Someone Was Wrong On The Internet

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Tuesday 24 December 2013

Herodotus and the Etruscan DNA

Today's installment of someone being wrong on the internet is the consequence of watching classic silent movies three evenings ago. I couldn't help but notice the really beautiful lorica segmata worn by the rank and file Roman soldiers in the MGM 1926 silent film version of Ben Hur. On the viewing agenda, Ben Hur was followed by the 1914 Italian silent classic Cabiria. Being one of those people who notices the sins of Hollywood, as one might put it, when it comes to accuracy in historical costuming, it did not escape my notice that the armor in this earlier film didn't match the quality in Ben Hur. The Roman armor looked to me to be later in style than the second Punic War, the conflict around which the plot of the movie revolves. Now, not being up on my armor for Carthaginian armies, I started looking stuff up on the internet for descriptions of the armor worn by Carthaginian and Numidian armies at the time of the second and third Punic Wars.

One website I landed on was a blog at weaponsandwarfare.com, which as far as I can tell has its ownership hidden from all whois and other DNS type searches. I find this suspicious since the layout and art on this “blog” are eye candy to make renowned military artist Angus McBride weep - that's how good the production values are on this website. Most of the illustrations look like they walked right off the pages of an Osprey book. In fact, I have already identified several illustrations on this site with ones in Osprey Books. After looking carefully at the site and searching for any ownership or attribution info, it appears that many of the articles on this blog have been “reblogged” from other sites. In other words, the contents seem to be “borrowed” from other military history sites, though direct attribution is copious missing and the only attributions on the “reblogging” that I can find is hiding deep down on the right hand column after scrolling down many many many feet. I could have said inches but using “feet” here instead is actually not an exaggeration – no kidding!

Since it is a site with a commercial sponsor in Australia, and since it has prominent links to several websites like Osprey and several wargaming companies, it's possible that there is some behind-the-scenes arrangement between this “blog” and these companies. Regardless, it's still a site conspicuous for its lack of attribution. It's quite scary. The site seems to claim that it's been around since 2005 which makes me really wonder. Something doesn't compute here for me. All the text is well written and the art is lovely. It really is eye candy. It's a website that is begging to be read. I certainly spent a while roaming around on it.

I sorted out all the “blog posts” indexed as “Roman” (http://weaponsandwarfare.com/?cat=28 , accessed 21 Dec 2013) and browsed through them looking for stuff on the Punic Wars. On my way through the material, I noticed the following post from November 6, 2013 titled Early Etruscan-Roman Wars (http://weaponsandwarfare.com/?p=27727 , accessed 21 Dec 2013) posted by one Mitch Williamson. This is even more disturbing since I have identified that the text of this article is actually out of a book called the Dictionary of Wars, 3rd Edition, edited by one George C. Kohn, published by Facts On File Inc. of New York City, c. 2007. There's a list of 9 contributing writers to the Dictionary of Wars. Mitch Williamson isn't one of them. The text in the blog article and the Dictionary of Wars are an exact match. There is no acknowledgment whatsoever of where the text came from.

Regardless of attribution problems, someone was wrong on the internet. The beginning of the Etruscan blog post, which is the same as part of the entry on Etruscan wars in the Dictionary of Wars, is where the mistake lies. It's a mistake as old as Herodotus. Well, to be frank, it's debatable if there is a mistake per se. It's one of things that's not a settled matter, as I will attempt to explain. It's an item that's still the subject of active modern debate.

Okay – here's the text from the blog and the Dictionary of Wars:

About 800 B.C.E., migrants from Anatolia (Turkey) brought to Italy the high culture of the Bronze and Iron ages. Named Tyrrhenoi by the Greeks (whence, Tyrrhenian) and Tusci by the Latins (whence, Tuscany), they called themselves the Rasenna. We know them as the Etruscans.

Yep, the above text is today's example of being wrong on the internet. It's a lovely little story but its veracity is in doubt, but for reasons that you probably don't expect, which strangely enough have everything to do with the scientific method and creation of scientific consensus. But our starting point is in the middle of the first millenium B.C.

