus that would be the future seats of the Etruscan city-states, have cultural links between them, also attested to by the analysis of craft production, such as to imply affiliation to the same political unit and enabling us to speak of such human concentrations as “proto-urban”.

Map of Etruria Padana. Left: From 9th to 8th century BC. Right: From 6th to 4th century BC. Dipartimento di Archeologia di Bologna. Modified from The Etruscan World (2013), by Turfa.

Italic vs. Etruscan origins

Four out of five sampled Latins show Yamnaya-derived R1b-L23 lineages, including three R1b-U152 subclades, and one hg. R1b-Z2103 (in line with the variability found among East Bell Beakers), while one from Ardea shows hg. T1a-L208. A likely Volscian (i.e. Osco-Umbrian-speaking) sample from Boville Ernica also shows hg. R1b-Z2118*, an ‘archaic’ subclade within the P312 tree. These R1b-L23 subclades are also found later during the Imperial period, although in lesser proportion compared to East Mediterranean ones.

Among Etruscans, the only male sampled shows hg. J2b-CTS6190* (formed ca. 1800 BC, TMRCA ca. 1100 BC), sharing parent haplogroup J2b-Y15058 (formed ca. 2400 BC, TMRCA ca. 1900 BC) with a Croatian MBA sample from Veliki Vanik (ca. 1580 calBCE), who also clusters close to the IA sample from Jazinka.

Given the position of Latins and Etruscans in the PCA and the likely similar admixture, it is not striking that differences are subtle. From Antonio et al. (2019):

Interestingly, although Iron Age individuals were sampled from both Etruscan (n=3) and Latin (n=6) contexts, we did not detect any significant differences between the two groups with f4 statistics in the form of f4(RMPR_Etruscan, RMPR_Latin; test population, Onge), suggesting shared origins or extensive genetic exchange between them.

On the other hand, there are 3 clear outliers among 11 Iron Age individuals, and all Iron Age samples taken together form a wide Etrurian cluster, so it seems natural to test them in groups divided geographically:

Results seem inconsistent, especially for Italic peoples, due to their wide cluster. It could be argued that the samples with ‘northern’ admixture – a Latin from Palestrina Colombella (of hg. R1b-Z56) and the Volscian sample – might represent better the Italic-speaking population before the proto-urban development of Latium, especially given the reported strong Etruscan influences among the Rutuli in Ardea, which might explain the common cluster with Etruscans and the outlier with reported ‘eastern’ admixture.

Languages of Central Italy at the beginning of Roman expansion. Image modified from original by Susana Freixeiro at Wikipedia.

It makes sense then to test for a group of Etruscans (adding the Villanovan sample) and another of Italic peoples, to distinguish between a hypothetic ancestral Italic ancestry from a Tyrrhenian one:

NOTE. Fine-tuning groups based on the position of samples in the PCA or the amount of this or that component, or – even worse – based on the good or bad fits relative to the tested populations risks breaking the rules of subgroup analysis, eventually obtaining completely useless results, so interpretations for the Italic cluster need to be taken with a pinch of salt (until more similar Italic samples are published). The lack of proper rules regarding what can and cannot be done with this combined archaeological – genomic research is already visible to some extent in genetic papers which use brute force qpAdm tests for all available sampled populations, instead of selecting those potentially ancestral to the studied groups.

Tabs are organized from ‘better’ to ‘worse’ fits. In this case, as a general guide to the spreadsheets, the first tabs (to the left) show better fits for Italic peoples, and as tabs progress to the right they show ‘better’ fits for Etruscans, until it reaches the ‘infeasible’ or otherwise bad models.

This is what can be inferred from the models:

1) Steppe ancestry: Italic peoples seem to show better fits for north-western Alpine sources, closest to Bell Beakers from France or South Germany; whereas Etruscans show a likely Transdanubian source, closest to late Bell Beakers from Hungary (excluding Steppe- and WHG-related outliers).

To see if Bell Beakers from the south-west could be related, I tried the same model as in Fernandes et al. (2019), selecting Iberian BBC samples with more Steppe ancestry – to simplify my task, I selected them according to their PCA position. In a second attempt, I tried adding those intermediate with Iberia_CA, and it shows decreasing p-values, suggesting that the most likely source is close to high Steppe-related Bell Beaker populations. In both cases, models seem worse than France or Germany Bell Beakers.

Since Celtic spread with France BBC-like Urnfield peoples, and Italic peoples appear to be also ancestrally connected to this ancestry, the most plausible explanation is that they share an origin close to the Danubian EBA culture, which would probably be easily detectable by selecting precise Bell Beaker groups from South Germany.

Hypothetic expansion of Celtic-speaking peoples during the La Tène period (source). Image used in Udolph (2009) because it reflects a homeland roughly coincident with the oldest Celtic hydrotoponymy.

2) Anatolia_Neolithic ancestry: different tests seem to show that fits for EEF-related ancestry get warmer the closer the source population selected is to North-West Anatolian farmers, in line with the apparent shift from the East Bell Beaker cluster toward the Anatolia Neolithic cluster in the PCA:

These analyses suggest that there was a renewed Anatolia_N-like contribution during the Bronze Age, older than these Iron Age populations, but later than the rebound of WHG ancestry found among Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic samples from Italy, Sicily, or Sardinia, reflected in their shift in the PCA towards the WHG cluster.

From a range of chronologically closer groups clustering near Anatolia_N, the source seems to be closest to Neolithic samples from the Peloponnese. The direct comparison of Greece_Peloponnese_N against Italy_CA in the analyses labelled “Strict” shows that the sampled Greece Late Neolithic individuals are closer to the source of Neolithic ancestry of Iron Age Etrurians than the Chalcolithic samples from Remedello, Etruria, or Sardinia.

