Rhaetian Possibilities

Interesting news from the administrator of Family Tree DNA’s Haplogroup G Project. He thinks the concentration of G in the area that was anciently called Rhaetia might be due to the Rhaetians.

The announcement comes seven years, almost to the day, after I first suggested it to him. I’ve renewed the conversation several times since then. Each time he has objected. He hears dozens of theories every week, he says; no reason to think the Rhaetians are anything worth looking at.

Let’s look at them anyway.


Haplogroup G is rare in Europe. Its distribution follows a gradient from south to north. Maybe 2-3% of the population in the south, and less than 1% in the north. Looking at the area where it appears with the greatest diversity, we can guess that Haplogroup G originated somewhere in southwestern Asia, perhaps south of the Caucasus Mountains. If so, it must have been introduced into Europe at some unknown date in pre-history, perhaps through migrations from what is now Turkey.

As it turns out, there is a notable population said to have come into Europe from Turkey – the Etruscans. The Etruscans were a pre-Roman culture concentrated in what is now the Tuscan area of Italy. They seem to have emerged out of the Villanovan Culture about 700 BCE. From about 620 BCE to 500 BCE they controlled most Italy north of Campania, including Rome itself.

Etruscan origins have been debated for centuries. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) claimed the Etruscans came to Italy from Lydia, in what is now Turkey. Four hundred years later, another Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, thought Herodotus was wrong. Dionysius thought the Etruscans were indigenous to Italy. Italian historians are inclined to side with Dionysius: it just doesn’t look right for Rome’s illustrious predecessors to come from somewhere else.

Outside Italy, historians take a more balanced view. According to the Roman poet Virgil the Etruscans were descended from the Trojans. Many modern historians believe that Virgil’s story of Aeneas’ flight to Italy after the Fall of Troy might be a dim memory of an early migration.


Rhaetian origins are less contentious. The Rhaetians were a tribe that lived north of the Alps, in what is now Austria, Switzerland and southern Germany. Their language was related to Etruscan. Roman historians reported the Rhaetians as descendants of Etruscans who had fled north during the Celtic invasion of Italy in the 4th century BCE. Livy says, “The Alpine tribes are undoubtedly of the same [Etruscan] stock, especially the Raetii, who had through the nature of their country become so uncivilised that they retained no trace of their original condition except their language, and even this was not free from corruption.” (The Migrations of the Gauls into Italy, Book V, Chapter 33.)

Modern historians accept the connection between the Etruscans and the Rhaetians, but aren’t so sure of the date. Both the Etruscans and the Rhaetians might have been related more distantly; perhaps through a common descent from the neolithic population on both sides of the Alps.

Where does this leave us?

Genetic studies haven’t solved the question of Etruscan origins, but preliminary studies suggest that some component of the Etruscan population did indeed come from southwestern Asia, and probably from Turkey. And, there is little doubt that the Rhaetians were linguistically connected to the Etruscans, so perhaps genetically connected as well.

We are a long way from being able to prove that the concentration of Haplogroup G the area north of the Alps is due to the Rhaetians and Etruscans, but it makes a good working hypothesis.


My thanks to Jon Hildreth. A friendly debate in January 2005 led me to suggest that our Haplogroup G ancestor was more likely to have to been a Roman soldier retired near the Swiss frontier in the 1st century than a barbarian invader in the 4th cenutry.