As far as anyone can tell, the first person to claim a tie between Anatolia and Etruria was Herodotus. Herodotus's connection was seconded by Vergil a few hundred years later. This account is at variance with somewhat confused connections between the Etruscans, the Attic Pelasgians and the island of Lemnos mentioned by Thucydides, his contemporary Hellenikos, and Sophocles. To add to the confusion, the first century B.C. Dionysus of Halicarnassus, who specifically disagreed with both Herodotus's and Thucydides's claims; instead he argued that the Etruscans were an autochtonous people. As we look as these accounts from classical antiquity, keep in mind that the Greek name for the Etruscans was the Tyrrhenians, give or take a letter here and there for minor variations of time and place.

The story starts with Herodotus in one of those tangential asides that pepper his Histories. The tangent in question is about a famine in the country of Lydia and how that led to the migration of the Etruscans. Lydia was the name of a country in east central Anatolia. In the early first millenium B.C., before the rise of Athens, Sparta, Macedonia, or Rome as powers, there were a number of small kingdoms like Lydia which were eventually gobbled up by the formation of Cyrus's Persia.

Here's Herodotus's account (Histories 1:84) which I swiped from the excellent Perseus website of classical sources at Tufts University:

The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. And, according to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia. This is their story: In the reign of Atys the son of Manes their king there came to be a grievous dearth over the whole of Lydia; and the Lydians for a time continued to endure it, but afterwards, as it did not cease, they sought for remedies; and one devised one thing and another of them devised another thing. And then were discovered, they say, the ways of playing with the dice and the knucklebones and the ball, and all the other games excepting draughts (for the discovery of this last is not claimed by the Lydians). These games they invented as a resource against the famine, and thus they used to do:--on one of the days they would play games all the time in order that they might not feel the want of food, and on the next they ceased from their games and had food: and thus they went on for eighteen years. As however the evil did not slacken but pressed upon them ever more and more, therefore their king divided the whole Lydian people into two parts, and he appointed by lot one part to remain and the other to go forth from the land; and the king appointed himself to be over that one of the parts which had the lot to stay in the land, and his son to be over that which was departing; and the name of his son was Tyrsenos. So the one party of them, having obtained the lot to go forth from the land, went down to the sea at Smyrna and built ships for themselves, wherein they placed all the movable goods which they had and sailed away to seek for means of living and a land to dwell in; until after passing by many nations they came at last to the land of the Ombricans, and there they founded cities and dwell up to the present time: and changing their name they were called after the king's son who led them out from home, not Lydians but Tyrsenians, taking the name from him. (ref: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126:book=1:chapter=94 , accessed 22 Dec 2013)

Yep, that's Herodotus for you. Not only is he accounted as the first historian, a claim probably makes Thucydides roll in his grave (see http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=30 , accessed Dec 24 2013), he is also one of the first exemplars of rambling unfocused prose and the father of all tangential asides. Now compare Herodotus with Thucydides's take on the Etruscans (Peloponnesian War 4:109), again swiped from the Perseus site at Tufts:

In the same winter the Megarians recovered their Long Walls which had been in the hands of the Athenians and razed them to the ground. After the taking of Amphipolis, Brasidas and his allies marched to the so-called Actè, or coastland, which runs out from the canal made by the Persian King and extend into the peninsula; it ends in Athos, a high mountain projecting into the Aegean sea. There are cities in the peninsula, of which one is Sanè, an Andrian colony on the edge of the canal looking towards the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others are Thyssus, Cleonae, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium; their inhabitants are a mixed multitude of barbarians, speaking Greek as well as their native tongue. A few indeed are Chalcidian; but the greater part are Pelasgians (sprung from the Tyrrhenians who once inhabited Lemnos and Athens), or Bisaltians, Crestonians, Edonians. They all dwell in small cities. Most of them joined Brasidas, but Sane and Dium held out; whereupon he remained there for a time and wasted their territory. (ref: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0105%3Abook%3D4%3Achapter%3D109 , accessed 23 Dec 2013)

The above accounts should be compared to their critique by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities, which I swiped from Bill Thayer's eclectic but still marvelous Lacus Curtius website of primary and secondary classical sources, once hosted at classics department at the University of Kansas, but now hosted by the University of Chicago:

I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the 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. Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, 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. 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, but formerly, with the same accuracy as the Greeks, they called them Thyoscoï. Their own name for themselves, however, is the same as that of one of their leaders, Rasenna. (ref: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/1B*.html, accessed 22 Dec 2013)

As you can see, Dionysius of Halicarnassus ripped the theories of both Herodotus and Thucydides as to the origins of the Etruscans, a.k.a. the Tyrrhenians, preferring instead to argue that the Etruscans were autochthonous based on the dissimilarity of their language and culture to any other he knew of.