NOTE. Most qpAdm analyses are done with a model similar to Ning et al. (2019), using Corded_Ware_Germany.SG as an outgroup instead of Italy_Villabruna, because I expected to test all models against Yamnaya, too, but in the end – due to the many potential models and my limited time – I only tested those with ‘better’ fits:

Using Yamnaya_Kalmykia as outgroup gives invariably ‘worse’ results, as expected from Bell Beaker-derived populations who are directly derived from Yamnaya, despite their potential admixture with local Corded Ware peoples through exogamy during their expansion in Central Europe. The differences between Italic and Etruscan peoples have to be looked for mainly in EEF-related contributions, not in Steppe-related populations.

Detail of the PCA of Eurasian samples, including Italian samples from Antonio et al. (2019) with the selected clusters of Italic vs. Etruscans, as well as Bell Beaker and Balkan BA and related clusters and outliers. Also marked are Peloponnese Late Neolithic (Greece_N), Minoans, Mycenaeans and Armenian BA samples. See image with better resolution.

Etruscans and Sea Peoples

The sister clade of the Etruscan branch, J2b-PH1602 (TMRCA ca. 1100 BC), seems to have spread in different directions based on its modern distribution, and their global parent clade J2b-Y15058 (TMRCA ca. 1900 BC) was previously found in Veliki Vanik. J2b-L283 appears related to Neolithic expansions through the Mediterranean, based on its higher diversity in Sardinia, although its precise origin is unclear.

Based on the modern haplogroup distribution and on the TMRCA, it can be assumed that a community spread with hg. J2b-Z38240 from somewhere close to the Balkans coinciding with the population movements of the Final Bronze Age. Whether this haplogroup’s Middle Bronze Age area, probably close to the Adriatic, was initially Indo-European-speaking or was related to a regional survival of Etruscan-speaking communities remains unclear.

Greece Late Neolithic is probably the closest available population (from those sampled to date) geographically and chronologically to the Bronze Age North-Western Anatolian region, where the Tyrsenian language family is hypothesized to have expanded from.

We only have a few Iron Age samples from Etruria, dating from a period of complex interaction in the Mediterranean – evidenced by the relatively high proportion of outliers – so it is impossible to discard the existence of some remnant Bronze Age population closer to the Adriatic – from either the Italian (Apulia?) or the Balkan coasts – expanding with the Proto-Villanovan culture and responsible for the Greece_LN-like ancestry seen among the sampled Final Bronze / Iron Age populations from central Italy.

On the other hand, taking into account the ancestry of available Italian, Sardinian and Sicilian Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age samples, the current genetic picture suggests an expansion of a different North-West Anatolia Neolithic-related population after the arrival of Bell Beakers from the north, hence probably through the Adriatic rather than through the Tyrrhenian coast, whether the common language group formed with Lemnian had a more distant origin in Bronze Age North-West Anatolian groups or in some isolated coastal community of the Adriatic.

NOTE. Admittedly, the ancestry of the Proto-Villanovan sample seems different from that of Etruscans, although a contribution of the most likely sources for Etruscans cannot be rejected for the Proto-Villanovan individual (see ‘reciprocal’ models of admixture here). In any case, I doubt that the main ancestry of the Proto-Villanovan from Abruzzo is directly related to the population that gave rise to Etruscans, and is more likely related to recent, intense bilateral exchanges in the Adriatic between (most likely) Indo-European-speaking populations.

The distribution of violin bow fibula from thirteenth century onward showing the movement of people between northern Italy, Illyria and the Aegean, Crete, and the parallel distribution of “foreign” darksurfaced handmade pottery (based on Kasuba 2008 : abb. 15; Lis 2009 ). Modified from Kristiansen (2018).

Northern Adriatic

This Adriatic connection could in turn be linked to wider population movements of the Final Bronze Age. Proto-Villanova represents the introduction of oriental influences coinciding with the demise of the local Terramare culture (see e.g. Cremaschi et al. 2016), whereas the Villanovan culture shows partial continuity with many Proto-Villanovan settlements where Etruscan-speaking communities later emerge. From Nicolis (2013):

Founded in the LBA, the village of Frattesina extended over around 20 hectares along the ‘Po di Adria’, a palaeochannel of the Po. It experienced its greatest development between the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC, when it had a dominant economic role thanks to an extraordinary range of artisan production (metalworking, working of bone and deer horn, glass) and major commercial influence due to trading with the Italian Peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean.

This is demonstrated by the presence of exotic objects and raw materials, such as Mycenaean pottery, amber, ivory, ostrich eggs, and glass paste. For the Mycenaean sherds found in settlements in the Verona valleys and the Po delta, analysis of pottery fabrics has shown that some of them very probably come from centres in Apulia where there were Aegean craftsmen and workers, whereas others would seem to have originated on the Greek mainland (Vagnetti 1996; Vagnetti 1998; Jones et al. 2002).

Reconstruction of Acqua Fredda archaeological site, Passo del Redebus, where a group of 9 smelting furnaces has been discovered dating back to the Late Bronze Age (8-9th century BC). Image modified from Trentino Cultura.

In this context a particular system of relations seems to link one specific Alpine region with the social and economic structure of the groups settling between the Adige and the Po and the eastern Mediterranean trading system. In eastern Trentino, at Acquafredda, metallurgical production on a proto-industrial scale has been demonstrated between the end of the LBA and the FBA (twelfth–eleventh centuries BC) (Cierny 2008) (Fig. 38.3). These products must have supplied markets stretching beyond the local area, linked to the Luco/Laugen culture typical of the central Alpine environment. According to Pearce and De Guio (1999), such extensive production must have been destined for the supply of metal to other markets, first of all to other centres on the Po plain, where transactions for materials of Mediterranean origin also took place.

The picture of the Final Bronze Age of these regions, which seems to be coherent with the development of the cultural setting of the Early Iron Age, shows that the birth of the proto-urban Villanovan centres of Bologna in Emilia and Verucchio in Romagna, at the beginning of the Iron Age, seems to follow a line of continuity starting with the role played by Frattesina in the Final Bronze Age (Bietti Sestieri 2008).

Reconstruction of pan-European communication network represented by the geographical spread of archaeological objects. The network nodes represent sites that have yielded an above-average number of relevant finds. The links are direct connections between neighbouring nodes. Modified from Suchowska-Ducke (2015).


