Peoples and Cultures
Italians consider themselves to be White or Caucasians. Why are they darker in shade and their features vary?
The variations in skin colour and other physical features make a fascinating focus.
I have travelled and lived in the Mediterranean region, and find that the whole region tends to predominate with darker complexioned, dark-haired people. However, there is an obvious visible difference in the sprinkling of blond-haired individuals all through the area, including Northern Africa (Berbers), Turkey and Greece.
Like peoples in most all of Europe, the people in the peninsula we now know as the country of Italy, are of greatly mixed background. Racial categories or terms depend on the choices available. Caucasian is a common term, but not precisely defined or consistently used.
Caucasian and Colour
The categories and terms Caucasian or Caucasoid to denote certain general physical features is a very broad term, with no precise technical meaning. Usages vary quite widely.
In recent western history, the term has been used in a general way to refer to the lighter-skinned race(s) of European origin, also sometimes referred to as "White people." That is a very general term, and total relative in use, even used among black peoples to distinguish lighter and darker individuals in their own tribes.
Terms used to designate "races" are only relative, or comparative, words with usages depending on the social or ethnic setting in which they are used.
There is no defined racial grouping for whom the term is used. The term is used in some countries in somewhat official ways, such as a choice for ethnicity in censuses or other demographic information. But people with the physical features normally associated with the term Caucasoid include a full range of skin colours, including the Arabs, Somalis, Dravidian groups (Southern India and Southeast Asia) and other black or brown peoples.
There seems to be a full range or continuum of genetic or physiological features across a quite wide range of cultures, language groups and geographical areas. Thus it is a matter of relative contrast. It depends who you are comparing a particular group to.
In contrast to black Africans, sometimes called "Negroid" in features or race, the Italians, along with other darker southern Europeans, are indeed white. In comparison to blond Scandinavians, they don't look so white. But in general they still fit in the category of humans the term Caucasian normally refers to.
In origin the term "Caucasian" is an adjective referring to the Caucasus mountains. This is thought to be the original dispersal point of peoples speaking forms of speech now identified as Indo-European.
Thus it references the general history traceable through language information back to the Caucasus mountains. The language history is not correlated in any way to ethnicity or physical features. Today peoples of all "races" speak Indo-European languages.
In the migrations over just the past 2000 years, peoples of Asian origin have come into Europe in various waves of military or other migration. These peoples, related to Mongols and Turks, mixed with peoples of Germanic and other Indo-European backgrounds.
Others were Arabs and Berbers from Northern Africa, as well as earlier Phoenicians. These peoples would also fit into the grouping commonly called Caucasian also today, but they spoke Semitic languages.
Variety in Ancient "Italy"
From pre-Roman times, it appears there was already a clear distinction of short, darker-skinned, dark-haired peoples from pre-history being overlayed and mixed with taller, sometimes larger built, blond and blue-eyed groups. For instance, the Etruscans, in what is now Northern Italy, did not speak an Indo-European language.
The Etruscans may have been there before the Indo-Europeans arrived. Some scholars suggest they were thought to have been a blond, blue-eyed people. On a mural in an Etruscan tomb, a banquet scene portrays the women with blond hair.* It could indicate the existence of some blond individuals among the Etruscans. Since it is only women who ware portrayed with blond hair, this could also represent bleaching, or could be a stylistic motif.
The Etruscans are the source of the Latin alphabet we use. They borrowed the alphabet of the Greeks and modified it to match their own language before the neighbouring Latin tribe became literate. The Latins, coming to be known as the Romans from their original city, borrowed the Etruscan alphabet and again slightly modified it to suit the sounds of their language.
It is now generally believed that the Greeks also were larger, blond and blue-eyed people, which was the case when Alexander the Great spread his forces and opened up colonies all over the Middle East and Egypt. This is also attested in frescos from the era, as well as in vairious references to their looks. Do some searching on the Internet and you will find various sources and studies on this.
This may strike us as odd today, since in modern times we think of the Greeks as shorter, darker people, not too different from the Italians. There are blond Greeks, though, as well as Turks.
Centuries before the rise of the Latins, or the establishment of Rome, Greeks already had colonies and trading centres all over the Italian coast, Sicily, and other islands, and all along the Iberian and North Africa coast. This went into the mix of peoples later considered Italian. Were these ancient Greek-speaking (from around 750 BC or earlier) dark or light? But we would likely consider them Caucasian.
Vikings in Italy
Northern Italy was later home to the invading German groups, from times before the development of the Roman Empire, but particularly in the period from the 300s in our era. This introduced another light genetic strain in to the Italian genetic stream.
Germans settled in Iberia and all the way into Northern Africa, resulting in the blue-eyed and lighter-skinned Berber groups in North Africa. Even more recently in history, another primarily blond strain was added to the Italian mix, from the Viking Normans, who, after conquering England in 1066, became an ethnicity of nobles ruling all of Europe, Russia and much of the Middle East in the Middle Ages.
