DNA Research Shows When Ancient Greeks Colonized Italy

Ancient Greek colonies in southern Italy

A recent DNA study by an international team of scientists showed when Ancient Greeks colonized Magna Graecia in Italy. Magna Graecia is the name given to the Sicilian and southern Italian coastal regions that were heavily settled by Greek people.

The immigrants brought their Hellenic culture with them, which would make a lasting impression on Italy, as seen in the traditions of ancient Rome. While the Greeks’ cultural influence on southern Italy is undeniable, the biological impact of these people has been the subject of debate for many years.

According to a study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics, DNA analysis enabled researchers to pinpoint the date and method of the Greek colonization of Italy and Sicily.

According to lead author Sergio Tofanelli and his coworkers, “There are scenarios ranging from a colonization process based on small groups of males moderately mixing with indigenous groups to substantial migrations from Greece and a Hellenic origin for a significant part of the pre-Roman Italian population.”

The group collected DNA from residents of Sicily and southern Italy and compared it to DNA from Greeks in Euboea and Corinth, where archaeologists think the first wave of colonists originated.

The researchers “recovered a signature of the Greek Contribution to Sicily during the Archaic Period,” or between the eighth and fifth centuries BC, after analyzing the Y chromosome data and modeling the average mutation rate throughout the ages. This wave of colonists most likely arrived in East Sicily first, then spread to West Sicily and South Italy.

Despite the multiple alternative explanations for historical gene flow, they write, “it is relevant to stress here that a signature specifically related to the Euboea island in East Sicily was consistently found at different levels of analysis, in line with the historical and archaeological evidence, attesting to an extended and numerically important Greek presence in this region.”

According to the Greek Reporter news, it has been debated by historians and demographers how many people were part of the migration when they landed in Magna Graecia.

According to Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and ancient history at Stanford University, the founding population was probably made up of between 20,000 and 60,000 men.

However, if the researchers’ hypothesis that East Sicily was early colonized is correct, this “points to the lower end of the size spectrum proposed by historical demographers, with values in the order of thousands [of] breeding men and [a] few hundred breeding women,” they write.

In response to the findings of Tofanelli and associates, Scheidel argues, “A settler population of 5,000 males, mating with local women, would have had to grow by more than 1% per year for several centuries.” This is significant and unusual for the ancient world, especially given that the Greeks did not practice polygamy.

Scheidel suggests, “Maybe growth rates were higher than we think, but their settler numbers seem very small. This would translate to just a few dozen ships full of Greeks, over a considerable period of time, which is problematic.”

“It’s hard for me to see how a few thousand settlers could have produced the large Greek population we see in Sicily a few centuries later,” he told Forbes.

Cover photo shows ancient Greek colonies in Southern Italy.