The close similarities shared by Rhaetian with the oldest Etruscan inscriptions – but not with the language of later periods, when Etruscan expanded further north – together with increased ‘foreign’ contacts in the Final Bronze Age and the ‘foreign’ ancestry of Etruscans (relative to Italian Chalcolithic and to near-by Bell Beakers) support a language split close to the Adriatic, and not long before they started using the Euboean-related Old Italic alphabet. All this is compatible with an expansion associated with the Proto-Villanovan period, possibly starting along the Po and the Adige.

From Nicolis (2013):

In this geographical context the most important morphological features are the Alps and the alluvial plain of the River Po. Since Roman times the former have always been considered a geographical limit and thus a cultural barrier. In actual fact the Alps have never really represented a barrier, but instead have played an active role in mediating between the central European and Mediterranean cultures. Some of the valleys have been used since the Mesolithic as communication routes, to establish contacts and for the exchange of materials and people over considerable distances. The discovery of Ötzi the Iceman high in the Alps in 1991 demonstrated incontrovertibly that this environment was accessible to individuals and groups from the end of the fourth millennium BC.

From the Early Neolithic period the plain of the Po Valley provided favourable conditions for the population of the area by human groups from central and eastern Europe, who found the wide flat spaces and fertile soils an ideal environment for developing agricultural techniques and animal husbandry. Lake Garda represents a very important morphological feature, benefiting among other things from a Mediterranean-type microclimate, the influence of which can already be seen in the Middle Neolithic. Situated between the plain and the mountains, the hills have always offered an alternative terrain for demographic development, equally important for the exploitation of economic and environmental resources.

As documented for previous periods, in the late and final phases of the Bronze Age the northern Adriatic coast would also seem to represent an important geographical feature, above all in terms of possible long-distance trading contacts with the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean coasts. However, the geographical and morphological characteristics and the river network in this area were very different to the way they are today, and the preferred communications routes must always have been the rivers, particularly the Po and the Adige.

Map of inscriptions of Northern Italy. In green, Rhaetian inscriptions; in Pink, Etruscan inscriptions. Arrows show potential language movements through the Po and the Adige based on the relationship between both language. Image modified from Raetica.


Although it seems superfluous at this point, finding mostly Yamnaya-derived R1b-L23 lineages among speakers of another early North-West Indo-European dialect – and also the earliest to have split into its attested dialects – gives still more support to Yamnaya steppe herders as the vector of expansion of Late PIE, and their continuity up to the Iron Age also supports the strong patrilineal ties of Indo-Europeans.

This, in turn, further supports the nature of Afanasievo as the earliest separated branch from a Late Proto-Indo-European trunk, and of Khvalynsk as the Indo-Anatolian community, while a confirmation of R1b-L23 among early Greeks (speaking the earliest attested Graeco-Aryan dialect) will indirectly confirm East Yamnaya/Poltavka as the early Proto-Indo-Iranian community.

As it often happens with genetic sampling, due to many uncontrollable factors, there is a conspicuous lack of a proper regional and chronological transect of Bell Beaker and Bronze Age samples from Italy, which makes it impossible to determine the origin of each group’s ancestral components. Even though the sampled Italian Beakers don’t seem to be the best fit for Iron Age Italic-speaking peoples from Etruria, they still might have formed part of the migration waves that eventually developed the Apennine culture together with those of prevalent West-Central European Bell Beaker ancestry.

Similarly, the visible radical change from the increasingly WHG-shifted Italian farmers up to the sampled Chalcolithic individuals, including Parma Bell Beakers, to the Anatolia_N-shifted ancestry found in Iron Age Etruscans and Latins might be related to earlier population movements associated with Middle or Late Bronze Age contacts, and not necessarily to the radical social changes seen in the Final Bronze Age. The Etruscan subclade with a likely origin in the Balkans, on the other hand, suggests recent migrations from the Adriatic into Etruria.

Middle Bronze Age cultures of Italy and its surroundings ca. 1750-1250 BC. Potential source of the Greece_N-like admixture found widespread during the Iron Age. See full maps.

Until there is more data about these ancestry changes in Italy, the Balkans, and North-West Anatolia, I prefer to leave the Tyrsenian origins up in the air, so I deleted the Lemnian -> Etruscan arrow of the map of Late Bronze Age migrations, if only because an arrival through the Tyrrhenian Sea has become much less likely. An East -> West movement is still the most likely explanation for the common Tyrsenian language, culture, and ancestry, but the only Y-DNA haplogroup available seems to have an origin closer to the Adriatic.

The recent study of Sea Peoples showed – based on the previous hypothesis of the language and culture of the Philistines – that a minority of incoming elites must have imposed the language as their genetic ancestry (including haplogroups) became diluted among a majority of local peoples. Similarly, the original genetic pool of Tyrsenian speakers might have become diluted among different groups due to their more complex social organization, similar to what happened to Italic peoples during the Imperial period.

One of the most interesting aspects proven in the paper – and strongly suspected before it – is the reflection in population genomics of the change in the social system of the Italian Peninsula during the Roman expansion, and even before it during the Etruscan polity. In fact, it was not only Romans who spread and genetically influenced other European regions, but other regions – especially the more numerous Eastern Mediterranean populations – who became incorporated into a growing Etrurian community which nevertheless managed to spread its language.

In other words, Tyrsenian spread through central and northern Italy, and Latin throughout the whole Mediterranean area and mainland Europe, not (only) through population movements, but through acculturation, in a growing international system of more complex political organizations that can be inferred for most population and language expansions since the Early Iron Age. East Mediterranean populations, Scythians and other steppe peoples, East Germanic peoples, Vikings, or North-Eastern Europeans are other clear examples known to date.


European hydrotoponymy (V): Etruscans and Rhaetians after Italic peoples


There is overwhelming evidence that the oldest hydrotoponymic layer in Italy (and especially Etruria) is of Old European nature, which means that non-Indo-European-speaking (or, at least, non-Old-European-speaking) Etruscans came later to the Apennine Peninsula.

