There are two main hypotheses as to the origins of the Etruscan civilization in the Early Iron Age: autochthonous development in situ out of the Villanovan culture, or colonization of Italy from the Near East. An autochthonous population that diverged genetically was suggested as a possibility by Cavalli-Sforza.
Helmut Rix's classification of the Etruscan language in a proposed Tyrsenian language family reflects this ambiguity. He finds Etruscan on one hand genetically related to the Rhaetic language spoken in the Alps north of Etruria, suggesting autochthonous connections, but on the other hand the Lemnian language found on the "Lemnos stele" is closely related to Etruscan, entailing either Etruscan presence in "Tyrsenian" Lemnos, or "Tyrsenian" expansion westward to Etruria. In particular the Lemnian language could have arrived in the Aegean Sea during the Late Bronze Age, when Mycenaean rulers recruited groups of mercenaries from Sicily, Sardinia and various parts of the Italian peninsula.
The Etruscan language was of a different family from that of neighbouring Italic and Celtic peoples, who spoke Indo-European languages.
The latest mtDNA study (2013) suggests that the Etruscans appear to fall very close to a Neolithic population from Central Europe and to other Tuscan populations. This coincides with the Rhaetic language which was spoken north of the Alps in the area of the Urnfield culture of Central Europe. The Villanovan culture branched from the Urnfield culture around 1100 BC and thus Villanovan culture is ancestral to the Etruscan civilization.
Autochthonous origin (indigenous)
Dionysius of Halicarnassus asserted:
Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, but was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living.
With this passage Dionysius launched the autochthonous theory, that the core element of the Etruscans, who spoke the Etruscan language, were of "Terra (Earth) itself"; that is, on location for so long that they appeared to be the original or native inhabitants. They are therefore the owners of the Villanovan culture.
...the history of the Etruscan people extends ... from c. 1200 to c. 100 BC. Many sites of the chief Etruscan cities of historical times were continuously occupied from the Iron Age Villanovan period on. Much confusion would have been avoided if archaeologists had used the name 'Proto-Etruscan' .... For in fact the people ... did not appear suddenly. Nor did they suddenly start to speak Etruscan.
...an ethnic island of very ancient peoples isolated by the flood of Indo-European speakers.
In 1942 the Italian historian Massimo Pallottino published a book entitled The Etruscans (which would be released in English in 1955). Pallottino presented various hypotheses which gained wide acceptance in the archeological community. He said "no one would dream of asking where Italians or Frenchmen came from originally; it is the formation of the Italian and French nations that we study." He meant that the formation process for Etruscan civilization took place in the Etruria or nearby. Formulating a different point of view on the same evidence, Pallottino says:
...we must consider the concept 'Etruscan' as ... attached to ... a nation that flourished in Etruria between the eighth and first centuries BC .... We may discuss the provenance of each of these elements but a more appropriate concept ... would be that of formation ... the formative process of the nation can only have taken place on the territories of the Etruscans proper; and we are able to witness the final stages of this process.
J. P. Mallory compares the Etruscans to other remnant non Indo-European central Mediterranean populations, such as the Basques of the Iberian Peninsula and southern France, who absorbed the art styles and alphabet of their Greek neighbors.
In Greco-Roman mythology, Aeneas (Greek: Αἰνείας, Aineías) was a Trojan hero, the son of prince Anchises and the goddess Venus. His father was also the second cousin of King Priam of Troy. The journey of Aeneas from Troy, (led by Venus, his mother) which led to the founding of the city of Rome, is recounted in Virgil's Aeneid, where the historicity of the Aeneas legend is employed to flatter the Emperor Augustus. Romulus and Remus, appearing in Roman mythology as the traditional founders of Rome, were of Eastern origin: their grandfather Numitor and his brother Amulius were alleged to be descendants of fugitives from Troy.
This is their story: [...] their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed. [...] they came to the Ombrici, where they founded cities and have lived ever since. They no longer called themselves Lydians, but Tyrrhenians, after the name of the king's son who had led them there.
The classic scholar Michael Grant commented on this story, writing that it "is based on erroneous etymologies, like many other traditions about the origins of 'fringe' peoples of the Greek world". Grant writes there is evidence that the Etruscans themselves spread it to make their trading easier in Asia Minor when many cities in Asia Minor, and the Etruscans themselves, were at war with the Greeks.
