Peoples and Cultures
Italians, Etruscans and
Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A reader wrote
with some comments on my article "Italians and Race:"
"First, the reason why some southern Italians have olive colored skin and dark hair is due mostly to Arab gene flows that originated over 10,000 years ago."
I found it interesting that this correspondent referred to recent genetic discoveries, because this is one area I try to keep up with. It has been especially helpful to follow the interpretations of the Y-chromosome "tracer gene" discussions, which show the sequence of human migrations over the millennia. This correspondent mentions an excellent National Geographic reconstruction of human migration based on human gene history.
First, however, I wonder about the wording here, since ethnicity is a very complex matter, with multiple causes. The phrase "THE reason" is infelicitous, implying there will be only one genetic source for some physical characteristic of a people in the Italian peninsula!
There are multiple layers of migration there, as in virtually every other locale. In recent times (the historical period), there have been many migrations of various people into the area we now know as "Italy." The various ethnicities that make the current "Italians" are very varied indeed.
No one source can account for all that we see, even the olive skin and dark hair that we commonly associate with Italic ethnicities.
The term "Arab gene flows" troubles me also, since this reads back into pre-history a comparatively recent identification. At the depth of 10,000 years and more, I don't see how we can identify anything as what we now know by the term "Arab."
What we do see is a stream of human movement that seems to have moved gradually northward through the middle of what we call the Arabian Peninsula, through what is now Syria, then on westward moved into the peninsula we now know as Italy. This, you will note on the excellent and amazing genetic mapping of National Geographic, is only one of two major streams indicated.
The other genetic stream comes from northern Asia, through northern Europe and down western Europe into the northern Italian Peninsula.
The sequential "tracer genes" in human male DNA give us a rough time frame and sequence of human migration, but don't tell us about the physical characteristics or types as such. The people known as "Arabs" now are also a descendant people, and mixed, even in the Arabian Peninsula. There is a wide range of shades, physical types, and characteristics among the "Arab" peoples.
Comparative DNA specialists tell us that the farther back in time we go, the more differentiated the gene pool of any particular population group would be. As generatiouns passed and new families developed and moved gradually farther and farther away, each group carried a portion of the original gene pool of the larger population group. The oldest populations ahve the richest phenotype variation. All differentiation came from an original population group.
Some differentiation seems to be related to the minor natural mutation as indicated in the "tracer" genes which enabled geneticists to trace a geographical and historical sequence of population groups. It is now proven that new genes develop along the route of human history and migration.
Several books have been written in recent years on this topic. An excellent one I have read and reviewed is The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells. Wells details the historical migrations of humanity, portraying the story that has now developed out of the comparative study of the DNA of human populations all over the world.
Wells and the Waitt Family Foundation have launched the Genographic Project, in cooperation with National Geographic. This Project attempts to visually map this chain of migration on the National Geographic website.
Another source of differentiation now so obvious in the variety of human populations seems to be just the gradual specializing as they separated in very early human history from the broader common gene pool of their common human origins.
Both these sources of differentiation seem supported by the fact that all modern humans are genetically compatible. That is, any human from any population group seems able to cross-breed with any member of any other modern human population group.
By contrast, recent genetic comparisons have clarified the status of Neanderthal hominins*. It was earlier thought that the Neanderthals (or Neandertals, following the revised German standard spelling) were an earlier group of humans that gave rise to what are now known as homo sapiens sapiens. They had developed burial customs and religious practices, and a sophisticated technological society.
The DNA studies have proven that while they were intelligent, religious and developed in art and culture, they have some unique DNA sequences. But while distinct, DNA comparisons have shown there was DNA exchange and distinct Neandertal sequences are found in European and West Asian human populations. Thus Homo Sapiens and Neandertals were genetically compatible. The same has been found with another ancient human variety found in the Denisova cave in Siberia, whose genes have been found in Southeast Asian modern populations. These varieties of human are considered as Homo sapiens neandertalis and Homo sapiens denisonsovensis. The group called Cro Magnon is the name given to the earliest Homo sapiens sapiens leaving traces in Europe. There are some signs, however, that the theory of possible cross-fertility and interbreeding has gained credence at a more scholarly level.