Furthermore, there is direct and indirect linguistic, archaeological, and palaeogenomic data supporting that the intrusive Tursānoi came from the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age, possibly through the Adriatic, and that their languages spread to Etruria and probably also to the eastern Alps.

Hydrotoponymic layer

The following are translated excerpts (emphasis mine) from Lenguas, genes y culturas en la Prehistoria de Europa y Asia suroccidental, by Villar et al. Universidad de Salamanca (2007):

Lenguas, genes y culturas en la Prehistoria de Europa y Asia suroccidental (2007). Buy the ebook online (or the printed version, if available).

‘(Indo-)Mediterranean’ substrate?

The name Indo-Mediterranean substrate was spread in Italy by the work of V. Pisani. Other Italian scholars continued this idea, such as W. Belardi, L. Heilmann, D. Silvestri, etc. In their hands, the nuclear area of ​​the Indo-Mediterranean substratum was established as follows: “il mondo culturale indomediterráneo trova i suoi più importanti centri di gravitazione (e, soltanto secondariamente, di espansione) nel Mediterràneo Orientale (Creta, Cipro, Asia Minore), nella ‘regione dei due fiumi’ (area di espansione subarea) e nella valle dell’Indo (civiltà de Harappa e Mohenjo Daro)”. From there they could have spread to other areas, such as the western Mediterranean. Even at one point there was talk of “a Mediterranean oasis in the Baltic”, whose main basis was the existence of numerous lexical elements, real or supposedly pre-Indo-European in the Baltic languages.

One of the paradoxes of the theory of the Mediterranean substrate is that the lexical or toponymic components that are attributed to it can rarely be explained etymologically from the surviving languages ​​of said supposed substrate; sometimes they are not even very compatible with what we know of the non-Indo-European languages ​​of the corresponding area. For example, neither Basque nor Iberian have an ancestral and autochthonous phoneme /p/, while that phoneme is frequent in substrate words (cf. among the few mentioned above *pal- and *lap-). In fact, for these three languages ​​other alternative origins have been imagined, so that they would not be representatives of the local substrate: Basque (North Africa, the Caucasus), Iberian (North Africa), Etruscan (Asia Minor). Thus, under such hypotheses the non-Indo-European languages ​​attested in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula would not be autochthonous, but as immigrant as the Indo-European languages.

Akʷa hydronyms. The majority of old serial elements are found in Italy, with 9, where they don’t appear as second element. Different to the southern areas, they are found in especially frequent compounds in the acha-Namen in Germany, and hyper-represented (as usual) in Lithuania, which shows strictly 8 ancient names.

Italy and Iberia

Let’s review data on Italy:

I. Serial tponyms and hydronyms of Italy:

  1. ub-: Caecubus, Egubium, Litubium, Marrubium, Olobia, Rutuba, Tardoba, Tardubius, Verubius, etc.
  2. uc-: Aluca, Arucia, Arugus, Ausucum, Ausugum, Motuca, Uccia.
  3. ur-: Orinos, Stura, Stura, Astura, Tibur, Caburrum, Calorem.
  4. urc-: Coturga, Orgus, Urcia, Urcinia, Urgo.
  5. bai-: Baebiani.
  6. tuc-: Tucianus (pagus).
  7. murc-: Murcia, Murgantia, Murgantia.
  8. *war: Varduli, Barduli.


II. Non-serial toponyms and hydronyms of Italy: Aesis, Aisis, Ana, Ania, Anios, Arsia, Astura, Ausa, Ausonia, Ausculum, Bardinisca vallis, Barduli, Basentius, Basta, Boron, Cabienses (Cabia), Caburrum, Cales, Cales, Casta Ballenis, Ceresium, Cerili, Corsica, Cortona, Curicum, Ispelum, Ispila, Isporos, Istonium, Istria, lacus, Latis, Latium, Laurentum, Laurentes, Luca, Lucania, Lucera, Maleventum, mare, Marrucini, Minio, Minius, Oscela, Osci, Ossa, Ostia, Paestum, Pisaurum, Pisaurus, Sabini, Sagis, Savo, Sila, Silarus, Silis, Soletum, etc.


Not few of the coincident place names between the southern Iberian and Italic material are rigorous cognates. We understand by such the names that not only coincide in the root or in the serial element, but in the whole root set plus suffixes, or – if it is a compound – in the two sets of roots plus suffixes. In addition to the ones that we are going to present below, there are others that we did not mention because the Iberian correlate was not found within the southern group, but in other geographical areas, as is the case, for example, with the Italian Mantua and the Spanish Mantua (Carpetania).

As can be seen, the parallels between the southern Iberian toponymic area and the Italic one are so wide and strict that the mere calculation of probabilities makes any attempt to attribute them to the mere chance of random homophony irrational. And the improbability of chance increases as coincidences are added in new places in Europe. What will not prevent, for sure, that some would resort to it as an explanation, in particular those who are reluctant to abandon the conception of the prehistory of the European continent that underlies their usual approaches, which suffer an irreparable strike when they are confronted with these data.

The second aspect, the compatibility of this material with Indo-European etymology, offers another significant correlation: the “southern” series that are also found in the Ibero-Pyrenean region and in Italy (and the rest of western Europe) are compatible with Indo-European etymologies; (…)

I will spare the reader of all proposed Indo-European etymologies, most of which are fairly evident. Those interested should buy one of the books, or both.



(…) in the whole of Italy there is a considerable collection of toponyms and hydronyms of “Southern Iberian” type, whose joint inventory we have contributed to above. From them we find in Etruria Ause, Veturris / Bituriza, Castola, Hasta, Cortona, Luca, Minio, Osa / Ossa, Pissai, Pistoria. The Hispanic and Italian correlates of those names are:


However, the inventory of ancient names and hydronyms of Etruria compatible without discussion with well-known Indo-European etymologies is much wider: Albina, Alma, Alsium, Arnine, Arnos, Arnus, Aventia, Marta, Pallia, Umbro, Vetulonium, Volsinii. Furthermore, the majority of Etrurian hydronyms have non-Latin Indo-European etymology: Albina, Alma, Arnine, Arnos, Arnus, Auser, Aventia, Marta, Minio, Osa, Ossa, Pallia, Umbro. And very few of the others (Clusinus, Cremera, Lingeus, Trasumenus, Vesidia) could claim an Etruscan etymology, if only one could do so.

