Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bad Archaeology Reporting

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article about DNA evidence for the origin of the Etruscans that really raised my hackles at the bad reporting contained therein. To understand what all the hullabaloo is about, first we have to say a few words about who the Etruscans were and why we care about their origins.

The Etruscans were a people that lived in central Italy, just north of Rome, centered on an area that still bears their name, Tuscany. Their heyday ran from c. 600-300 BC, when they were absorbed into the growing Roman Republic. The Etruscans had a great influence on Roman culture; not only were two of the seven legendary Roman kings Etruscan, but more concretely, Etruscan art had a great influence on early Roman art. Perhaps most significant to us is the fact that the Etruscans gave the Romans their alphabet, which in turn is the ancestor of the one I am using to write this post.

The Etruscans are unusual in that the language they spoke is not related to any of the others spoken in Italy at the time. In fact, Etruscan is related to no known language. Etruscan is also not fully deciphered, although we can get the basic gist of most texts and certain Roman authors occasionally mention Etruscan words and their Latin equivalents. Sadly, the encyclopedic history of the Etruscans (who called themselves the Rasna) written by the Emperor Claudius doesn't survive.

The Etruscan language has led to all sorts of speculation about their origins. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Etruscans (who he calls Tyrrhenians) originally came from western Asia Minor. He relates a story that during the reign of Atys, king of the Lydians (a legendary figure with no firm dates), the Lydians experienced a severe famine. To take their minds off their hunger, the Lydians invented board games -- a clear origin myth. When the famine continued, they decided to send half the population away under the leadership of the king's son, Tyrrhenius. They settled in Italy and became the Etruscans.

Herodotus' story was given great credence for many decades, until archaeological examination of both the Etruscans and Lydians showed that there is no identifiable connection between the two peoples. The Lydians spoke an Indo-European language quite unlike Etruscan, and there are no connections in pottery shapes or artistic iconography that would lead us to suspect any relationship. The closest archaeologists have been able to come are some short inscriptions found on the island of Lemnos -- off the coast of Turkey -- written in a language resembling Etruscan. The longest of these -- the so-called "Lemnos stele" -- dates to the 5th century B.C. Herodotus tells us the inhabitants of Lemnos were Pelasgians, the name given to the legendary pre-Greek inhabitants of the Aegean area. Thucydides says they were Tyrrhenians, or Etruscans. There does appear to be a linguistic connection, although since neither Etruscan nor Lemnian is fully deciphered, and since we have little Etruscan and less Lemnian preserved, we cannot reconstruct the exact relationship. The archaeological evidence does not support the idea of a recent migration in either direction, however.

Furthermore, the archaeological evidence from Italy shows a slow, steady development from the proto-Villanovan culture of c. 1100 BC to the Etruscans 500 years later. As a result, a consensus has grown that Etruscan culture and civilization was native to Italy and grew out of an Italian milieu, with no influx of outside peoples.

That brings us to the NYT article. It relates a series of DNA tests that have been performed on residents of the Italian city of Murlo, which rests on top of an Etruscan town, on contemporary residents of Tuscany, and on cattle breeds peculiar to the region. According to researchers, all of these populations bear certain genetic patterns that are close to people and cattle from the Near East. Dating DNA relationships is notoriously hard, and only the cattle study is reported as giving a date range: 6400 - 1600 BC. How's that for an error range!

There are two bad things about the NYT article, one egregious, the other less so but still worth pointing out. The first problem is the claim made in the title that this evidence "boosts Herodotus' account." This is nonsense. All of the relationships mentioned link the populations of central Italy to the Levant and Near East -- none to Turkey. Saying this evidence provides any support to Herodotus would be like archaeologists of the future discovering Viking settlements in North America and concluding they support the story of Columbus discovering the New World in 1492. Sorry, Herodotus is wrong. If the Etruscans did arrive from the Near East, it was in the distant past, long before any records Herodotus had access to.

The second bad thing is the continuing desire to use DNA analysis of modern populations to deduce ancient origins. More than two thousand years separate the people of Italy from their putative Etruscan ancestors, and much more than that from any possible migration. This study is better than most in that several independent chains of evidence are combined, instead of relying on a single sample. However, a lot of time has intervened, and there are other ways genetic material can travel other than via mass migration. For example, we know the Phoenicians had trading colonies in Etruria. In addition, in the late Bronze Age there was a series of catastrophes that resulted in the destruction of many civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Mycenaean civilization in Greece and the Hittite kingdom in Asia Minor. Little is known about what happened, but at the same time Egyptian records report an invasion of outsiders the Egyptians called "Sea Peoples." Who the Sea Peoples were, why they attacked, and what connection, if any, they have with the collapse of Mycenaean and Hittite power are hotly-debated topics. For our purposes, some of the tribes the Egyptians list as making up the Sea Peoples have been linked with peoples of the Western Mediterranean: the Sheklesh might be the Sicels from Sicily, the Sherden from Sardinia, and the Tursa the Tyrrhenians (or Etruscans). Did the Etruscans participate in attacks on the Near East in the late Bronze Age? Did they perhaps take booty back with them?