Archaeologists have found, also, a high level of sophistication in the organization of Neanderthal living areas recently discovered. Neanderthals were tidy and organized in their cave homes.
Differentiation and Recombination
We are better able to identify the source of some of the distinct characteristics, like blondism, in certain genetic streams in comparatively recent times. We do not have sufficient evidence to determine how far back into pre-history the differentiations occurred.
You can see reconstructions of the movements of humans into every
area of the globe on the Genographic maps. The overview of
migration is shown in the "Atlas of the Human Journey." The line of
movement into what we know as the
Italian peninsula ranges from 40,000-45,000 years BCE.
The earliest gene source identified in the Italian peninsula even
shows two primary sources:
(1) one from the Syria-Mesopotamia area, one from the north
(2) from an earlier branch off the Syrian line coming from Africa, from Mesopotamia, through Central Asia, through northern Europe, south into the peninsula.
This would likely be the so-called "Arab gene" source my correspondent referred to, at a historical depth of over 40,000 years. By the period of about 10,000 years BCE, there are already multiple sources from different directions.
All we know in the historical period is mixing of already-differentiated populations. Specialists continue to probe the existing and newly-discovered data to clarify origins. We can well document that much mixing of early differentiated populations has occurred in virtually every part of the world in historical times.
These can be accounted for by additional types of evidence of ethnicity or physical description occurring in various quarters but to varying degrees of detail, accuracy and reliability. Some populations retain their more differentiated (specialized or uniform) character while others have been mixed (recombined) in layer after layer. Europe is very diverse, with good documentation of diverse populations contributing to the mix over millennia.
The Arab lines as such that make up much of the Mediterranean stream of ethnicities, in Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Italy among other places, are from identifiably Arab genes in the historical period.
The historical depth here is in the Common Era or Christian Era after the Arab conquest of northern Africa before (700 CE). Much of the identity in North Africa we consider Arab is actually Berber, which includes much European admixture, including heavy German contributions in the post-Roman era.
Blond Strains in Turkey and Asia
My correspondent also commented that the blond strains in Turkey derive from Slavic populations the Turks conquered. As far as I know, however, the Slavic peoples are also dark-haired. Blond characteristics found among Slavic populations may be accounted for partly by the previous Germanic strains and other populations the expanding Slavic tribes absorbed.
But there may be older proto-Indo-European sources for blond characteristics in Slavic populations. We are looking at 10s of 1000s of years of migration, settlement and mixing of untold populations. These mixed and merged populations already shared ancestral genes at various depths of history (or more exactly, prehistory). There is considerable variation and multiple layers in all the swirl of migration and conquest over the known millennia of history, and doubtless before.
Macedonian and Macedonian
This same correspondent also asked about Macedonia, which I mentioned in my previous article Italians and Race. He mentions the current conflict between the Greek and Slavic identities in the current nation of Macedonia, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
This more recent series of Slavic and Asian migrations into the area in modern times adds excitement and drama to our investigation. But this is a different question, irrelevant to the focus under discussion.
Note that in history, the signification of the term Macedonian has changed or at least diversified. The modern country called Macedonia is now populated primarily by people of Slavic origin. This is due to the movement of Slavic peoples from the east and north into the Balkan area in the later centuries of the Roman era and later.
The original ancient region called for over 2.5 millennia "Macedonia" was the land of the largely blond, blue-eyed and Greek- speaking ancient ethnic group called "Macedonians," the people of Alexander the Great. It seems they were looked down upon by the Greeks in what we think of as Greece now, the Roman province of Achaia.
They had conquered the land area that came to be known by their name, and proceeded to conquer all the Hellenic-speaking peoples and all their known world. The Romans never conquered all the territory ruled by Alexander and his successors.
It appears the Macedonians were a mixed people too, and various commentators mention their blondness and light colored eyes. Some references indicate red hair also, though I have been uncertain how much of that is novelesque descriptive license and how much is representation of documented information about the people. It is likely they did carry a stream of Celtic genes and culture.