In summary, the territory occupied by Etruscans presents a hydro-toponymic situation very similar to that of the rest of Italy and Western Europe: it exhibits a very deep toponymic stratum of Indo-European character to which most hydronyms attested in antiquity belong. As we know the history of Etruria from the end of the 1st millennium BC, and we know that no other Indo-European peoples mediated between the Etruscans and the Romanization of the territory, we must conclude that this ancient toponymy was there before the Etruscans arrived or emerged in that place. And, when the Etruscans settled there, they did not have the opportunity to put names of their language to the rivers in general, because they had already received them from a previous people and the Etruscans limited themselves to learning them, adapting them to their language, and transmitting them in turn to the Romans. When the latter Romanized Etruria, they limited themselves to incorporating those names and adapting them to Latin.



The ‘foreign’ Tyrsenians

Here is a recapitulation of the main reasons why Etruscans were recently intrusive to Italy, as they appeared in The Origin of the Etruscans, by Beekes (2003):

NOTE. You can read another version of the text in PDF, as the main paper from Biblioteca Orientalis LIX(3-4) 2002.

  1. The tradition as given by Herodotus and Dionysius of Halikarnassos.
  2. The story that the Etruscans were Pelasgians.
  3. The use of the term ‘Tyrsēnoi’ for both Etruscans and a people in north-western Asia Minor. Above we argued that the eastern Tyrsēnoi are the remnant of a population. This means that the Tyrsēnoi/Etruscans came from this area.
  4. The Lemnos inscription.
  5. To the testimony of Lemnos must now be added that Herodotus says that the people of Plakiê and Skylakê spoke the same language as the Etruscans.
  6. etruscan-homeland

  7. The kumdanlı inscription. (…) lake Egridir (of which the old name is unknown, unless it was just Limnai). This is just over the border of classical Lydia. The inscription dates from the second century ad and is given by Ramsay (i883); the same inscription is cited by Sundwall (i9i3, 22i). It mentions three people as Tyrsēnoi(67, 68, i02). Though very late, the inscription is of great interest, as it is the only time that we have inscriptional evidence for Tyrsēnoi in Asia Minor. (And nobody will argue that these were Etruscans from Italy.) (…)
  8. The suffix -ānos. The suffix -ānos in the name Tyrsēnoi (with ē from ā) points to the north-west of Asia Minor. It has long since been recognized that this suffix for ethnic names is at home in north-west Asia Minor; some think that it is of non-Greek origin; cf. Αβυδηνός , Ολυμπιηνός, Περγαμηνός, Σαρδηνός; (see Chantraine i933, 206; Schwyzer 490 (6); De Simone i993, 88ff.). This proves that the name Tyrsēnoi originated in the north-west of Asia Minor. (…)
  9. Loanwords. As to the language, Steinbauer (i999, 367) observes that Etruscan shows most connections (loanwords) with Lydian (…)
  10. Tarchon. The definite proof of the oriental origin of the Etruscans is that a ‘hero’ of great significance is Tarchon (Briquel i99i). He is clearly the Stormgod Tarhun(t)-, the highest god of the Luwians and Hittites.
  11. Nanas. This identification is strongly confirmed by the story that the Etruscans were Pelasgians who came from Greece under Nanas (Nanos), mentioned by Hellanikos. This name was long ago recognized as an Anatolian ‘Lallname’.
  12. The triumphus complex. In his study of the Roman triumphus Versnel has shown that (i970, 293): ‘the Etruscans brought the New Year festival with them from Asia Minor, together with the god who formed the centre of it, a god whom the Greeks called Dionysos, the Etruscans Tinia (or by an Italic name Voltumna), a figure of the ‘dying and rising’ type, who was invoked by the cry *thriambe and who on New Year’s Day was represented by the king.’ And on p. 300: ‘The Etruscans brought the New Year festival with them from Asia Minor and gave Rome two ceremonies: the ludi Romani as the festival of the New Year, the triumph as the festival of the victory. … Only along this way is it possible to explain the data: i. the Dionysiac call to epiphany triumpe, introduced via Etruria; 2. the identification of the Roman victorious general and of the magistrate leading the games with the god Iuppiter; 3. the typological and historic relation between the ludi Romani and the triumph.’
  13. The double axe. On a smaller issue Versnel concludes (p. 299): ‘When this bipennis [‘double axe’], property of ‘Zeus Bakchos’, carried as symbol of sacred power by Lydian kings, is encountered again as the symbol of the royal authority of the Etruscan kings, particularly of the supreme king of the federation of cities, this may be considered an important indication of the Asia Minor origin of the entire underlying ideology, and of the ceremony of investiture in which the bipennis played a part.’ These conclusions are of primary importance, as they concern a deeprooted complex of religious views that cannot have been taken over from elsewhere.
  14. The Kabeiroi. One might also recall the Latin word camillus, which means a young boy of noble birth who assists with ritual actions. (…) Probably more evidence can be found in the field of religion, such as the much discussed hepatoscopy. It seems quite probable to me that the lituus, the crosier used by the Roman priests, is Anatolian (see e.g. Wainwright i959, 2i0; cf. Haas i99i, Abb. 75, the Stormgod standing on an animal with his lituus over his shoulder).
  15. The Etruscan way of life. There was in antiquity much criticism on Etruscan customs, concerning cruelty, sexual behaviour, and the behaviour of women. (…) Dionysius concluded from the fact that they were so strange that they had always lived in Italy, whereas it is of course much more natural to explain it by assuming that they were strangers.
  16. No withdrawal area. We have seen above that Tuscany is not a ‘withdrawal area’, where an ancient people may hold out when the country is invaded. On the contrary, it is a desirable area which the Indo-European peoples, had they come later, would certainly have occupied. (But it went the other way: the Etruscans came long after the Indo-Europeans and settled there/conquered the country.)
  17. sea-peoples-expansion-tyrsenians
    The Sea Peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean c. 1200 BC. Map by Ian Mladjov.
  18. Archaeology. Many scholars would like to see archaeological evidence, but I think that it is quite possible that we shall never find any.
  19. The 1200 crisis. In 1200 the whole Mediterranean was in commotion; the Mycenaean and Hittite worlds, between which the TyrseOEnoi lived, disappeared. So the movement of the Etruscans fits very well in the general picture. That this was the setting of the migration of the Etruscans has been assumed by many earlier scholars.
  20. The ten saecula. As to the time, it has been argued that the Etruscans thought that their world would last ten saecula (Briquel i999, 58; Pfiffig i975, i59ff.). The way of counting provides several problems, however (…) If we accept it, we arrive at 968 bc. Now we do not know from when one started counting. This might have been a decisive victory over the Umbrians, or a kind of unification of the Etruscans, or the founding of an important city. It could well be that this was some 200 years after the arrival of the Etruscans, which would take us to 1168 bc. (…)
  21. The famine. Herodotus states that the reason for the departure of the Tyrsēnoi was a long famine. This has been identified as the famine about i200. (…)
  22. The sea-peoples. (…) The phenomenon as a whole stands, it seems; the problem is the details: which peoples took part in which movements? In our case, as the Lukka are mentioned (which were very probably the Lycians), the Tyrsēnoi may have been involved as well. So the question is whether the T(w)r(w)š, mentioned by Merneptah, were the Tyrsēnoi. We have no confirmation, but it seems quite possible.
  23. The journey. We know from the abundant finds of ceramics in the i3th century that the Mycenaeans knew the sea-route to Italy. (…)
  24. The Umbrians. Pliny (3, ii2) states that the Etruscans conquered 300 cities from the Umbrians (Trecenta eorum oppida Tusci debellasse reperiuntur.). This clearly refers to the ‘Landnahme’. This statement is confirmed by the river Umbro (mod. Ombrone), which flows in its full length in Etruscan territory. The river will have given its name to the people, or vice versa. Anyhow, the river will have flowed in Umbrian territory; so the Etruscans must have pushed the Umbrians out.
  25. The name Sergestus, of a prominent friend of Aeneas, seems identical with Lydian Srkastu- and Phrygian Surkastos (…) it is excluded that (Virgil) got it from Lydia or Phrygia, or Asa Minor in general. So he must have got it at home, from a source that was acqainted with Etruscan traditions. This means that the name was known to the Etruscans (or those who studied their traditions). Above I proposed that it lives on in Etr. Sekst-alu-.