This is speculation, nothing more, but is indicative of the way people and animals could move around in the ancient world.

Of course, the genetic link may be even farther back. Perhaps the Etruscans migrated into Italy at the start of the Neolithic period. We just don't know. Until we can find a more precisely-datable link, the origin of the Etruscans will still be a bone of contention.


Glen Gordon said...

You deserve a comment for a very educated blog entry. Kudos! (I currently see 0 comments here and feel saddened that people don't communicate in this day and age.)

I have the same issues against genetics being used to determine language or cultural origins. It's frustrating but there are a lot of people out there (some even 'educated', yikes!) that swear up and down that genetics is a good way to track cultural or linguistic movement. Sigh. Glad to see that some are able to see past this nonsense.

As for the "Herodotus is wrong" and the "Hard to say either way" part of your monologue, I have to counter you when it comes to _linguistic_ origins because it seems to me that the answer in that regard is already known and known for quite some time, although it has been several times glossed over or obscured by mass media.

In all fairness, you should be evaluating Herodotus as one would assess the historical validity of the bible or any other ancient texts. That is, if you take Herodotus literally, word for word, then of course Herodotus is wrong all the time. He rants, he indulges, he builds up a story with emotional rhetoric and invents eponymous origins... but isn't that what everyone did in the classical world (and quite possibly modern world to this day)? Our standards are unjustly high. Even Plato's Atlantis had a modicum of truth in it (ie. Santorini) but if we're too hasty we miss it all... and what a waste.

If we simply take from Herodotus the most basic claim that Etruscans are from 'Lydia', then it surely must be 'true-ish' on linguistic grounds because of not only Lemnian but Eteo-Cypriot in Cyprus. Eteo-Cypriot seems to share a common pronominal, declensional and verb system with these languages. Now, even if you don't accept that Eteo-Cypriot is related to Etrusco-Lemnian, then surely you can at least see the easterly origins of some of Etruscan's loanwords like semph 'seven' and s'ar 'ten' (cf. Semitic). To me then, it seems like an origin in South-Western Turkey is the most optimal way to explain all these linguistic connections.

Of course, since the language could only have migrated so rapidly from that area to Italy by way of sea voyage, it also implies that many elements of their culture and 'some' of their genetics must have also come from that area during the Greek Dark Ages, despite anything that the genetic study claims to prove.

Still, I think stressing the importance of genetics to be the primary key in determining Etruscan origins is academically irresponsible. But hey, it sells magazines.

Scott de Brestian said...

Thanks for the response! I'm just getting started, so I expect traffic will be slow to start.

To address your point, I have no expertise in Anatolian or Cypriot linguistics. From my reading into the origins of Basque, I know that connections tend to be bandied about uncritically. But you may well be correct.

However, there is another reason Herodotus might have reported the connection. It's quite possible that there was a political or diplomatic advantage to inventing a fictional relationship, either on the part of the Etruscans, the Lydians, or both. The Roman legend that they are descended from the Trojans via Aeneas, for example, worked to the benefit of many parties. The Romans gained Classical cachet, which helped them in their relations with the Greeks, Troy (Ilion) got additional prestige and patronage, and it gave the Romans an origin myth that fit the Greeks' preconceptions. I think it's certainly possible that similar incentives operated in the fifth century B.C.

Glen Gordon said...

Interesting points. Basque origins... hmmm, that's a blog, isn't it? :)

There are certainly politics in everything and so I have to agree to what you're saying to a limit. However if you're trying to hint that the Etruscan-Lydia connection is purely a politically motivated story, there are too many historical facts being forgotten here.

What about the Orientalization Period? What about the Pyrgi Tablets? What about haruspicy being squarely derived from Anatolia? Were classical Greeks not aware of Etruscans despite buying their goods in Magna Grecia and beyond? How does one possibly avoid the inevitable link between Etruscans and the Eastern Mediterranean, one way or another?

In the minds of 5th-century Greeks, I would wager that a Tyrrhenian origin somewhere between Troy and the Levant would be a natural sequitur given the commonly known facts at the time, even if they were to conclude this based on added political motives as well.

So Herodotus' tale simply can't be purely political without denying a great deal but I would rather suspect that it's modernday scholars that are politically motivated for a multitude of reasons to deny the "un-Italian" nature of the Etruscans and to paint Herodotus as a silly ol' Greek villager that had absolutely nothing factual to say about an era that was much closer to his lifetime than ours.

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