In antiquity the Etruscans were a people who lived in the area of Italy now known as Tuscany. The Romans called them Etrusci or Tusci. The Etruscans exerted enormous influence over Roman religion, art, architecture, and learning.
The ancient histories
The earliest account of the origins of the Etruscans was from Herodotus, the Father of History (Herodotus, I.94):
The Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Greeks, with the exception that these last do not bring up their girls in the same way. So far as we have any knowledge, they were the first nation to introduce the use of gold and silver coin, and the first who sold goods by retail. They claim also the invention of all the games which are common to them with the Greeks. These they declare that they invented about the time when they colonised Tyrrhenia, an event of which they give the following account. In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia. For some time the Lydians bore the affliction patiently, but finding that it did not pass away, they set to work to devise remedies for the evil. Various expedients were discovered by various persons; dice, and huckle-bones, and ball, and all such games were invented, except tables, the invention of which they do not claim as theirs. The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food, and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years. Still the affliction continued and even became more grievous. So the king determined to divide the nation in half, and to make the two portions draw lots, the one to stay, the other to leave the land. He would continue to reign over those whose lot it should be to remain behind; the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader. The lot was cast, and they who had to emigrate went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships, in which, after they had put on board all needful stores, they sailed away in search of new homes and better sustenance. After sailing past many countries they came to Umbria, where they built cities for themselves, and fixed their residence. Their former name of Lydians they laid aside, and called themselves after the name of the king’s son, who led the colony, Tyrrhenians.
Tyrrhenians is what the Greeks called the Etruscans. Thucydides, interestingly, proposed a connection with Lemnos for the Etruscans (Thucydides: 4.109):
There is also a small Chalcidian element; but the greater number are Tyrrheno-Pelasgians once settled in Lemnos and Athens, and Bisaltians, Crestonians, and Edonians; the towns being all small ones.  Most of these came over to Brasidas; but Sane and Dium held out and saw their land ravaged by him and his army.
The geographer Strabo, possibly following Herodotus, also proposed a Lydian origin for the Etruscans (Strabo 5.2.2):
The Tyrrheni, then, are called among the Romans “Etrusci” and “Tusci”. The Greeks, however, so the story goes, named them thus after Tyrrhenus, the son of Atys, who sent forth colonists hither from Lydia: At a time of famine and dearth of crops, Atys, one of the descendants of Heracles and Omphale, having only two children, by a casting of lots detained one of them, Lydus, and, assembling the greater part of the people with the other, Tyrrhenus, sent them forth. And when Tyrrhenus came, he not only called the country Tyrrhenia after himself, but also put Tarco in charge as “coloniser,” and founded twelve cities; Tarco, I say, after whom the city of Tarquinia70 is named, who, on account of his sagacity from boyhood, is said by the myth-tellers to have been born with grey hair. Now at first the Tyrrheni, since they were subject to the orders of only one ruler, were very strong, but in later times, it is reasonable to suppose, their united government was dissolved, and the Tyrrheni, yielding to the violence of their neighbours, were broken up into separate cities; for otherwise they would not have given up a happy land and taken to the sea as pirates, different bands turning to different parts of the high seas; indeed, in all cases where they acted in concert, they were able, not only to defend themselves against those who attacked them, but also to attack in turn and to make long expeditions. But it was after the founding of Rome that Demaratus arrived, bringing with him a host of people from Corinth; and, since he was received by the Tarquinians,71 he married a native woman, by whom he begot Lucumo. And since Lucumo had proved a friend to Ancus Marcius, the king of the Romans, he was made king,72 and his name was changed to Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. Be that as it may, he too adorned Tyrrhenia, as his father had done before him — the father by means of the goodly supply of artisans who had accompanied him from home and the son by means of the resources supplied by Rome. It is further said that the triumphal, and consular, adornment, and, in a word, that of all the rulers, was transferred to Rome from Tarquinii,73 as also fasces, axes, trumpets, sacrificial rites, divination, and all music publicly used by the Romans. This Tarquinius was the father of the second Tarquinius, the “Superbus,” who was the last of the kings and was banished.74 Porsinas, the king of Clusium,75 a Tyrrhenian city, undertook to restore him to the throne by force of arms, but was unable to do so, although he broke up the personal enmity against himself and departed as friend, along with honour and large gifts.