I find it rather amusing that the great authorities of classical antiquity could find no grounds for agreement as far as the Etruscan were concerned. Regarding the passage from the Dictionary of Wars vis a vis the disturbing weaponsandwarfare.com “blog,” when one takes a look around the internet for evidence of a modern consensus or body of arguments on this matter, a superficial look at any given internet search seems to favor an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans on the basis of recent ethnogenetic research. For example, a Google search on the words “Etruscan origin” turned up the following top level picks, listed here in order with my personal evaluation of each link:

LIST OF A DEC. 23, 2013 GOOGLE SEARCH ON THE WORDS “Etruscan origins” WITH COMMENTARY

Etruscan origins - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etruscan_origins

A very brief and not comprehensive review of origin theories which appears to be balanced – though leaning toward the Anatolian origin theory early on - until you get to the last section, which is on genetic research citing three academic journal articles from 2004 and 2007 arguing for a genetic tie between Tuscany and Anatolia. The stacking of these journal articles in the very last section of the Wikipedia entry leaves an impression that the Anatolian origin theory has a basis supported by newly-published research. The existence of other recent research that argues against the Anatolia origin theory is not mentioned at all.

Etruscan civilization - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etruscan_civilization

Contains a brief and balanced outline of various origin theories without favoring any.

Origins of the Etruscans - San Jose State University - http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/etruscans.htm

A somewhat rambling account of various origin theories which ambles around to a favorable presentation of the Anatolian origin theory through mentioning – not properly citing – the two 2007 genetics papers already cited in the Wikipedia origins article. I support my admittedly snarking stance on the failure to properly cite on the basis that the author of this web page is a faculty member at San Jose State with a Ph.D. in economics. Though history is not his field, with his credentials as a university professor he has no excuse for putting such a poor example of citation practice up on the web. Though I admit this is personal opinion, and while I myself don't always follow strict formal form for my own citations on this website, I have to note that one of the mentions of the 2007 genetics articles on this webpage would have been difficult to find if I did not already have a full citation that I found beforehand through PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed , one of the foremost bibliographic aggregator sites for research on the organic chemistry/biology/medical side of science); at least I follow the rule that any citation must easily lead to source cited, however sloppy with formal citation I may be. I also note that this webpage does cite one source, The Etruscans (Penguin, 1956) by the famous 20th century Italian classicist and archeologist, Massimo Pallottino, a work that leaned strongly toward an autochthonous origin for the Etruscans. (Pallottino was a great Scholar, capital S intended; read his obituary in New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/20/obituaries/massimo-pallottino-85-expert-on-ancient-etruscans-is-dead.html).

Origins of the Etruscans: Was Herodotus right? - The New York Times - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/03/health/03iht-snetrus.1.5127788.html?_r=0

This is a 2007 New York Times article that mentions three of the four aforementioned genetics articles. While it does a good job of outlining the general lie of the land for Etruscan origin theories to date, including some cogent scientific criticism of one of the genetics articles, it leans toward favoring the Anatolian origin theory.

The History of Etruria - The Mysterious Etruscans - www.mysteriousetruscans.com/history.html‎

Presenting a balanced review of origins theories, this is an impressive and well-done site, which appears to be maintained by one Jim Penny who has an Australian domain email address. Whoever Jim Penny may be, his website on Etruria, including a page on Etruscan history with an extensive origins section, is comprehensive and full of mentions of both classical sources and notable Etruscan scholarship; however, the history and origins page lacks any direct citations to the sources and scholars mentioned, which is maddening given how well-written it is. There is a bibliography page for the site (http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/library.html#biblio ) which lists several reputable secondary sources on the Etruscans as well as a list of web links with comments on the websites listed; though it appears there are no references with dates later than 2001, so the site and its content might be slightly dated. Regardless, this is a very impressive site in my opinion, enough so that I bookmarked it for later pleasurable internet grazing.

Who Were the Etruscans? - Ancient / Classical History – About.com: Recent work on DNA in cattle suggests Herodotus may have been right - http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/etruscans/f/Etruscans.htm

A favorable take on the Anatolian origin theory.

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog: Etruscan mtDNA origins (Ghirotto et al. 2013) – http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2013/02/etruscan-mtdna-origins-ghirotto-et-al.html : Feb 8, 2013 - So, it would seem that the inferred dates are incompatible with a folk migration model of Etruscan origins...

