They gave us the word "person" and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.
Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.
Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey - and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today's Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.
The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.
They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.
"The DNA samples from Murlo and Volterra are much more highly correlated to those of the eastern peoples than to those of the other inhabitants of [Italy]," said Alberto Piazza of the University of Turin, who presented the research. "One particular genetic variant, found in the samples from Murlo, was shared only with people from Turkey."
This year, a similar but less conclusive study that tracked the DNA passed down from mothers to daughters, pointed to a direct genetic input from western Asia. In 2004, a team of researchers from Italy and Spain used samples taken from Etruscan burial chambers to establish that the Etruscans were more genetically akin to each other than to contemporary Italians.
The latest findings confirm what was said about the matter almost 2,500 years ago, by the Greek historian Herodotus. The first traces of Etruscan civilisation in Italy date from about 1200 BC.
About seven and a half centuries later, Herodotus wrote that after the Lydians had undergone a period of severe deprivation in western Anatolia, "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".
It was a Roman who muddied the waters. The historian Livy, writing in the first century BC, claimed the Etruscans were from northern Europe. A few years later, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer living in Rome, came up with the theory that the Etruscans were, on the contrary, indigenous Italians who had always lived in Etruria.
The Lydian empire had by then long since passed into history. Its inhabitants were said by Herodotus to have been the first people to make use of gold and silver coins and the first to establish shops, rather stalls, from which to trade goods. They gave the world the saying "as rich as Croesus" - Croesus was their last king.
Herodotus's story about the drawing of the lots may or may not be true, but the genetic research indicates that some Lydians did, as he wrote, leave their native land and travel, probably via Lemnos, to Italy.
There, they were called "tuscii" in Latin. The obvious explanation for this has always been their fondness for building tower-like, walled, hilltop towns like those still to be seen scattered across Umbria and Tuscany.
But the latest conclusions may add weight to a rival, apparently more fanciful, theory that links their name to Troy, the "city of towers" and a part of the Lydian empire. The most likely date for the fall of Troy, as described by Homer, is between 1250 and 1200 BC.
The Etruscans' contribution to Roman civilisation is still debated. They provided Rome with some of its early kings, and maybe even its name.
The "fasces", the bundle of whipping rods around a double-bladed axe that became an emblem of authority for the Romans, was almost certainly of Etruscan origin.
However, not many words in Latin are thought to derive from Etruscan. An exception is "persona" from "phersu".
The Etruscans unquestionably created glorious art. Among their most celebrated works is the so-called Sarcophagus of the Bride and Bridegroom (or Married Couple), which is in a Rome museum. It shows two people with slightly tip-tilted noses and pixie-like features.
It is known the Etruscans tried to predict the future by reading the patterns of lightning. It is thought that they introduced the chariot to Italy. They almost certainly ate good meat. Tuscany is famed for its beef, particularly that from the Chiana valley, which has been celebrated since classical times.
Another recent genetic study, of "chianina" and three other Tuscan cattle strains, found they were unrelated to Italian breeds. Yet matches were found in Turkey and the Balkans, along the supposed route of some of ancient Italy's most enigmatic immigrants.
1200BC First traces of Etruscan civilisation
700BC Etruscans borrow alphabetic writing from Greeks, and become first people in Italy to write
616-579BC Rome ruled by its first, legendary Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
550BC Etruscan power at zenith. Three confederations hold Po valley and coast south of Rome, heartland of southern Tuscany, and western Umbria. Allied with Carthaginians, Etruscans trade across the Mediterranean
535BC At Alalia, off Corsica, fleet of Carthaginians and Etruscans defeat Greek fleet. But Carthaginians, not Etruscans, assert control over seas
510BC Last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is expelled from Rome
474BC At Cumae, off Naples, Greek fleet defeats Etruscans, who start to lose grip on area south of Rome
396BC Romans capture Veii, an Etruscan settlement north of Rome; destruction of settlement marks start of long period in which Romans gradually annex towns of Etruscan heartland. By start of first century BC, all of Etruria has been absorbed by Rome republic
Last Mod: 18 Haziran 2007, 15:06