For this reason, therefore, I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the Tyrrhenians. And I do not believe, either, that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians; for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country. For they neither worship the same gods as the Lydians nor make use of similar laws or institutions, but in these very respects they differ more from the Lydians than from the Pelasgians.
Etruscan origins and the "Sea peoples"
The Etruscans or Tyrrhenians may have been one of the sea peoples of the 13th-14th century BC, if Massimo Pallottino's assimilation of the Teresh of Egyptian inscriptions with Tyrrhenoi is correct. There is no further evidence to connect the Sea Peoples to the Etruscans: the Etruscan autonym Rasna, does not lend itself to the Tyrrhenian derivation. The Etruscan civilization has been studied, and the language partly deciphered. It has variants and representatives in Aegean inscriptions, but these may well be from travellers or colonists of Etruscans during their seafaring period before Rome destroyed their political and military power. In the 6th to 5th centuries BC, the word "Tyrrhenians" was referred specifically to the Etruscans, for whom the Tyrrhenian Sea is named, according to Strabo. In Pindar, the Tyrsanoi appear grouped with the Carthaginians as a threat to Magna Graecia:
I entreat you, son of Cronus, grant that the battle-shouts of the Carthaginians and Etruscans stay quietly at home, now that they have seen their arrogance bring lamentation to their ships off Cumae.
Thucydides mentions them together with the Pelasgians and associates them with Lemnian pirates and with the pre-Greek population of Attica. Lemnos remained relatively free of Greek influence up to Hellenistic times, and interestingly, the Lemnos stele of the 6th century BC is inscribed with a language very similar to Etruscan. This has led to the postulation of a "Tyrrhenian language group" comprising Etruscan, Lemnian and Raetic. There is thus evidence that there was indeed at least a linguistic relationship between the Lemnians and the Etruscans. The circumstances of this are disputed; a majority of scholars, at least in Italy, would ascribe Aegean Tyrrhenians to the Etruscan expansion from the 8th to 6th centuries, putting the homeland of the Etruscans in Italy and the Alps particularly because of their relation to the Alpine Raetic population. Adherents of this latter school of thought point to the legend of Lydian origin of the Etruscans referred to by Herodotus, and the statement of Livy that the Raetians were Etruscans driven into the mountains by the invading Gauls. Critics of this theory point to the very scanty evidence of a linguistic relationship of Etruscan with Indo-European, let alone Anatolian in particular, and to Dionysius of Halicarnassus who decidedly argues against an Etruscan-Lydian relationship. However, the Indo-European Lydian language is first attested some time after the Tyrrhenian migrants are said to have left for Italy.
Differentiating between cultural origin and cultural influence
The origin of the civilisation of Etruria is an ancient debate, still currently disputed among scholars, because the terms in which historians have opened and contested theories have relied on out-dated conceptions of origin and culture. The last two millennia of raising inconclusive theories towards a definitive location for the origins of Etruria has led modern scholarship to diverge from traditional approaches to national origins and instead focus on the development of concepts, such as national origin and cultural formation, differentiating between cultural influence and cultural origin.
The initial sources of inquiry for historians studying Etruscan origins are the classical sources provided by ancient scholars such as Herodotus and Dionysus. These writers were naturally interested in where such an advanced civilisation originated. Herodotus initiated the Anatolian theory which told the story of Etruscan origins as a mass migration from Lydia, led by King Tyrsenos. A migration due to the famine experienced shortly after the Trojan War. Larissa Bonfante argues that the traditional concept of origin that classical Greek writers subscribed to “had to be explained as the result of a migration, under the leadership of a mythical founding hero”. Valeria Forte furthermore has added that the travelling of heroic leaders to foreign land is a “fixed narrative” used to “promote the political and cultural dominance of Eastern civilisations on Italic culture”. The argument is that the “stereotypical images of a maritime immigration into Italy form the East”, is typical formula classical writers such as Herodotus applied without any historical investigation.