The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote extensively about the Etruscans and it has been suggested that he claimed Etruscan descent himself. In his Annals (Annals 4.55) Tacitus writes of the Etruscans:
And so the question lay between Sardis and Smyrna. The envoys from Sardis read a decree of the Etrurians, with whom they claimed kindred. “Tyrrhenus and Lydus,” it was said, “the sons of King Atys, divided the nation between them because of its multitude; Lydus remained in the country of his fathers; Tyrrhenus had the work assigned him of establishing new settlements, and names, taken from the two leaders, were given to the one people in Asia and to the other in Italy. The resources of the Lydians were yet further augmented by the immigration of nations into that part of Greece which afterwards took its name from Pelops.”
Dionysus of Halicarnassus was a dissenter from the prevailing view of Etruscan origins and he was aware of it (1.27-30):
27 But those who relate a legendary tale about their having come from a foreign land say that Tyrrhenus, who was the leader of the colony, gave his name to the nation, and that he was a Lydian by birth, from the district formerly called Maeonia, and migrated in ancient times. They add that he was the fifth in descent from Zeus; for they say that the son of Zeus and Gê was Manes, the first king of that country, and his son by Callirrhoê, the daughter p87 of Oceanus, was Cotys, who by Haliê, the daughter of earth-born Tyllus, had two sons, Asies and Atys, 2 from the latter of whom by Callithea, the daughter of Choraeus, came Lydus and Tyrrhenus. Lydus, they continue, remaining there, inherited his father’s kingdom, and from him the country was called Lydia; but Tyrrhenus, who was the leader of the colony, conquered a large portion of Italy and gave his name to those who had taken part in the expedition. 3 Herodotus, however, says79 that Tyrrhenus and his brother were the sons of Atys, the son of Manes, and that the migration of the Maeonians to Italy was not voluntary. For they say that in the reign of Atys there was a dearth in the country of the Maeonians and that the inhabitants, inspired by love of their native land, for a time contrived a great many methods to resist this calamity, one day permitting themselves but a moderate allowance of food and the next day fasting. But, as the mischief continued, they divided the people into two groups and cast lots to determine which should go out of the country and which should stay in it; of the sons of Atys one was assigned to the one group the other to the other. 4 And when the lot fell to that part of the people which was with Lydus to remain in the country, the other group departed after receiving their share of the common possessions; and p89 landing in the western parts of Italy where the Umbrians dwelt, they remained there and built the cities that still existed even in his time.
28 I am aware that many other authors also have given this account of the Tyrrhenian race, some in the same terms, and others changing the character of the colony and the date. For some have said that Tyrrhenus was the son of Heracles by Omphalê, the Lydian, and that he, coming into Italy, dispossessed the Pelasgians of their cities, though not of all, but of those only that lay beyond the Tiber toward the north. Others declare that Tyrrhenus was the son of telephus and that after the taking of Troy he came into Italy. 2 But Xanthus of Lydia,80 who was as well acquainted with ancient history as any man and who may be regarded as an authority second to none on the history of his own country, neither names Tyrrhenus in any part of his history as a ruler of the Lydians nor knows anything of the landing of a colony of Maeonians in Italy; nor does he make the least mention of Tyrrhenia as a Lydian colony, though he takes notice of several things of less importance. They say that Lydus and Torebus were the sons of Atys; that they, having divided the kingdom they had inherited from their father, both remained in Asia, and from them the nations over which they reigned received their names. His words are these: “From Lydus are sprung the Lydians, and from Torebus p91 the Torebians. There is little difference in their language and even now each nation scoffs at many words used by the other,81 even as do the Ionians and Dorians.” 3 Hellanicus of Lesbos says that the Tyrrhenians, who were previously called Pelasgians, received their present name after they had settled in Italy. These are his words in the Phoronis:82 “Phrastor was the son of Pelasgus, their king, and Menippê, the daughter of Peneus; his son was Amyntor, Amyntor’s son was Teutamides, and the latter’s son was Nanas. In his reign the Pelasgians were driven out of their country by the Greeks, and after leaving their ships on the river Spines83 in the Ionian Gulf, they took Croton, an inland city; and proceeding from there, they colonized the country now called Tyrrhenia.” 4 But the account Myrsilus gives is the reverse of that given by Hellanicus. The Tyrrhenians, he says,84 after they had left their own country, were in the course of their wanderings called Pelargoi or “Storks,” from their resemblance to the birds of that name, since they swarmed in flocks both into Greece and into the barbarian p93 lands; and they built the wall round the citadel of Athens which is called the Pelargic wall.85
