Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 5, 2024

The mystery of the Etruscans

One of the unresolved mysteries of European anthropology is where the Etruscans fit into the big picture.

The Etruscans lived in northwestern Italy, in the region now called Tuscany -- in fact, the name Tuscany comes from the Latin Tusci, one of several names they had for the people who lived there.  The Greeks called them the Τυρσηνοί -- the Tyrrhenians -- etymologically related both to Etruria (the region where they lived) and, obviously, the Tyrrhenian Sea that still bears their name.  They called themselves the Rasenna, a word which, like most of their language, is of uncertain origin.

The big question is whether the Etruscans were autochthonous (academia-speak for "they'd always been there") or allochthonous (migrants from somewhere else -- and if so, from where?).  Of course, the truth is that all Europeans are ultimately allochthonous, because we all started out in east Africa -- it's just that some of us have been in place for a lot longer than others.  We know the Etruscans were already in that region when the Romans got there, who encountered them in something like 500 B.C.E. and ultimately absorbed them completely.  (An occupation the Romans excelled at.)

The historian Thucydides said they were related to the Pelasgians, a bit of a catch-all term ancient Greeks used to describe the inhabitants of Greece prior to the arrival of the classical Greek-speaking Dorians, Ionians, Achaeans, and Aeolians.  The word Pelasgian was almost synonymous with barbarian -- the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans shared a rather off-putting self-congratulatory bent, summed up as "if you're not us, sucks to be you."  

Of course, they're hardly the only civilization to feel that way.  I could name a modern one or two that still haven't gotten over that attitude.

In any case, there's good evidence that the Etruscans had already been there a while when the Romans encountered them, and that they were not closely related to the people in the neighborhood.  Their language, for example, is still a mystery, and has only been partly deciphered by linguists.  The general consensus is that, like Euskara (the language of the Basque people), it is non-Indo European.  There are two other languages it seems to be related to -- the Rhaetic language, an extinct language once spoken by people in what is now eastern Switzerland and western Austria, and Lemnian, spoken on the distant island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea prior to their being conquered by speakers of Attic Greek in the sixth century B.C.E. 

The latter suggests that Thucydides may have been right on the money in connecting the Etruscans to the Pelasgians.  Together, Etruscan, Rhaetic, and Lemnian seem to be related to no other known languages, and are tentatively classified as a linguistic isolate family (Tyrsenian).

None other than the Roman Emperor Claudius wrote a twenty-volume set on the history and language of the Etruscans -- apparently he himself was a fluent speaker, and was fascinated by their culture -- but tragically, no trace of that extensive manuscript remains.  It's one of a long list of works we only know by their titles, and through references in other books.

The Monteleone Chariot, bronze inlaid with ivory, from sixth century B.C.E. Etruria [Image is in the Public Domain]

A genetic study of Etruscan remains found that they seemed to be related to the central European Urnfield Culture -- so named because of their practice of cremation and burial in ceramic urns -- which probably originated on the steppes of eastern Europe.  But as this path was a pretty common one -- the ancestors of the Celts, Slavs, Hungarians, and Germanic peoples all came that way -- it might not tell us all that much about how or when the Etruscans arrived.

At least their later history was happier than that of many people who bumped into the Romans.  There was some warring and jockeying for power, which the Etruscans ultimately lost, but they were eventually subsumed into the Roman Republic, becoming full Roman citizens.  Many Etruscan towns went on to make large amounts of money as middlemen between the Romans and the conquered Celtic tribes to the north and west.  Several prominent families who were to rise to position of power in the Republic (and later Empire) had Etruscan roots, including the Caecinia, Urgulania, Tarquinia, and Volumnia families, all names that will be familiar to aficionados of Roman history.  Most of the people from modern Tuscany have Etruscan roots, indicating their ancestors have been living in the same place for over three thousand years.

In the end, though, we're left with a mystery.  A people who left behind buildings and works of art and an only partly-understood language, whose connections to other ancient peoples are lost to the shadows of time.  And a mystery is always fascinating -- even if we might never fully discover the answers to all the questions.


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