This blog post is a brain buster. To put it in a teacup, the blog discusses a recent 2013 genetics paper on Etruscan origins, which presents some new DNA analysis and argues that based on both results and examination of previous studies, the research of the the past decade does not support that the Etruscans had an Anatolian origin as young as the first or second millenium B.C., as suggested by Herodotus; but that a Anatolian origin greater than 5000 years ago can't be disproved given the current opus of published data.

The enigma of Italy's ancient Etruscans is finally unravelled - http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/18/italy.johnhooper

This is a 2007 article on the website for the Guardian News and Media Ltd., a UK media outlet favoring the Anatolian, possibly Trojan(!), origin for the Etruscans, based on the aforementioned four 2007 genetics articles plus one previously unmentioned 2004 genetics journal article.

Latin Alphabet and Etruscans of Turkic Origin !!! - 700 BC – YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfyNShX-8vI

Someone's You Tube “video” (it's really a slide show with music) about how everything Etruscan, Roman, Greek, and all European derivatives since are all the invention of Kazakhstan Turks, and that Western historians are complicit in a conspiracy to hide this from the world! Here's a direct quote: “All the inventions of Turkic Etruscans are today owned by Europeans: Greco-Roman wrestling, the emancipation of women, democracy, architecture, (the) alphabet, horse breeding, metallurgy, craftsmanship, supply of water..., data processing system (sic).” My opinion on this rather entertaining offering is that it is a marvel of pseudo-scientific pseudo-history, complete with emotional appeal, conspiracy theory and subjective validation. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to do one's own critical analysis for why this is so. A decent basic primer on the earmarks of pseudo-science and other pseudo-research can be found at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/pseudo.html (accessed 23 Dec 2013).

- - - END OF LIST - - -

To sum up the results of this example of an internet search on the origins of the Etruscans, out of the eight sites served up by Google there were five sites accessible to the non-specialist public favoring genetic links between Anatolia and Etruria, two sites accessible to the non-specialist public presenting a balanced presentation of several different Etruscan origin theories, one site presenting a nuanced rejection of an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans prior to 5000 years ago but not accessible to a non-specialist academic audience, and one site offering a You Tube pseudo-science-style presentation that the Etruscans were not only the cornerstone founding culture behind all subsequent European advancements, but they were actually Turks originating from Kazakhstan.

There are days my flabber gets gasted. The You Tube offering succeeded in doing so.

I will also note that every time I do a search on the two words “Etruscan origins” I get slightly different results off of Google, especially with changes in capitalization and plural vs. singular – it's really quite interesting watching the results change from search to search with small word variations and also with time. Try your own google searches on Etruscan origins and see what results you get and how they might vary from search to search.

But back to my search. I find it quite disturbing that two media outlets, namely the often tawdry Guardian as well as the presumably gold-standard New York Times, both highlighted recent genetic research as favoring an Anatolian origin for the Etruscans despite the existence of reputable research disputing such an origin as well as the established arguments against such a tie on both linguistic and cultural grounds. These two articles from the internet search are examples of how modern media outlets can do demonstrable harm to both the public perception of academic findings and to the public perception of the progression of scientific knowledge. By reporting such research as the latest and greatest, ignoring an existing consensus to the contrary, and without any realization that peer review and research still-in-progress can and will modify the results of any research finding, such reporting adds to the lack of public understanding of how the work of modern science progresses. Such reporting adds to the growing lack of public respect for science and other academic endeavors overall. Reporters treat papers like the 2007 genetics papers as NEWS, the LATEST and GREATEST, the NEW REVOLUTIONARY results that will REMAKE EVERYTHING we know FOR ALL TIME!!! The reporting of science usually gets packaged as the presentation of new FACTS – therein lies the rub. A result from a newly published paper may or may not be a new fact. It's really just a new result which may or may not be flawed by a goof in experimental set-up, a mistake made but not yet caught in instrumentation or procedure, a faulty assumption made in analysis, or any number of things that might call that result into question. Scientific publications are littered with the remains of published results that didn't make the cut, even when the result was right and the consensus was initially wrong. The evolution of scientific consensus can sometimes take decades, which is hardly newsworthy.

