Re-writing the Rhaetians

Thanks to a link posted in one of the Haplogroup G groups on Facebook we have a new way of looking at the history of the Rhaetians. I say “new” with tongue in cheek.

Back in 1830 Henry Malden (1800-1876) looked at the connection between the Rhaetians and Etruscans. Malden was Professor of Greek at University College London. He concluded that the Etruscans  (probably) came out of the Rhaetian homeland onto the plains of northern Italy (History of Rome, by Henry Malden, (1830), pp. 64, 73-80).

Malden’s theory reverses the traditional account. Roman historians Pliny the Elder, Livy, Trogus and Justin combine to tell the story. There was a linguistic connection between the Etruscans and some of the mountain tribes, including the Rhaetians. The Rhaetians were Etruscan refugees from a 4th century invasion of Italy by the Gauls. But, Rhaetian culture had little resemblance to the sophisticated Etruscans. Their manners were savage, but this is because they had become roughened by living in the mountains. Niebuhr and  Mommsen, the eminent 19th scholars, accepted this view of Rhaetian origins.

Malden plausibly suggests the opposite – it was the Etruscans who were descendants of the Rhaetians, not vice versa. He provides no evidence, only conjecture and logic. He argues:

The natural movement of the population expelled by the Gauls would have been to fall back upon the main body of their nation in their oldest seats south of the Apennines (which, with the swamps between them and the Po, actually formed an available line of defense), not to insulate themselves in the northern mountains. But if Raetia was the mother-country, whence the Etruscans descended into the plains of Italy, it may be easily believed, that a part of the nation staid [sic] behind, and to them the dwellers about the Po may have returned when they sought shelter from the terrible Gauls [citation omitted].  It may be esteemed a confirmation of this hypothesis of the origin of the Etruscans, that they believed the north to be the seat of their gods [citation omitted]. (Malden, 85.)

Elsewhere in the same book, Malden draws on Niebuhr to disentangle the Tyrsenians (and the Tyrrhennians) from the Etruscans:

If then we are to believe that the name Tyrseni in Italy belonged originally and properly to the Pelasgian population, the question still remains, how the Greek writers invariably called the Etruscans Tyrseni and Etruria Tyrsenia. The true solution of the problem is, that the country retained its early appellation, and the Etruscans who conquered it succeeded to the name of its former inhabitants. (Malden, 78.)

What are we to make of Malden’s theory? He hasn’t proved his case. No one can do that using only the written sources. But, he’s made a good point. It makes more sense that the Etruscans were Rhaetians who came down from the Alps and evolved a more sophisticated culture through contact with their neighbors than that Rhaetians were Etruscans who retreated into new territory and stayed.

Modern genetics might also support Malden’s version of events. There is a growing body of evidence to support the early theory that G2 entered Europe with Neolithic farmers. We’ve seen the 2010 discovery of a  G2a3 skeleton in excavations at the Neolithic cemetery of Derenburg Meerenstieg II, in north central Germany, probably dated between 5,100 and 6,100 years ago. In 2011 a family of G2a persons — 20 of 22 samples — was found in a cave at Treilles in southern France. The skeletons have been dated to 5,000 years ago. Finally, we’ve also seen the dramatic 2011 announcement that DNA tests on Ötzi the Iceman, a mummy discovered in 1991, show he belonged to Haplogroup G2a4. He is thought to have lived about 5,300 years ago.

All of these skeletons date from long before the ethnogenesis of the Etruscans and Rhaetians about 2,700 years ago. And, none of these discoveries can prove that members of Haplogroup G lived in Europe continuously from their earliest appearance there. But, the data are suggestive.

Haplogroup G could have entered Europe with the spread of Neolithic farming, with one group eventually coalescing into the Rhaetians who in turn gave rise to the Etruscans. If so, we can finally give up the search to identify our Haplogroup G ancestors with some exotic ethnic group from the east. We’ve been here since the beginning.

Author: Justin Durand

Retired attorney. Genealogist. Ethnic Mormon. Moving Left. He/Him. My husband and I own Shining Lotus Bookstore in Denver.