Scientists solve the mystery of the Etruscans’ origins

A new genetic analysis may have finally revealed the origin of the Etruscans — a mysterious people whose civilization thrived in Italy centuries before the founding of Rome.

It turns out the enigmatic Etruscans were local to the area, with nearly identical genetics to their Latin-speaking neighbors.

This finding contradicts earlier theories that the Etruscans — who for centuries spoke a now extinct, non-Indo-European language that was remarkably different from others in the region — came from somewhere different from their Latin-speaking neighbors. 

Instead, both groups appear to be migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppe — a long, thin swath of land stretching from the north Black Sea around Ukraine to the north Caspian Sea in Russia. After arriving in Italy during the Bronze age, the early speakers of Etruscan put down roots, assimilating speakers of other languages to their own culture as they flourished into a great civilization.

The finding “challenges simple assumptions that genes equal languages and suggests a more complex scenario that may have involved the assimilation of early Italic speakers by the Etruscan speech community,” David Caramelli, an anthropology professor at the University of Florence, said in a statement.  

With cities as sophisticated as those of the ancient Greeks; trade networks as lucrative as the Phoenicians’; and a vast wealth to rival ancient Egypt’s, the Etruscan civilization, the first known superpower of the Western Mediterranean, had a brilliance matched only by the mystery surrounding its language and its origins. Rising to the height of its power in central Italy in the 7th century B.C., Etruria dominated the region for centuries until the advent of the Roman republic, which had all but conquered the Etruscans before the middle of the 3rd century B.C., fully assimilating them by 90 B.C. 

Read more: Live Science

Mice’s love songs go wrong when ‘language gene’ is messed up

Mouse squeaks may have more in common with human speech than we realised. Tinkering with a gene associated with language in humans has been found to mess up mice’s mating calls.

The gene, called FOXP2, is one of the most-studied genes involved in human brain evolution. It was discovered in the 1990s in a study of a British family that had 16 relatives who had difficulty making certain mouth movements and complex sounds.

The gene turned out to encode a protein that is found in the brain while we develop in the womb, and its shape suggests it works by helping to turn other genes on and off. Other studies have shown that, while FOXP2 has stayed mostly unchanged throughout mammal evolution, there have been two mutations in the gene since we split from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.

It is thought that these mutations enabled us to evolve superior vocal abilities. But the mutation seen in the original family is different, and it is not known how exactly it affects speech. Putting this mutated gene into mice helps us unravel what has gone wrong, and might let us understand other genetic speech disorders, says Simon Fisher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen in The Netherlands.

Read more: New Scientist