Until a result has been through the slow mill of scientific consensus, the world of science treats it as just a result to be tested, examined, discussed and argued over. A result from a new paper is really only just a data point in the evolution of scientific consensus. The process of creating that consensus – a nuanced construct that's the product of many researchers usually taking years - is completely invisible to the world of news reporting. To the world of reporting - with its attention span of a toddler - the long slow grind of scientific consensus is seldom news and when it is, it is usually due to getting something important terribly wrong, like the reaction of the scientific community to Wegener's theory of continental drift (http://www.scientus.org/Wegener-Continental-Drift.html, accessed 23 Dec 2013).

But enough with lamenting the state of science reporting in modern media. Let's get back to the Etruscans and their supposed origins in Anatolia. Now when I started writing this blog post, I originally envisioned making my point that the weaponsandwarfare.com “blog” and the Dictionary of Wars got it all wrong through a list of journal articles on the subject of Etruscan-related genetics, based on searches I did through online science publication indices on the American Association for the Advancement of Science and PubMed websites. The list, as I initially planned, would include papers both for and against DNA-based Anatolian origins for the Etruscans. Life may have proceeded as planned if I had decided to skip the classical origins of the Etruscan origins debate; but the digression on news media articles invoking the validation of Herodotus by modern genetics seemed somehow incomplete without a review of the classical debate - and then one thing led to another. Also, without those classical sources, the parallels between them and the modern debates on Etruscan origins would lose their poignancy. After all, wandering around a topic is one of the prerogatives of having one's own blog. Herodotus would be proud!

And to fill out some of that wandering, it is interesting, at least to me, that there appear to be parallels between the stances of Herodotus, Thucydides and Dionysius of Halacarnassus on the origins of the Etruscans and the various results of modern scholarship on the matter. Paralleling the arguments of Dionysus of Halicarnassus, much of the research on the Etruscans in the 20th century has been linguistic. A consensus appeared rather early on that there were no connections whatsoever between Etruscan and the Indo-European Lydian language of classical antiquity, which sinks at least Herodotus (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/352655/Lydian-language, accessed 22 Dec 2013). The problem here is that we'd be looking at many more pages if I waded into the 20th century linguistic research on the origins of the Etruscan language. I will venture here only to state that there does seem to be a general academic consensus that Etruscan, like the better-known isolate Basque, appears not to be a member of the Indo-European family of languages (Bonfante and Bonfante, 2002, The Etruscan Language, Revised Ed., Manchester University Press, pp. 49-51; read using the preview feature of Google Books, 22 Dec 2013) (c.f.: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/297441/ancient-Italic-people/26567/Language-and-writing, accessed 23 Dec 2013). To parallel Thucydides et al., I will mention in passing that the non-Greek language on the famous Lemnos stele is either considered Etruscan (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/194644/Etruscan-language , accessed 23 Dec 2013) or in a language related to Etruscan (Bonfante and Bonfante, p. 61); though the aforementioned Massimo Pallottino pretty much sank any arguments that sought to connect the culture of any inhabitants of Attica with that of the demonstrably-unique culture of Etruria. And of course, Pallottino's now famous arguments for the indigenous development of the indigenous Villanovan and descended Etruscan culture parallel the autochthonous arguments of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

One can argue – and some have done so – that linguistic identity, cultural identity and ethnic identity are hardly a one to one mapping. The uniqueness of both Eruscan language and culture in the Italia of the early first millenium B.C. when taken together reinforce the argument that the Etruscans are their own thing and are clearly unrelated to a migration from to or from any other studied region in classical antiquity. In light of this, any research paper arguing to the contrary should be eyeballed with deep scrutiny to test the strength of its claims. Of course, every additional paper supporting such a result lends credence to it. On the flip side, every paper with findings that argue the opposite will detract. While a simple compilation for or against is a convenient measure for the trend of a current scientific discussion, it completely ignores the more important measures that judge the internal factors of each individual study, such as the statistical significance of the samples studied, the validity of assumptions, and the viability of any comparisons made between population analogs. In the context of the current discussion, examples of these would be the statistical significance of the small sample size of 30 Etruscan remains, the validity of assuming livestock populations will reflect human population trends, and using modern populations for populations of classical antiquity, respectively.