You can read the full text (and its appendices) for further evidences adduced by Beekes, who considers the matter mostly settled.

Local Italic peoples

Another main reason for the intrusion of Tyrsenians among local groups is the ancient connection between Italic languages, which most likely formed an ancient Apennine dialect continuum:

  • the core Italic group with Latino-Faliscan and Palaeo-Sabellic – probably also including an Ausonian-Siculian branch – separated ca. 1500-1000 BC;
  • NOTE. Sicel is believed to have arrived in Sicily with Ausonian-Siculian speakers either around the 13th c. or in the middle of the 11th c. BC (or in both waves), from their ancient settlements in the mainland, driving prior inhabitants (Elymians) to the east of the island, which sets another clear terminus ante quem for the expansion of Italic languages in southern Italy.

  • and the possibly more distantly related North Picene and Venetic, connecting all roughly to an early to mid-2nd millennium BC language.

This continuum was probably broken (with language replacement and displacement events) with the 12th c. BC turmoil and the emergence of new social hierarchies. The adoption of older place and river names, as well as the lack of long-lasting influence on neighbouring languages, suggests that the predominance of the Etruscan language in its proto-historic territory was probably gradual and quite recent.

NOTE. For more on guesstimates, relative chronological expansions and potential archaeological identifications, see e.g. “Ausgliederung und Aufgliederung der italischen Sprachen”, by Helmut Rix In: Languages in Prehistoric Europe (2003). Or, basically, any recent (linguistic) text on the distribution and attribution of ancient Apennine languages to the Ital(o-Venet)ic group.

Languages of pre-Roman Italy and nearby islands. Italo-Venetic languages surrounded with shadowed red border. I1, South Picene; I2, Umbrian; I3, Sabine; I4, Faliscan; I5, Latin; I6, Volscian and Hernican; I7, Central Italic (Marsian, Aequian, Paeligni, Marrucinian, Vestinian); I8, Oscan, Sidicini, Pre-Samnite; I9, Sicel; IE1, Venetic; IE2, North Picene; IE3, Ligurian; IE4, Elymian; IE5, Messapian; C1, Lepontic; C2, Gaulish; G1-G2-G3, Greek dialects (G1: Ionic, G2: Aeolic, G3: Doric); P1, Punic; N1, Rhaetian; N2, Etruscan; N3, Nuragic. Image modified from Davius Sanctex.


The main criticism against this ethnolinguistic model of foreign Tyrsenians comes, surprisingly, from the lack of archaeological data to support this arrival. Or, rather, fitting anthropological interpretations of a culture of Asia Minor with similar hierarchical societies (?). From Review of R. S. P. Beekes, The Origin of the Etruscans, by Mahoney, Etruscan Studies (2008):

A crucial part of Beekes’ argument, however, is that there is a significant cultural break in Etruria around 1200, at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age or Proto-Villanovan period (p. 34, citing Briquel and Torelli). The introduction of cremation can be dated to around this period, and there is also evidence for a new hierarchical social organization (convenient summary in Barker and Rasmussen, p. 53-60). Beekes simply says that there is a change, and changes of this sort can come about when new people move in to an existing society, so therefore this change is consistent with his theory. That is correct as far as it goes, but what is missing is any consideration of how and why people coming in from Asia Minor would cause the particular changes that take place in Etruria. Can we argue that the society of the pre-migration Tyrsenians was hierarchical in the same way as those of the various Indo-European-speaking peoples in the region? Beekes simply says “what we still would like to have is material objects, or art traditions etc., from Etruria agreeing with their homeland” (p. 34). What we would really like to have is evidence for the organization of society in this alleged homeland.