The point of this is that, in fact, not all Italians are dark. In fact, the term "Italian," as we use and know it today, is primarily a geopolitical designation, although it carries some ethnic and linguistic connotations also. Italy is the name of a peninsula. Italy as a political entity goes back only to 1861.
Additional ethnic strains added to the vibrant variation in the "Italian" genetic stream. Some were darker toned in color. There were Arab colonies in the Italic peninsula and islands off Italy were ruled by Arabs for centuries. Such is still the case in Malta, whose people are partly of Bedouin origin, though ethnically mixed with other peoples, and still speaking a language (Maltese) closely related to Arabic.
This article is not focusing on the Maltese, but a few comments along the lines mentioned might be of interest. I have been to Malta several times, and studied Maltese sources, as well as international sources on Maltese history and the broader history of the region. Maltese retains much of the original Arabic character. But the mix of the various peoples that make up the Maltese shows up also in the language vocabulary.
The language is classified in the Arabic family of languages, which includes 35 languages, most referred to by the term Arabic, with some descriptive term. While in the country once with an Egyptian friend with no previously knowledge of Maltese, he commented that he could vaguely make out the language. It was not easy to hear, he said, but he could recognize most of the vocabulary, and negotiate somewhat in oral conversation with Maltese using his Egyptian Arabic.
Sources, both Maltese and otherwise, differ on their opinion of how much of the Maltese culture and genetic mix derives from the Arab conquerors in the 800s. An Australian correspondent, of partial Maltese extraction, has referred to some of the many recent genetic studies that indicate the Maltese show a similar genetic signature to other Central Mediterraneans. But he likewise notes that this Central set of characteristics is distinct from West Mediterraneans, East Mediterraneans and North Africans. This is consistent with what we know of cultural history in the region.
At any rate, the Arab Empire that included Malta and Sicily included much of the Italian peninsula and other islands in the area. (The rulers of Spain were overthrown by a Moorish dynasty and were a separate Empire from that which included Sicily and southern Italy. In fact these two kingdoms were periodically at war with each other as well as with other parts of the Arab-Muslim world.)
Race vs Language
There is another factor related to race and language. The language a people spoke at a particular time does not necessarily tell us what ethnic or racial group they originally came from. People move around, learn local language. Others settle in and keep their language, which becomes the language of the locals. All peoples have mixed with newcomers, so we all have a wide range of genes. The mix makes subtle differences in a certain area.
For more on these factors see my articles:
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Unity in Diversity
This illustrates how rich and healthy the broad, full human gene pool is. Ironically, genetic studies now indicate what had been already claimed on other grounds, that these physical (physiological) distinctions we tend to refer to as "race" are actually quite recent in human history. Amazing, isn't it? I find all this quite fascinating!
Italy, and the whole Mediterranean region, is a rich mixture, so it is hard to classify in simple terms any national or geographic grouping of individuals, social groupings or language groups. Many cultures don't distinguish between ethnic groups primarily by colour or other physiological features, or by languages. Distinctions more valued seem to be cultural, those features that a group feels are distinctive of their ethnicity.
For some groups, the language is the most important identifying factor. For others it is some other cultural value. I should think for the Italians, given a choice of certain common terms, they would likely choose "Caucasian," due to a complex of linguistic and political, as well as geographical and historical reasons.
The variety of colour and the relativity of description is accentuated in certain cultural vocabularies. Many languages have only very general words for classification of colours.
For instance the Bantu languages, traditionally make only three distinctions: light ("white"), dark ("black") and red (or "brown" or similar shade). They use these three terms in their various languages to distinguish among individuals of their own tribes. Other colourings in such languages/cultures can be denoted by the analogy "color of ...." We tend to find a darker or lighter range among various ethnic or social groupings.
In Europe, in general it seems the southern regions are populated primarily by darker, shorter peoples, and the farther north, the lighter the peoples tend to be. But due to the great overlay of migration and movement over millennia, there is a great mixture. We should always keep in mind that there is a range of skin colour and other features in every population group.
When we discuss these differences, we are discussing objective descriptive factors. It is only our cultural attitudes that assign an judgemental value to any of these features. The whole human race shares in principle in the full broad gene pool of our one race.
* Banqueting scene from the Tomb of the Leopards reproduced in Daily Life of the Etruscans, by Jacques Heugon (London: Phoenix Press, 1989), plates inset.
Adventure in Etruscan Myth and History
The Amhara of Ethiopia
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Germanic and Celtic
Italians, Africans and Hannibal
Italian and Caucasian
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity
How We Define Ethnicity (Menu of Articles)
Mapping Human Origins — a review of Origins by Richard Leakey
Our Genetic Journey
Peoples and Languages
Race and Ethnicity
What is a People Group
What is an Ethnic Group (A variation of the above topic)
Genetic History of the Italians
Genetics & Anthropology in Sicily
Maltese Language — Ethnologue
Maltese People — Wikipedia
Out of Africa's Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer
People of Italy
Information on the genetic (ethnic) history of the Italian Peninsula.
A map on this site shows how many different languages were spoken in ancient times.
Written and posted 17 March 2006
Last edited 9 October 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.