So here's a very brief list (NOT full citations) of all relevant papers I found on PubMed that argue for a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • The Etruscans: A Population-Genetic Study, 2004, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1181945/ - based on comparing DNA of 30 Etruscan bone remains with west Mediterranean and modern Italian gene profiles. (In the abyssal Wikipedia article on Etruscan origins, the sample size is said to be 80, which indeed was the starting number of samples in the study, but 50 were thrown out by the researchers after they identified them as being possibly contaminated – which says something rather positive about the integrity of the researchers, all things considered.)
  • The mystery of Etruscan origins: novel clues from Bos taurus mitochondrial DNA, 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2189563/ - argues for a connection based on the similarity betw* een the DNA of modern Tuscan and Anatolian cattle.
  • Mitochondrial DNA Variation of Modern Tuscans Supports the Near Eastern Origin of Etruscans, 2007, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1852723/ - compared the DNA of 322 subjects in three modern Tuscany towns with * 55 sequenced modern gene pools from “West Eurasia.”
  • The Etruscan timeline: a recent Anatolian connection, 2009, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2986270/ - used 258 samples from 10 known Etruscan areas of Tuscany and Elba to build a dataset which compared favorably to Anatolia DNA datasets; the study also included a succinct rebuttal of arguments over Etruscan to modern Tuscany continuity (see the “against” list of papers below) based on sample size considerations.

So here's a list of all relevent papers I found on PubMed that argue against a connection between the Etruscans and Anatolia during classical antiquity:

  • Etruscan Artifacts, 2004, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182123/?report=reader - a commentary on the first paper in the “for” list, questioning an abnormal and thereby unlikely genetic haplogrouping utilized in that paper plus a questioning of a non-standard and potentially inadequate statistical methodology used for the analysis of results, both of which cast substantial doubt on that paper's conclusions.
  • On the Etruscan Mitochondrial DNA Contribution to Modern Humans, 2004, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182124/?report=reader - another commentary on the first paper in the “for” list discussing that in greater detail the problem with the unusual haplogrouping of the Etruscan DNA in that paper and why it calls into question the results of that paper.
  • Serial coalescent simulations suggest a weak genealogical relationship between Etruscans and modern Tuscans, 2006, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472421/ - even accounting for genetic drift and influx of new genetic types into a population, any connection between modern Tuscans and classical Etruscan is poor at best, calling into question studies showing connections between Etruria and Anatolia based on modern Tuscan genetic datasets.
  • Genealogical discontinuities among Etruscan, Medieval, and contemporary Tuscans, 2009, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19570745 - comparisons of robust modern, Medieval and Etruscan DNA datasets supports a discontinuity between populations of the Tuscany/Etruria region at about 1000 AD, which undermines any studies suggesting ties between Etruria and Anatolia or anywhere else based on modern Tuscan DNA data.
  • Origins and evolution of the Etruscans' mtDNA, 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23405165 - statistical modeling of known DNA datasets of modern Tuscans, Medieval Tuscan remains, classical Etruscan remains, and modern Anatolians does not support a postulated tie between Tuscany/Etruria and Anatolia before 5000 years ago, well before Herodotus's suggested origin period sometime in classical antiquity. This is the same paper as was discussed in the aforementioned Dienekes' Anthropology Blog.

There! That's it! That's all I could find on PubMed: four papers in favor and two commentaries plus three papers against an Etruscan-Anatolian ethnogenetic connection. All of the papers I found on the AAAS/Science index were included in the PubMed results, so I decided to use just the PubMed references since they are both inclusive, appear to be comprehensive on the subject and are publicly available (the AAAS/Science index is available only through paid membership to AAAS, which I belong to). I'm sure I might find one or two other papers on this subject if I were to visit the journal article indices available through research library search engines like MELVYL at the University of California libraries or the URSUS system for State of Maine and University of Maine libraries, to name to such services I've used in the past. If I were working on something to publish in an academic journal, I would certainly go to the extra work such a search would require; but for doing a decent survey of what's out there on this subject in reputable journals, PubMed is more than sufficient to uncover most of the published work.

Based on the above two lists, it should be obvious that there has been a lot of exposure of just a handful of papers supporting a Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection both in the press and on websites whose authors and readership probably lack the means to understand the scientific arguments and conclusions involved. The big to-do in the press in 2007 went far beyond the New York Times and the Guardian. Articles on the same 2007 article, the one based on modern Tuscan DNA, not the one on cow DNA, was picked up by many other news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Science Daily, New Scientist Magazine, Eurekalert - an AAAS breaking science news service, New Republic magazine, the Chicago Tribune... Since 2007, news of the the postulated Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection has spread all over. Now if you do a web search on word groups like “Etruscan Anatolian DNA 2007” you will get page after page of links to blogs and amateur webpages – and a few academic pages here and there – all discussing this 2007 results linking the Etruscans of classic antiquity to Anatolia, usually with invocations of Herodotus and sometimes Thucydides for all the wrong reasons.