The later invading Germans were also heavily Celticized. Even the Asian Huns and Mongols incorporated significant Celtic genes. Today the Celtic peoples – by culture and language – include red- haired and dark-haired lines, with some blond as well.
The Macedonians gave their name to the "Greek" or "Hellenic" Empires of the next few centuries after Alexander conquered much of the known world of his time. It appears the terms "Greek" or "Hellene" and "Hellenic" were linguistic and cultural designations, not so much racial or ethnic terms.
A reader named Graeme wrote to provide more detailed information on the genetics of this blond source in Mediterranean populations:
"Blond hair, blue eyes are just variants of the normal color scheme that developed in Asia only 8 to 10 thousand years ago, and most likely brought into Europe with some of the Asiatic Indo- European speakers around 5 or 6 thousand years ago.
The men of those Asiatic tribes who had a higher percentage of blonds were carriers of Y chromosome haplogroup R1a as distinct from R1b, whose men and their associated women were as dark as most Eurasians were 6 thousand years ago. The only difference between the R1b and R1a is that the darker R1bs have mutations in their MCR1 genes which give red hair, hence the reason that red hair in Europeans is mainly found in the western corner of Europe."
Many sources comment that the Macedonians and Greeks of Alexander's army appear to be the main source of the lighter hair and eyes among the Afghanis and other Central Asians whose territories were incorporated into Alexander's Empire.
Some sources indicate that the "Greeks" in general include an old stream of blond, or lighter people. Sources vary and details are spotty. Some suggest that these blond characteristics derive from an older steam of indigenes whom the proto-Greeks found there and merged with.
Another ancient writer comments that the Thracians were blue-eyed and blond. Thrace is the area east of Macedonia, what is now the European part of Turkey across the Bosporus Strait from Istanbul, and was incorporated into the early Macedonian Empire. The Macedonians, an already-mixed northern group of Hellenic speakers who first united all the Hellenes in the Macedonian Empire, were dominantly blond.
Xenophanes wrote his major poem Peri Physeos, "On Nature," in the 500s BCE, abjuring the practice of anthropomorphism of the gods, noting how each race of people made the idols of their gods in their own likeness. He comments that while the Ethiopians make their gods black, the Thracian makes his blue-eyed and blond. [Ancient Greece: Myth and History, p 221.]
A little bit closer to our time (about 265 BCE), the Greek poet Apollonios also reports this blond people in his story of Jason and the Argonauts. The Argonautica of Apollonios tells us that "Jason was a handsome northern aristocrat with long blond hair ...." [Harvard Archaeologist Mauricio Obregón in Beyond the Sea (NY: The Modern Library, 2001), citing the Argonautica. ]
One divine princess, daughter of the gods, and mother of the Hellennic peoples, is described as a "red-blonde." Antiquities researcher Graham Hancock comments on the characters in the story of Prometheus, the god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.
Citing "the most widespread version of the story of Prometheus" Hancock points out that Prometheus married a human female, who bore him a son called Deucalion, considered the father of the Greek race. Deucalion "ruled over the country of Phthia, Thessaly, and took to wife Pyrrha, the 'red-blonde,' daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. [Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock (London: Arrow, 1998), p 210.]
Lots of dark people speak Greek today. Western Europeans usually think of Greeks as dark-haired, dark-eyed and darker skinned. But this tends to be a characteristic of all the Mediterranean peoples. It seems likely that the Greek-speaking peoples moved in on a darker race, pre-inhabiting the region.
Later, many different ethnicities went into the Modern Aegean groups. Already mixed Germanic-Celtic, Hunnish, Mongolian, Slavic, Turkish and others added to the richness of the gene pool of the northern Mediterranean.
The Sea Peoples
There is considerable comment published on the movement of the "Sea Peoples" and some disagreement on whether the "Greeks" (Hellenes) should be considered part of them. At any rate some of the "Sea Peoples" settled into some of the areas associated with the early and later Greeks, and merged with these "Greeks."
The Cypriot form of Greek spoken today is more like old Greek than the European dialects of Greek. I had a great time living for 3.5 years in Cyprus and studying their history, culture and language from their Greek perspective. The Cypriots are very oriented to Greece, though Cyprus was never part of any Greek governance after the demise of the Alexandrian successors.