29 But in my opinion all though take the Tyrrhenians and the Pelasgians to be one and the same nation are mistaken. It is no wonder they were sometimes called by one another’s names, since the same thing has happened to certain other nations also, both Greeks and barbarians,— for example, to the Trojans and Phrygians, who lived near each other (indeed, many have thought that those two nations were but one, differing in name only, not in fact). And the nations in Italy have been confused under a common name quite as often as any nations anywhere. 2 For there was a time when the Latins, the Umbrians, the Ausonians and many others were all called Tyrrhenians by the Greeks, the remoteness of the countries inhabited by these nations making their exact distinctions obscure to those who lived at a distance. And many of the historians have taken Rome itself for a Tyrrhenian city. I am persuaded, therefore, that these nations changed their name along with their place of abode, but can not believe that they both had a common origin, for this reason, among many others, that their languages are different and preserve not the least resemblance to one another. 3 “For neither the p95 Crotoniats,” says Herodotus,86 “nor the Placians agree in language with any of their present neighbours, although they agree with each other; and it is clear that they preserve the fashion of speech which they brought with them into those regions.” However, one may well marvel that, although the Crotoniats had a speech similar to that of the Placians, who lived near the Hellespont,87 since both were originally Pelasgians, it was not at all similar to that of the Tyrrhenians, their nearest neighbours. For if kinship is to be regarded as the reason why two nations speak the same language, the contrary must, of course, be the reason for their speaking a different one, 4 since surely it is not possible to believe that both these conditions arise from the same cause. For, although it might reasonably happen, on the one hand, that men of the same nation who have settled at a distance from one another would, as the result of associating with their neighbours, no longer preserve the same fashion of speech, yet it is not at all reasonable that men sprung from the same race and living in the same country should not in the least agree with one another in their language.
30 For this reason, therefore, I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the p97 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. 2 Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere signal, 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. And there is no reason why the Greeks should not have called them by this name, both from their living in towers and from the name of one of their rulers. 3 The Romans, however, give them other names: from the country they once inhabited, named Etruria, they call them Etruscans, and from their knowledge of the ceremonies relating to divine worship, in which they excel others, they now call them, rather inaccurately, Tusci,88 but formerly, with the same accuracy as the Greeks, they called them Thyoscoï.89 Their own name for themselves, however, is the same as that of one of their p99leaders, Rasenna. 4 In another book90 I shall show what cities the Tyrrhenians founded, what forms of government they established, how great power they acquired, what memorable achievements they performed, and what fortunes attended them. 5 As for the Pelasgian nation, however, those who were not destroyed or dispersed among the various colonies (for a small number remained out of a great many) were left behind as fellow citizens of the Aborigines in these parts, where in the course of time their posterity, together with others, built the city of Rome. Such are the legends told about the Pelasgian race.
The hero of the poet Virgil’s masterwork, The Aeneid, is Aeneas, prince of the Dardanians, a people of Anatolia allied with the Trojans. When Aeneas and his band of refugees fleeing the fall of Troy arrive in Italy, they seek help from the Etruscans, another suggestion of affinities between the Etruscans and Anatolians peoples. The sources for Virgil’s story are unknown and are, possibly, a combination of tradition and Virgil’s own creation.