What is also obvious is that there is another handful of papers not considered in the press and only rarely discussed on websites, usually at a level not accessible to a non-scientific public, that argue against an Etruscan-Anatolian DNA connection in classical antiquity – with arguments that appear to be just as strong and well-considered on scientific grounds. It is apparent, at least to me, that this is an issue in ethnogenetics that is still under discussion in the scientific community. The field of ethnogenetics is a very young field. The foundational papers laying out methodology and techniques are around two decades old or less. What works and what doesn't is still somewhat up in the air. The status of things like unusual haplogroups for the characterization of a populations genetic make-up and appropriate statistical methodologies are still being hashed out. None of this has been conveyed any where in the press or on non-specialist websites on the internet.

Here's the punchline that you've endured many lines of text to reach: as far as a possible ethnogenetic link between the Etruscans and Anatolia in antiquity is concerned, there does not yet appear to be a scientific consensus for or against the hypothesis presented as fact in the news in 2007 and by subsequent non-science-savvy websites and blogs since then. Previous research on linguistic and cultural ground argues against such a connection in classical antiquity.

  • Post Script 1

I feel I must admit to some personal bias in the above post since I find the autochthonous origins arguments so beautifully presented by Massimo Pallottino and supported by most modern Etruscan scholars since then to be compelling. If you graze various academic sites you will find there are some reputable scholars who do hold other viewpoints. My sampling of these has not swayed me over to any of the non-autochthonous origin theories, but complete disclosure compels me to note that I did form a personal bias in this issue during the research done for this blog post. As always the Rule of YMMV applies.

  • Post Script 2

I will be contacting Osprey Books and Facts on File Inc. about any connections they may have with the weaponsandwarfare.com blog. The appearance of possible plagiarism bothers me.

  • Post Script 3

The Hark, a vagrant comic is a delightful send-up of all things erudite and effete in academe and Canadian history. The comic about Herodotus and Thucydides linked in the text is just one example. I also really like the one on Hume, http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=31 (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Regardless, the giant ants referred to in the Herodotus vs. Thucydides comic can be found here: http://people.cs.uchicago.edu/~ravikant/Herodotus.htm (accessed 24 Dec 2013).

Friday 27 September 2013

Can you say the dangers of fracking? Can you say cold fusion?

Has anyone been tracking nuances in the fracking debate? Of course, you'd have to be worse than me at ignoring the news to have missed the blow-up in the news media over fracking. Unfortunately, the coverage on fracking has been subject to the same sort of knee-jerk panic that environmental activists also to apply to global warming and nuclear power generation. Personally, I find the debate on the issues is driven by the perception of risk and not by the numbers. Is anyone surprised at this? When it comes to milking political situations or furthering dogma-based ideologies, fact is usually always the loser - and this is true of both sides of any hotly-contested issue. That's something that appears to hold whether you're living in the Roman Republic of antiquity or if you're living now in our modern democracy.

But enough with the pontificating on the poor treatment of evidence and fact-driven analysis. Today's post looks quickly at the controversy surrounding the research of Elaine Hill, a candidate for a Ph.D. at Cornell in Applied Economics. Here's good summary of what happened two months ago (1):

Hill’s work has focused on birth weight and other measures of the condition of babies born to women living close to gas wells in rural Pennsylvania and is summarized so far in a “working paper” titled “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Infant Health: Evidence from Pennsylvania. The paper would have been an unremarkable draft of a graduate student’s research results had it not been disseminated last week with the help of a public relations firm retained by the nonprofit group New Yorkers Against Fracking and featured at a public forum run in Manhattan by Democrats in the State Senate.

I was rereading various articles on this gal and her paper when the parallel to cold fusion hit me in the nose. Remember cold fusion (2)? Two scientists interpreted a research result involving the electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium anode as a fusion event (hydrogen --> helium) at ambient temperature. Before the presentation of the results, the president of the University of Utah held a press conference about the experiment, worried that a rival research group at BYU would publish about a similar phenomenon first, thus confusing rival claims to cold fusion which would be an issue in the event of applying for patents. If cold fusion via the Utah set-up had turned out to be viable, the University of Utah could have reaped substantial monetary benefits as the majority patent owner of the process. In the end, when the Utah cold fusion experimental set-up was repeated by other labs, the result was not replicable.

