From the Alps to the Mediterranean and beyond: genetics, environment, culture and the "impossible beauty" of Italy

J Anthropol Sci. 2022 Dec 30:100:267-294. doi: 10.4436/JASS.10010.


Since prehistoric times, Italy has represented a bridge between peoples, genes and cultures. Its peculiar geographical position explains why: it is located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, flanked by the Balkans and the Hellenic Peninsula to the east, Iberia to the west and surrounded by North Africa to the south and central Europe to the north. This makes Italy of extraordinary interest for the study of some different aspects of human diversity. Here we overview current knowledge regarding the relationships between the structure of the genetic variation of Italian populations and the geographical, ecological and cultural factors that have characterized their evolutionary history. Human presence in Italian territory is deeply rooted in the past. Lithic artifacts produced by the genus Homo and remains of Homo sapiens are among the earliest to have been found on the continent, as shown by the lithic industry of Pirro Nord (between 1.3 and 1.6 Mya) and the dental remains of the "Grotta del Cavallo" (between 45 and 43 Kya). Genetic and genomic studies relating to existing and extinct human groups have shed light on the migrations from Europe, Africa and Asia that created the ancient layers of the genetic structure of today's Italian populations, especially before the Iron Age. The important role of isolation (genetic and cultural) in shaping genetic structure is clearly visible in the patterns of intra- and inter-population diversity observed among Italian ethno-linguistic minorities that settled on the peninsula and on the major islands until the 19th century. Finally, selective pressures have likely driven the distribution of originally adaptive variants and haplotypes that now confer protection or susceptibility to major diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease (in northern Italy) and tuberculosis and leprosy (in the south). What emerges is a picture where the combined effects of migration, isolation and natural selection generated by the interplay of geography, environment and culture have shaped a complex pattern of human diversity that is unique in Europe and which goes hand in hand with today's rich animal and plant biodiversity. In a nutshell, scientific evidence and cultural heritage paint Italy as a place with extremely diverse environments where distant peoples have met since the deep past, bringing and sharing genes and ideas.

Keywords: Ethno-linguistic minorities; Genomic history; Isolation; Migration; Natural selection.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Balkan Peninsula
  • Beauty*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Genetics, Population
  • Haplotypes
  • Humans
  • Italy