The second key hypothesis was launched by the Augustan historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Being aware that his predecessors were “unanimous in stating that the Etruscans came from the East” he expressed an alternate hypothesis that the Etruscans were “native to the country”, and by doing so opened the autochthonous theory. Scholarship has questioned why ancient sources appear “unanimous” towards an Anatolian origin. Bonfante suggests that it is the natural response for Greek writers to connect other civilisation’s accomplishments to “Greek heroes” in an attempt to promote a “glorified national narrative”. On the other hand, R.S.P Beekes argues that these ancient writers, especially Herodotus, found the famine in Lydia an obvious connection to the migration to Etruria, rather than a debatable area of discussion. The autochthonous theory that Dionysus instigated was a view held by Etruscans themselves, whom he consulted, though how much these Etruscans knew about their own origins is questionable.
The reason modern scholarship, such as John Bryan Perkins, sceptically uses ancient sources as evidence to support an argument, is because these sources generally promote a national image and harbour political prejudices. He argues that the ancient interpretation of Etruscan origins has derived from a “hostile tradition, of rivals and enemies; the Greeks and Romans”. The extent of “classical prejudice” is exemplified in early records of the Etruscans. Classical literature typically portrayed Etruscans as ‘pirates’ and ‘freebooters’. Massimo Pallottino points out that their reputation for piracy took shape between the time of Homer and the image shown in the Homeric Hymns, and was clearly a product of the intense commercial and territorial rivalry between the Etruscans and Greek traders. Consequentially Perkins concludes that ancient “standards of historical criticism were not ours” in which “a great deal of it is seen through a veil of interpretation, misunderstanding, and at times, plain invention”. The ancient tendency to invent or apply a fabricated account within their historical record is evident in Herodotus’ Histories. His use of fanciful story telling contributes to the overarching glorified narrative of Greece in the Persian wars and exemplifies the greatness of Greek conquest. This agenda is problematic when viewing his ‘heroic’ understanding of Etruscan origins, because Herodotus’ stories tend to contribute to the national narrative rather than an intended historical record. His account is seen through, what Perkins refers to as, antiquity’s “distorting mirror”.
Valeria Forte admits to classical prejudice, however, she argues that political distortion has not ceased, yet rather contemporary “political propaganda and nationalist bias has infiltrated Italian archaeology”. The modern historiography of Etruscan origins is not exempt from political distortion; Etruscology acknowledges that by attempting to answer where the Etruscans came from, consequentially they are shaping the Italian sense of identity. Pride is taken in being the sole connection to such an advanced civilisation, D. H. Lawrence concludes in his non-fictional research on Etruscan culture that “the present-day Italians were, in fact, much more Etruscan than Roman”. Forte points out that Italians use Etruscan civilisation to “represent a model of cultural expression” within their national image.
Professor Pallottino in the 1950s resurfaced the initial autochthonous theory and by doing so contended with traditional scholarship that has “remained fixated on the idea that the origins of the Italic people were to be found in the effects of immigration from outside”. The argument has been developed on the basis that the Etruscan culture appears unique to any other known pre historic culture, therefore must have developed nowhere else but within Italy". He admits to foreign contributions to the cultural development of the Etruscans, however, maintains that the mixture of culture took place on Italian soil, the “parent stock” was sufficiently homogeneous and therefore of Italian origin. Indigenous arguments are based on the unique attributes of Etruscan culture, believing that it is an “evolutionary sequence” in which Etruria developed its independent culture, a “formative process of the Etruscan which can only take place on the territory of Etruria itself”. Nevertheless, to subscribe to this thesis a problem arises; Etruscan culture was “no doubt in itself a unique and developing phenomenon”, however, this culture has been compounded of and developed from other earlier cultural strains. The question remains whether these strains were dominant in the finished product; it is difficult to differentiate between a product of a foreign culture and an independent culture with foreign influences.Other historical methodologies, such as linguistics, archaeology and DNA research, have attempted to clarify this distinction and highlight the extent of foreign influence in Etruscan culture.
Linguists have attempted to shed light on the degree of foreign influence on the Etruscan civilisation. R.S.P Beekes places reliance on his linguistic analysis of the Lemnian inscriptions, which he believes “provided the answer to the problem of the origins of the Etruscans”. The Lemnos stele is a sixth-century stele in a pre-Hellenic tongue found in Lemnos, a Northern Greek island. The inscription shows distinct similarities to the Etruscan language; both languages apply a similar four vowel system, grammar and vocabulary. Beekes argues that autochthonous theories are merely “a desperate attempt to avoid the evident conclusion from the Lemnian inscription”. He does not suggest that the language shaped the Etruscan culture, but rather that the similarities in the two languages proves that the Etruscans migrated from Asia Minor, as Herodotus suggested.
