Linguistic, geographic and genetic isolation: a collaborative study of Italian populations

J Anthropol Sci. 2014;92:201-31. doi: 10.4436/JASS.92001. Epub 2014 Mar 3.


The animal and plant biodiversity of the Italian territory is known to be one of the richest in the Mediterranean basin and Europe as a whole, but does the genetic diversity of extant human populations show a comparable pattern? According to a number of studies, the genetic structure of Italian populations retains the signatures of complex peopling processes which took place from the Paleolithic to modern era. Although the observed patterns highlight a remarkable degree of genetic heterogeneity, they do not, however, take into account an important source of variation. In fact, Italy is home to numerous ethnolinguistic minorities which have yet to be studied systematically. Due to their difference in geographical origin and demographic history, such groups not only signal the cultural and social diversity of our country, but they are also potential contributors to its bio-anthropological heterogeneity. To fill this gap, research groups from four Italian Universities (Bologna, Cagliari, Pisa and Roma Sapienza) started a collaborative study in 2007, which was funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research and received partial support by the Istituto Italiano di Antropologia. In this paper, we present an account of the results obtained in the course of this initiative. Four case-studies relative to linguistic minorities from the Eastern Alps, Sardinia, Apennines and Southern Italy are first described and discussed, focusing on their micro-evolutionary and anthropological implications. Thereafter, we present the results of a systematic analysis of the relations between linguistic, geographic and genetic isolation. Integrating the data obtained in the course of the long-term study with literature and unpublished results on Italian populations, we show that a combination of linguistic and geographic factors is probably responsible for the presence of the most robust signatures of genetic isolation. Finally, we evaluate the magnitude of the diversity of Italian populations in the European context. The human genetic diversity of our country was found to be greater than observed throughout the continent at short (0-200 km) and intermediate (700-800km) distances, and accounted for most of the highest values of genetic distances observed at all geographic ranges. Interestingly, an important contribution to this pattern comes from the "linguistic islands"( e.g. German speaking groups of Sappada and Luserna from the Eastern Italian Alps), further proof of the importance of considering social and cultural factors when studying human genetic variation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology
  • Chromosomes, Human, Y / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Ethnic Groups / genetics*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / genetics*
  • Gene Flow / genetics*
  • Genetics, Population
  • Humans
  • Italy
  • Linguistics*
  • Reproductive Isolation*


  • DNA, Mitochondrial