Matteo Renzi, Messed up DNA, and Mansplaining

Oh, what a week it’s been. And it’s only bloody Wednesday. 2016’s latest political drama has been the results of a referendum in Italy, which took place on Sunday. The motion for the referendum, focused on political reform, was firmly rejected by the voting public, and as a result the Italian technocrat Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has resigned. Then this enjoyable little article popped up on Monday, exposing a company which presents people with neat little stories about their ancestors based on their DNA. Except the stories are total crap, or so general as to be pretty crappily related to the customers involved. And then, Brexiteer Arron Banks mansplained to Professor Mary Beard about the Fall of Rome on the basis that he’d seen Gladiator and done Romans at school. (here’s her take on it)

So what links these three little items together, and what are they doing here? Well, I’d argue that all three incidents are little flashpoints at which self-identification and the past collide.And guess what, I can even drag the Etruscans into this. I did promise in my last post the next one would include my favourite pre-Roman Italians (sorry Samnium- it was close).

Let’s start with Renzi. One of the major issues in the Italian referendum was the centralisation of power, and the reduction of regional control over decision making and spending. Renzi argued that this was essential to taming the country’s finances and untangling the political process to enable fast and effective change. The problem is that despite delighted celebrations in 2014 for the 150th anniversary of the modern Italian state, regionalism remains central to modern Italian identity. Indeed, often the city or town is the unit of belonging, the first allegiance of citizens. 150 years is nothing, compared to the centuries of city-states, shifting allegiances and close-knit relationships that have origins that pre-date the Roman conquest of Italia, that continued through the tumult of the early medieval period and configured the Renaissance. This is a gross simplification (hey, it’s a blog and to really understand you need an explanation from a real Italian not just an interested observer) and I’m not going to argue that the Etruscan League is responsible for a 2016 referendum result, but I suspect that the idea of alienating locally held powers was anathema to a large section of the population who still identify with the places where they live ahead of a modern nation state.Add in the disturbing results of central power during the Fascist period and you can perfectly well see why the result went the way it did. History and self-identity did for Renzi.

Now to DNA. I must admit, I rather enjoyed the stereotypical illustrations and tired ideas that accompanied the DNA reports described by Buzzfeed. Then I gave myself a mental slap. The Germanic warriors represented were not so funny when they ended up co-opted into Nazi archaeology, via the writings of Gustav Kossina. Genetics and archaeology both have a dangerous edge here. What the DNA company are doing is selling a personalised version of the past that people want to believe in. They want to be able to identify with particular kinds of ancestors. This is something I’ve encountered in Etruscan archaeology too. It started long before DNA analysis, at the same time as Kossina was working. The idea that the Etruscans were Italians, not immigrants as described by Herodotus, fitted far better with the narrative of a glorious past promoted by the Fascist state. The Etruscan origins argument is recast to fit the political mood, a phenomenon I trace in the second chapter of my new book.

Adding DNA to the mix has only made things more explosive: in one study, samples were taken from the inhabitants of 3 towns: Volterra, Casentino, and Murlo (where I dug and still return to). The idea was that these towns might preserve Etruscan DNA, and the residents were (based on talking to people, predominantly older people, in Murlo) DELIGHTED at this idea. They were hugely excited to be potentially descended from Etruscans, and incorporated this into their sense of self-identity. A later study returned to the results and compared them with remains of actual dead Etruscans*- and found no links between the inhabitants of Murlo and the skeletal remains they worked on. But by then, the links were made, the imaginations had been fired, people were deeply pleased by the idea of their Etruscan ancestors. To use an in-vogue phrase, the real results of the study were “post-factual.” People believed they were descended from the Etruscans already, and their being asked for DNA testing confirmed this, regardless of any links with archaeological material.

So now we end up with Arron Banks and mansplaining to a Roman historian, indeed, perhaps the best known Roman historian. Post factual has been the word of the year, thrown around with fake news and slagging off experts. The Etruscan DNA example was light-hearted (ish), the Italian referendum result far more serious. The idea that immigration caused the Roman Empire to fall and should be taken as a warning from history is poisonous on a whole other level, reminiscent of the warped archaeology of Kossina and its eventual role in genocide. But the point is, like the recipients of the DNA “bollocks”, like the people who were told they might be descended from Etruscans, and to some extent like the Italians who voted “no,” Banks has incorporated this interpretation of the past into his identity. He doesn’t care about evidence or nuance: it’s become part of who he is and how he defines himself. He couldn’t do anything else in the face of Professor Beard’s knowledge, he couldn’t undo the weaving of this factoid into his sense of self.

History, archaeology, and self-identity. A dangerous cocktail in a post-factual world. What the hell will happen next year?

*Please do read this later restudy. It’s S. Ghirotto et al, Origins and evolution of the Etruscans’ mtDNA. PloS One, 8l (2013). It’s open access and excellent.