Cypriot Greek and Turk
In that island, divided at that time into Greek and Turkish parts with their separate peoples, governments and social systems, the majority of the people on both sides were short and dark, some a bit stocky, others thin-boned.
But there was a visible minority of blond people there also, among both population and language groups, who were held in high esteem. On both the Greek and the Turkish TV stations, there were many blond presenters, as well as actors in local productions.
The small but visible Maronite Lebanese population (mixed, but descended from the Phoenicians) were also largely dark, but included hair shades of blond, red and light brown.
It is my reading of the historical indicators, however, that most of the current "blondism" in that region is attributable to the concentrated Norman (and perhaps Frankish along with other northern European Germanic peoples) infusion in the Middle Ages. These spread south and east during the era of the Crusades and the resulting Norman/Frankish kingdoms established in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
The Normans were the last and most extensive Germanic group extending from their northern Viking habitat to the whole of Europe and much of Asia. Every royal family of Europe (excepting perhaps Turkey) has Norman heritage and genes. This is no secret. Hundreds and thousands of books have been written documenting this phenomenon and spinning out the stories and legends of the Normans.
Normans and related lineages ruled Cyprus and much of western Asia for some centuries in the Middle Ages.
There are various layers in history and multiple sourcing of genetic, cultural and ethnic characteristics over the historical era. Fascinating and sometimes confusing.
I would hesitate to attribute any one trend to one "Arab" geneset 10,000 years ago, especially since we have no way of determining the genetic characteristics associated with that stream of humanity at that time. We have some information from the early historical period that gives us a settlement and migration sequence. Even that is quite complex. Here again, historians and other specialists continue studying and sorting out all this early information and reconstructing the picture it provides.
During the earlier period of the Etruscan Empire, Rome was a major city, developed as a cultural centre by the Etruscan rulers before Romans thought about independence. But Rome was in the southern reaches of the Etruscan area. The Etruscans never conquered the lower part of the boot. They seem to have traded with the inhabitants of southern Italy. That area was heavily Greek in that era and the pre-Etruscan era. A language map of the pre- Roman perios shows several forms of Greek being spoken, with Doric dominant on the southern Boot and Sicily. Ionic and Achaean were spoken farther north.
The northern capital of the Etruscans was what is now Bologna. Many of the cities there today in the Transalpine Gaul area come from original Etruscan names. Many have easily-recognizable names from the Etruscan originals.
The Adriatic Sea gets it name from Adria or Atria, the major
Etruscan port on the northern side of the Po River, on the northeast
coast. This was a great trading area into the Illyrian (Albanian)
areas, over to Lydia and perhaps farther East. This puts them
quite far north, into what we now know as France, Switzerland and the
territories of the former Yugoslavia.
* hominin: This more recent term is used now in light of DNA comparisons indicating the close DNA relationship between a variety of different sub-species of Homo Sapiens, known as Neandertal and Denisovan, within the last 40,000 years, in contrast to the older term "hominid," now used for more distantly related species of humans before about 50,000 years ago.
See related articles on this site:
Adventure in Etruscan Myth and History
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Ethnicity and Nationality in Mixed Genetics
Italian and Caucasian
Italians and Race (Race and Nationality)
Germanic and Celtic
History and Art in Cyprus
How We Define Ethnicity (Menu of Articles)
Latins, Italians and Mexicans
Models of Assimilation
Our Genetic Journey
Race and Ethnicity
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
Side Trip through the Roman Empire
The Subtlety of Assimilation
What is a People Group
The Genographic Project
The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey — See the book on Amazon
Etruscans, A Multi-Ethnic People — Discussion List
Genetic History of the Italians
Genetics & Anthropology in Sicily
The Ancient Peoples of Italy
Out of Africa's Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer — See the book on Amazon
Prehistoric humanoid DNA - raises more questions than it answers
Spencer Wells Page – Amazon
Tidy Neanderthals? - World Science
Initial comments written 22 May 2007 in an email exchange
Expanded and developed May-December 2007
Article finalized 11 March 2008, edited 2 February 2018
Last edited 28 February 2022
Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.