The parallels with the Elaine Hill paper come down to this:

  1. The results of research were issued by non-scientists to the press before presentation and peer review.
  2. The motivation for release before presentation and peer-review was far removed from the traditional concerns of science: greed and ownership in the cold fusion case and political activism in the Elaine Hill case.
  3. The results were interpreted by non-scientists as true or false, not based on the slow grind of traditional scientific method presentation and peer review, but rather on what factions of the public wanted to believe was true, depending on their own pre-existing beliefs.

Cold fusion research isn't completely dead; however, because of the cold fusion fiasco of 1989, people in the field have rebranded the various interesting ambient-temperature energy events that are sometimes observed as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. There has been some investment of research moneys in low energy nuclear reaction research, and rightly so. Good science is open-minded and if something looks like it needs reevaluation, it will happen sooner of later.

Let's get back to poor Elaine Hill and her research on babies with diminished health indicators who live near fracked natural gas wells. Unfortunately, no one can read this paper because it's in peer-review. When it gets published, a lot of folks are going to read it, including many outside her field because of the current controversy. She's not a grad student to be envied because, like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, her research is going to be dissected by smart people, some of whom will have political or monetary agendas to service.

Is Hill's research sound? It might be; however, the great burden of studies like Hill's is the identification and elimination of other factors that could also effect the results. Any study based on the uncontrolled real-world runs a high risk that correlation does not prove causation. It's the classic drawback of studying natural systems with an unknown number variables. If she set-up her control group correctly and carefully, her study will have real teeth.

On the flip side the record, her results might not matter, other than to show that elevated exposure to gaseous hydrocarbons isn't good for infants... Now that's a trivial result in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because everyone already knows that. Like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, Hill is going to have to propose a plausible and testable theory for why her results are tied to fracking. Fleischman and Pons were never able to explain a plausible mechanism for cold fusion. They had a result but they never presented a workable theory. Hill is going to be in the same boat: she may have a correlation, but unless she can proposed a testable theory to justify the correlation, she'll be just another economist looking for work outside of academe. That test should be easy - though it will be expensive. All one needs to do is run the study a second time, but with physical environmental monitoring installed at every dwelling involved. I'd be measuring not only atmospheric concentrations of pollutants but also ground vibration, weather parameters and proximity to other mining and drilling activities. After all, the infants might be reacting to hydrocarbon exposure, or they could be reacting to the endless rumble of trucks to and from drill rigs disturbing their slumber and causing a lack of sleep.

I'm sure of one thing - and that is I'm glad I'm not Elaine Hill right now.

There's another thing that may trivialize Elaine Hill's research if it survives peer review and public dissection: natural gas from fracked wells doesn't have to leak. Southwestern Energy, a major player in fracking natural gas in Arkansas, has taken their well construction prowess to the point where they build leak-tight wells (3). The company decided to get greener and treat the environment better. They consider this a price of doing business and they can certain go to town with the bragging rights. This underscores something I've been saying for years: properly-engineered and built wells don't have problems. It's not hard to build good wells and piping infrastructure - as the lack of contaminated aquifers in Texas and Oklahoma and California underscores nicely. When well construction is well-managed and well-regulated, the leakage from wells, both above and below ground, is negligible. Given that comments I supplied when California revised its well-construction standards in the late 80s, commentary that is now incorporated in the since-updated regulations, I think I know a little bit about the subject of building wells. Fracking is not the problem. Well construction is the problem - and well construction will be faulty when drillers can get away with cutting corners and regulators with enforcement power are thin on the ground.

What's required is the societal will to pay the costs of building good infrastructure and to enforce standards. If wells for unconventional gas plays were all built to high standards - and yes, it is possible - then fracking is an un-problem.

Un-problem??? Good thing my old high school English teacher doesn't read my blog!

refs:

  1. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/when-publicity-precedes-peer-review-in-the-fight-over-fracking/, accessed 27 Sept 13.
  2. Taubes, G. (1993), Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion Random House, NY, 503 pp.
  3. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/is-natural-gas-clean/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130925, accessed 27 Sept 13.