The view of Dionysus of Halicarnassus has tended to prevail.
The Etruscan language
What we know of the Etruscan language comes from inscriptions and “bilinguals”” like the gold inscription at right. A number of Roman writers testified that the Etruscans had a substantial literature but no extensive texts in the language have been found to date. The Etruscan language was written, like Latin and Greek, in an alphabet derived from the Phoenician. Deciphering the texts has not been so much a problem of determining what the letters were as of what the words meant.
I have read claims of relationships between Etruscan and Hungarian, Ukrainian, Dravidian languages and several others, apparently for reasons as much political as linguistic.
The prevailing wisdom on the Etruscan language has been that Etruscan is not an Indo-European language and, indeed, until quite recently Etruscan was believed to be a “linguistic isolate”—a language with no known affinities. More recent scholarship has suggested otherwise. In 1998 the German scholar Helmut Rix published a paper that demonstrated relationships between Etruscan and a number of other languages including Rhaetic, another extinct language of northern Italy, Eteocypriot, a language of Iron Age Cyprus, and Lemnian, a language spoken on the island of Lemnos, interesting in light of the quote from Thucydides cited above.
The working hypothesis now is that the Etruscan language is one of a now-extinct family of languages called the Tyrrhenian language family, a sister family to the Indo-European language family and, presumably, both derived from a common super-family (Nostratic
Norstratic? [ed. thanks, Glen]).
Here is a sample glossary of Etruscan:
ais, plural aisar, god.
am, to be.
an, he, she.
fler, offering, sacrifice.
mi, mini, I, me.
mul-, to offer, dedicate.
rasenna or rasna, Etruscan.
spur- or shpur-, city.
sren or shran, figure (in a picture).
tur-, to give.
zich-, to write.
zilach, a type of magistrate.
and I think some of the obvious cognates are very tantalizing e.g. Old Norse aesir, gods, Old Church Slavonic dini, day, Old Church Slavonic mati, mother (my mother?), Latin nepot, grandson (or nephew), and others. Who borrowed from whom and when?
There have been a number of attempts to use customs, art (particularly pottery), architecture, or religious beliefs to relate the Etruscans to other Italic or Aegean peoples but none are particularly satisfying.
The DNA evidence
Recent studies using DNA analysis have been very interesting. DNA analysis of the characteric Tuscan cattle (pictured at left) have demonstrated Near Eastern affinities:
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.
DNA studies of modern Tuscans themselves have tended to confirm this finding:
The origin of the Etruscan people has been a source of major controversy for the past 2,500 years and several hypotheses have been proposed to explain their language and sophisticated culture, including an Aegean / Anatolian origin. To address this issue, we analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of 322 subjects from three well-defined areas of Tuscany and compared their sequence variation with that of 55 Western Eurasian populations. Interpopulation comparisons reveal that the modern population of Murlo – a small town of Etruscan origin – is characterized by an unusually high frequency (17.5%) of Near Eastern mtDNA haplogroups. Each of these haplogroups is represented by different haplotypes, thus dismissing the possibility that the genetic allocation of the Murlo people is due to drift. Other Tuscan populations do not show the same striking feature; however, overall ~5% of mtDNA haplotypes in Tuscany are shared exclusively between Tuscans and Near Easterners and occupy terminal positions in the phylogeny. These findings support a direct and rather recent genetic input from the Near East – a scenario in agreement with the Lydian origin of Etruscans. Such a genetic contribution has been extensively diluted by admixture, but it appears that there are still locations in Tuscany, such as Murlo, where traces of its arrival are readily detectable.
Hat tip to Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog for both of the DNA links.
The ancients had an advantage over us in determining the affinities of other ancient peoples and their languages: they could listen to them speak. Given Herodotus’s and Strabo’s accounts, the traditions of Anatolian origin, and the DNA evidence for both the Tuscans and their cattle, it seems prudent to reconsider the classification of the Lydian language—which appears to differ from the other Anatolian languages in significant ways—with the Indo-European languages. It may be that the traditional tree model of language differentiation should also be abandoned in favor of a more inclusive network model.