Thu, 15 Feb 2007 04:19 CST
One of anthropology's most enduring mysteries - the origins of the ancient Etruscan civilisation - may finally have been solved, with a study of cattle.
This culturally distinct and technologically advanced civilisation inhabited central Italy from about the 8th century BC, until it was assimilated into Roman culture around the end of the 4th century BC.
The origins of the Etruscans, with their own non-Indo-European language, have been debated by archaeologists, geneticists and linguists for centuries. Writing in the 5th century BC, the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Etruscans had arrived in Italy from Lydia, now called Anatolia in modern-day Turkey.
To try and discover more about the Etruscans' movements, Marco Pellecchia at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza, Italy, and colleagues have analysed mitochondrial DNA in modern herds of Bos Taurus cattle in the north, south and central regions of Italy. This genetic material is passed down the female line from mother to offspring.
The team found that almost 60% of the mitochondrial DNA in cows in the central Tuscan region of the country - where the Etruscan civilisation is thought to have arisen - was the same as that in cows from Anatolia and the Middle East. There was little or no genetic convergence between cows from the north and south of Italy and those from Turkey and the Middle East, the researchers say.
Pellecchia notes that no archaeological or genetic traces of Etruscan culture have been found elsewhere between Turkey and Italy. This, combined with the Etruscans' famed nautical prowess leads Pellecchia to conclude that the Etruscans and their cattle arrived in Italy by sea, and not by land.
Mark Thomas, a human geneticist at University College London in the UK, says that European cattle tend to be genetically very similar, so the study's conclusion is plausible.