Weird as this criticism is, here it is yet another example of the social change brought about under Eastern Mediterranean influences during the Final Bronze Age, from a recent paper (behind paywall) Mobile elites at Frattesina: flows of people in a Late Bronze Age ‘port of trade’ in northern Italy, by Cavazzuti et al. Antiquity (2019):


The collapse of the Terramare system c. 1150 BC was followed by a sudden and substantial depopulation of the central part of the Po Plain (Cardarelli 2009). At the beginning of the Final Bronze Age, the southern part of the Po Valley was almost abandoned. In contrast, in the northern part of the Po Valley, some villages survived (…) Concurrently, a new territorial system arose, pivoting around the socio-economic pole of Frattesina (Calzavara Capuis et al. 1984; Bietti Sestieri et al. 2015; Cupitò et al. 2015). Therefore, within the area of the wider Terramare ‘culture’, local responses to the crisis led to different outcomes, some of which were relatively successful and others catastrophic. Economic factors—both in terms of internal carrying capacity and degree of openness to external relations—probably played a key role in determining different responses to the tensions.

The communities of the Terramare, especially in the southern area, were probably not flexible enough to adapt their political structure and modes of production to the needs of a rapidly changing world. Moreover, the domino effect from the overall geo-political instability of the twelfth century BC, in a highly interconnected system such as the Mediterranean, was undoubtedly another factor (Cardarelli 2009). The lack of evidence in the southern Terramare area for connections with the Aegean and the Levant suggests a more ‘closed’ system located on the edge of the ‘globalised’ world of the Late Bronze Age. In contrast, there is well-documented evidence from the largest terramare on the northern side of the Po River for possible incipient institutionalised, well-connected elites—particularly at Fondo Paviani, which has yielded locally produced pottery in Levantine and Late Helladic IIIC Aegean-Mycenaean styles (Bettelli et al. 2015).

The display of austere equality that dominated the Middle and Late Bronze Age ‘urnfields’ (Salzani 2005; Cardarelli 2014) strongly limited funerary expressions of social differentiation. Internal inequalities nonetheless existed between different co-resident extended families and lineages comprising tens of individuals at most (e.g. at Casinalbo; Cardarelli et al. 2014: 722–28), and, above all, between large centres, such as the terramara at Fondo Paviani and dependent satellite settlements (Balista et al. 2005; Cupitò et al. 2015). It seems reasonable therefore to hypothesise that groups based at nodal sites in the system attracted more prestige goods from exotic places, along with individuals from distant areas, while small villages attracted people mainly from within a local radius (Cavazzuti et al. 2019a). Within this dynamic cultural context, the Final Bronze Age funerary evidence from Frattesina documents a more elaborate display of power and wealth concentrated in the hands of elites. At Le Narde (Frattesina’s cemetery), this privileged segment of society, probably with its own entourage, is clearly represented by a small number of burials with several indicators of prestige.

Distribution of the violin-bow fibulae with two temple knots in the different source categories. Map by Sabine Pabst (2018).


(…) the individual in burial Narde1-168 may have achieved the status of a ‘warrior-chief’, as symbolised by the presence of an Allerona-type sword (Bianco Peroni 1970). This was ritually broken and deposited in pieces inside the grave, along with a bronze pin, a pair of tweezers and other ornaments (Figure 8). (…) yielded a strontium isotope ratio (0.70983) that is incompatible with the local 0–20km baseline (Table 3), but fits within the 20–50km range. By contrast, the value obtained from the femoral cortical bone (0.70924) is consistent with the local range of Frattesina. This means that this individual moved to the site after early childhood—possibly during youth or early adulthood—and he probably spent the last years of his life there, at the apex of the community.

Marshall Sahlins (1981), in his famous article ‘The stranger-king: or Dumézil among the Fijians’, compares the dynamics of power in the Fiji Islands to the Indo-European tradition, arguing that human societies tend to locate power as originating from the outside (Sahlins 1981, 2008; see also Ling & Rowlands 2015). Sahlins focuses on origin myths across ancient polities in the Indo-European language area, which systematically feature a dichotomy between what the Romans called gravitas and celeritas. The former refers to the conservative, peaceful and productive character of an established native community, while celeritas represents the disruptive, transformative violence personified in the stranger king, who “erupts upon a pastoral scene of peaceful husbandry and political equality (or at least limited authority)” (Sahlins 1981: 112).

The grave goods and cremated bones of burial Narde1-168 (after Salzani 1989). Urn height is 0.26m, sword length is 0.46m.

The individual buried in grave Narde1-168 at Frattesina was probably neither a true ‘king’, nor a true ‘stranger’. Despite its uniqueness, his grave resembles those of the rest of the community and is included within a large collective—or at least not evidently exclusive—burial mound. ‘Warrior-chief’ perhaps would be a more appropriate definition for this individual. Moreover, his place of origin was not so distant as to define him as a ‘stranger’. Nonetheless, Sahlins’s archetype of the ‘stranger-king’ evokes the power of alterity; burial Narde1-168 perfectly embodies celeritas, which breaks with the gravitas of the former Terramare tradition and guided whatever survived the collapse towards a new social model. Since the discovery of Frattesina and its cemeteries, Italian scholars have debated the mechanisms underlying the origin and economic success of the settlement, and the degree of foreign (i.e. Cypriot and Levantine) involvement in this process as suggested by archaeological finds (Cupitò et al. 2015). The new isotopic data presented here demonstrate that even though some individuals may have come from the Levant—where the available 87Sr/86Sr baseline ranges from 0.7079–0.7086 (Sheridan & Gregoricka 2015; Gregoricka & Guise Sheridan 2016)—or were from other exotic places, they nonetheless represent a minority of the population and, in any case, not the upper elite. The latter appear quite mobile, although probably from within the broader hinterland radius.