Alison E. Cooley criticises Beekes assumption that the Eastern features found in the etymological research of the Lemnian inscription “simply settles the question”, yet she imposes that the “later Eastern attributes of the Etruscan is often a product of acculturation”. Cooley in contrary to Beekes argues that the similarities in the languages are a result of contact with Greek and Lydian civilisation due to commercial trade.
Linguists, such as Beekes, are commonly criticised for the assumption that “because they speak a common language, they must belong to the same race”. However, recently linguists such as Kari Gibson have argued that language is the predominant factor in the cultural formation of a national identity and therefore cannot be discarded as an independent attribute of a cultural identity, but rather the framework that such a civilisation functions. Gibson suggests that language is inextricably linked to national and cultural identity of the speaker, and as a “powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity” determines an individual’s perception of their environment. To place this argument in the linguistic debate of Etruscan origins, modern scholars such as Cooley are perhaps being overly dismissive of the impact of language on the development of the Etruscan identity; “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity”. It is difficult for scholarship to evaluate the degree of influence the Lydian language would have had on the cultural development of Etruria, though language is undeniably a key ingredient in the development of Etruscan culture.
Archaeology has a prominent role in revealing aspects of Etruscan daily life and the social structure of such a sophisticated civilisation, thus exposing foreign influences. The most significant archaeological discoveries of Etruscan civilisation are found in the excavation of gravesites. Bonfante emphasises the unique cultural elements the funerary frescoes in these gravesites illustrate. The well preserved frescoes of the funerary chambers found in the necropolis of Monterozzi, situated on a ridge southeast of the ancient city of Tarquinia, are vital to the reconstruction of Etruscan culture. Scholars of the autochthonous theory tend to draw attention to the frescoes depiction of women. Material evidence for the high social status of Etruscan women can be found on the frescoes in the Tomb of the Leopards, dating to the 5th century BC. The fresco illustrates women and men conversing together and wearing the same crowns of laurel, which implies that symbols of status in Etruscan society were similar for men and women. This advanced status for women is a unique Etruscan element that is not known from any other culture of its time.
Frescoes found in the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing marks the earliest time where men are not depicted dominating their environment.In the fresco of birds flying over a boat of men,the men are shown to be proportionally smaller than the birds. Pallottino points out that this is a unique attribute from Etruscan artworks, because it provides an insight into how the Etruscans viewed themselves in comparison to their environment. Ancient works dated prior to this fresco tended to view men dominating their environment. However, the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing illustrates men in the background of the work, rather than typically the foreground, suggesting to scholars such as Pallottino that Etruria had developed a culture and social understanding unlike any other prehistoric civilisation and therefore cannot be a product of any prior culture. Alberto Palmucci an Italian Etruscanologist believes that the large size of the birds in this fresco is not an innovative element in the history of art, but rather a realistic representation of large storks, which were guiding the seasonal voyages of the Etruscans. The art works illustrated by Etruscans provide a unique insight into their culture, which has suggested that Etruscan civilisation did not echo prehistoric civilisations, but rather developed a distinctive set of social values.
There have been a number of genetic studies of Etruscans and modern Tuscans compared with other populations, some of which indicate the local, European origin of Etruscans and others supportive of a Middle Eastern or specifically Anatolian origin. In general, direct testing of ancient Etruscan DNA has supported a deep, local origin, while testing of modern Tuscan or Tuscan cattle-breed DNA as a proxy for Etruscans has pointed to non-local origins. Although a direct measure should be considered superior to a proxy measure, debate continues because of mistrust of ancient DNA results and because of the far smaller sample sizes for ancient DNA, compared to the high confidence, vast quantity, and thus greater statistical power of conclusions based on direct medical sampling of current DNA.