Adriatic or western route?

One of the interesting questions, and probably non-trivial for the correct interpretation of ancestry in future ancient DNA samples, is from where exactly did Tyrsenians come from, and more importantly where exactly did the arrive, and when. I have the impression that a Tyrrhenian Sea route is more commonly depicted (as in my maps) due to the historical predominance of Etruscans in the west, but that archaeologists usually consider the Adriatic – and thus a spread from the Po River Valley and/or Pannonia – a more likely route for Tyrsenian speakers, and probably rightly so.

NOTE. The tentative (and highly speculative) classification of fragmentary Rhaetian as more archaic than Etruscan relative to Lemnian may give further support to this route.

Failing a precise time transect from a population geographically close to the origin of their expansion in central or northern Italy, we are bound to see the same misinterpretations of the data we have seen in the case of Sea Peoples of hg. R1b behind Philistines. Nevertheless, here are some interesting predictions of population movements by Pabst (2013) based particularly on the Stätzling-/Allerona-sword from Narde in Veneto, which have been confirmed for the moment with isotope analyses, showing that some peoples of Frattesina had previously lived in the eastern Mediterranean, and that local elites had a much closer origin:

Distribution of the various blade profiles of the Stätzling (l) and Casale (H) type of leaf blade sword: 1 White symbols: blade with rapier-like ribs. – 2 black symbols: flat rhombic blade profile.- 3 Large gray symbols: a blade with a narrow midrib and longitudinal grooves.- Small gray symbols: lenticular or indefinite blade profile. (Map S. Pabst).

An Ingot fragment from the hoard of Hočko Pohorje in Styria, Slovenia indicates that possibly also Pannonia was involved in the 12th century BC (or during stage Ha A1) in the East and Central Mediterranean copper trade. According to the chemical composition or the high iron content, it is particularly close to individual finds from Sardinia, Italy and Anatolia.

The people behind the Stätzling swords could have been the potentates of this supraregional trade in the Adriatic and Ionian seas. This is also to be expected from the presence of late Mycenaean populations on the upper Adriatic. This is indicated – in addition to individual Mycenaean ceramics imports – especially in the Aegean Stätzling sword from the fly cave of Škocjan in the hinterland of Trieste, in this exchange network of the 12th century BC. However, not only people from the late Mycenaean cultural area were involved in the process. For native elites are suspected behind the mostly locally manufactured Stätzling swords in Pannonia and Italy, according to the analysis of the grave find 227 of Narde; perhaps local organizers of the trade, as allies of the Mycenaean chiefs.


Palaeogenomics might help shed light upon the complex matter of the Tyrsenian emergence in Europe. Even though Rhaetian is a fragmentary language, it seems that it is related to Etruscan, and neither are remnant languages from the Bronze Age, but rather intrusive languages to Italy and Central Europe.

It is more than likely, then, that ancient DNA will show an increase in Aegean ancestry during the Late/Final Bronze Age in central and/or northern Italy, even if this change is found rapidly diluted within generations, as happened with the Aegean ancestry among Philistines, who – in spite of this dilution – also left their prolonged linguistic mark in the Levant.

This is the summary I made of an online report from oral communication A 12,000-year Genetic History of Rome and the Italian Peninsula, by Hannah Moots, the 6th February 2019, with 134 samples from Lazio and surrounding areas:

Bronze Age – Iron Age evolution of Italy Top Left: Early Bronze Age cultures. Bottom left: PCA of groups from the Bronze Age; marked in red are previous Italy Bell Beakers. Top Right: Early Iron Age cultures. Bottom right: PCA of groups from the Iron Age – Middle Ages; marked in red are the approximate location of described ancient Italian clusters, one including Etruscans, Osco-Umbrians, Picentes, etc., and the wider cluster of Romans (dates unknown). See full maps and PCAs.

While Bronze Age samples of west-central Italy show a clear homogenisation of the genetic pool, with a shift in the PCA towards central Europe (away from the previous CHG/Iran Neolithic influence), and thus close to the modern Sardinian cluster, the few investigated Iron Age samples from the Republican period (ca. 700–20 BC) show a widespread genetic cluster encompassing the modern Italian ones, overlapping North Italian (ca. 60%) or South Italian/Sicilian (ca. 40%) clusters. The arrival or increase of EHG-, Levant Neolithic-, or CHG/IN-related ancestry in samples from this period suggest influence from previous population movements during the LBA from the north or through the Mediterranean, respectively. The Imperial Period shows influence from CHG/IN-related ancestry, but only sporadically Levant Neolithic.

NOTE. For more on the referred northern and southern Italian clusters, see Population structure of modern-day Italians reveals patterns of ancient and archaic ancestries in Southern Europe, by Raveane et al. bioRxiv (2018).

Principal component analysis projecting 63 ancient individuals onto the components inferred from modern individuals. A) Principal component analysis projecting 63 ancient individuals onto the components inferred from 3,282 modern individuals assigned, through a CP/fS analysis, to European West Asian and Caucasian clusters.

The alternative view

Kristiansen is among those who offer an alternative view in the archaeological question, supporting the opposite direction of population movements: of Terramare migrants in Greece, a theory which is not to be lightly dismissed, in the complex setting of population movements across the Mediterranean during the Final Bronze Age.

As a weak linguistic support for such a movement, one can find the hypothesis of Eteo-Cretans as Osco-Umbrian speakers, based on de Ligt’s speculative interpretation of the Praisos inscription (Talanta 2008-2009).

It seems that, even if these views are also correct, the overwhelming evidence is for a foreign origin of Tyrsenians:

  • lack of Tyrsenian hydrotoponymic layers in Italy or central Europe;
  • guesstimates and “split” distribution of Italo-Venetic languages;
  • foreign culture and influences of Etruscans;
  • recent predominance and influence of Etruscan language and culture;
  • East Mediterranean peoples in the LBA Po Valley (isotope analyses);
  • genetics of Sea Peoples from the Aegean.