The latest very large mtDNA study from 2013 indicates, based on maternally-inherited DNA, that the Etruscans were most likely a native population and most closely related to modern Southern Germans. The study extracted and typed the hypervariable region of mitochondrial DNA of 14 individuals buried in two Etruscan necropoleis, analyzing them along with previously analyzed Etruscan mtDNA, other ancient European mtDNA, modern and Medieval samples from Tuscany, and 4,910 modern individuals from the Mediterranean basin. The ancient (30 Etruscans, 27 Medieval Tuscans) and modern DNA sequences (370 Tuscans) were subjected to several million computer simulation runs, showing that the Etruscans can be considered ancestral to Medieval and, especially in the subpopulations from Casentino and Volterra, of modern Tuscans; modern populations from Murlo and Florence, by contrast, were shown not to continue the Medieval population. By further considering two Anatolian samples (35 and 123 individuals), it was estimated that the genetic links between Tuscany and Anatolia date back to at least 5,000 years ago, strongly suggesting that the Etruscan culture developed locally, and not as an immediate consequence of immigration from the Eastern Mediterranean shores. According to the study, ancient Etruscan mtDNA is closest among modern populations to Southern Germans and, following closely, a varied array of other Europeans and is not particularly close to Turkish or other Eastern Mediterranean populations. Among ancient populations, ancient Etruscans were found to be closest to Neolithic farmers from Central Europe.
This result is largely in line with previous mtDNA results from 2004 (in a smaller study also based on ancient DNA), and contradictory to results from 2007 (based on modern DNA). The 2004 study was based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 80 bone samples taken from tombs dating from the seventh century to the third century BC in Etruria. This study found that the ancient DNA extracted from the Etruscan remains had some affinities with modern European populations including Tuscans in Italy. In addition the Etruscan samples possibly revealed more genetic inheritance from the eastern and southern Mediterranean than modern Italian samples contain. The study was marred by concerns that mtDNA sequences from the archeological samples represented severely damaged or contaminated DNA; however, subsequent investigation showed that the samples passed the most stringent tests of DNA degradation available. A mtDNA study from 2007, by contrast, suggested a Near Eastern origin. Achilli et al. concluded that their data, taken from the modern Tuscan population, "support the scenario of a post-Neolithic genetic input from the Near East to the present-day population of Tuscany". In the absence of any dating evidence, there is, however, no direct link between this genetic input and the Etruscans. The Coriell Medical Institute study sampled mtDNA from a small town near Florence, finding a Near Eastern cluster. While the samples were not considered genetically "atypical" of Tuscany, the sample providers caution that they "do not necessarily represent all Tuscans, nor all Italians, whose population history is complex". As shown by the results of the 2013 paper and deduced prior to them, the most parsimonious explanation of the contradictions between theses studies is that the assumption of genetic continuity between the Etruscans and modern Tuscans is, to some extent, false, meaning that the genetic affinities of Tuscans do not straightforwardly prove anything about the origin of the Etruscans.
Other studies, based on paternally-inherited Y-DNA, have tended to show non-local connections of Etruscans based on modern Tuscans.
One study showed that the areas of historical Etruscan occupation share a relatively high concentration of y-haplogroup G with Anatolians and the people of the Caucasus, where the haplogroup reaches its greatest presence, particularly amongst the Georgians and Ossetians. This evidence is not specific to any period or calendar date, and might reflect contiguous populations or significant migration far back in the Stone Age.
Another study by geneticist Alberto Piazza of the University of Turin linked the Etruscans to Turkey. The team compared Y-DNA sequences with those from men in modern Turkey, northern Italy, the Greek island of Lemnos, the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia and the southern Balkans. They found that the genetic sequences of the Tuscan men varied significantly from those of men in surrounding regions in Italy, and that the men from Murlo and Volterra were the most closely related to men from Turkey. In Murlo in particular, one genetic variant is shared only by people from Turkey.
Another team of Italian researchers showed that the mtDNA of cattle (Bos taurus) in modern Tuscany is different from that of cattle normally found elsewhere in Italy, and even in Europe as a whole. An autochthonous population that diverged genetically was suggested as a possibility by Cavalli-Sforza. The mtDNA is similar to that of cattle typically found in the Near East. Many tribes who have migrated in the past have typically taken their livestock with them as they moved. This bovine mtDNA study suggests that at least some people whose descendants were Etruscans made their way to Italy from Anatolia or other parts of the Near East. However, the study gives no clue as to when they might have done so. There is the possibility that Etruscan civilization arose locally with maritime contacts from all across the Mediterranean, and the genetic presence could have been all along since the Neolithic and the expansion of the seaborne Cardium Pottery cultures of same origin.
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