Population dynamics in first millennium BCE Italy
: Mobility and ancestry at Fermo, Marche

  • Carmen Esposito

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Human migration is a crucial component in the formation of a community and a fundamental aspect of the socio-politic dynamic of a group. Exploring human migration in prehistoric contexts implies many challenges due to the absence of written documents or information other than the material culture. Migration studies, initially used as a tool to explain changes in the archaeological record, have been at the heart of archaeological research. However, more recently, migration became a subject of research to be explored in all its aspects and complexity. The introduction of new analytic tools in archaeology, such as isotopic and a DNA analyses, has boosted this novel approach to migration.

This dissertation explores human mobility in emerging complex prehistoric human societies. The main subject is the Villanovan material culture, a phenomenon of Pre-Roman Italy that marked a crucial passage from a simple to a more complex urban society. The archaeological record points to an unprecedented reorganisation of the territory and emerging elite groups in charge of local resources. Additionally, the geographical expansion of the Villanovan material culture made the Villanovan the leading group in Early Iron Age Italy (EIA: 10th-8th century BCE). The Villanovan material culture was documented in the main territory of Etruria(current Latium, Tuscany and Umbria) and other places scattered across the peninsula. Nonetheless, little is known about the Villanovan group and even less about the Villanovan geographical expansion. Traditional research was mainly based on the study of necropolises and the ethnic identification of the Villanovan sites outside Etruria.

This dissertation investigates how to identify migration in Villanovan population groups, solving persistent research questions on the identity of Villanovan sites outside Etruria. In tandem, it examines the mode and tempo of migration, investigating the reasons that incentivised these people to move. The case study is Fermo (9th-6th century BCE, Marche, Italy),here defined as a Villanovan enclave – a site established by a group in a precise area to develop a relationship with a diverse community – in the Piceneterritory. The dissertation applies a cutting-edge cross-disciplinary approach to a significant number of human samples from the Fermo Mossa and Misericordianecropolises. The methodology includes different pieces of evidence: namely, theoretical approaches to migration, archaeological and osteological information, and isotopic (87Sr/86Sr, δ15N, δ13C) and a DNA analyses.

This project is the first to prove the presence of non-local individuals at Fermo scientifically, supporting the idea of a relationship between exotic funerary ritual and allochthonous individuals. Furthermore, the work proposes a model of human migration at Fermo. The empirical findings highlighted the presence of long-distance migration testified by a continuous flux of migrants composed of male and female individuals from different geological regions. The research has also redefined possible reasons that brought the Villanovans to move, reconstructing some aspects of the EIA Mediterranean’s socio-economic dynamics.

This dissertation provided a new interpretative scenario on mobility dynamics in emerging complex prehistoric societies. The work contributes strongly to the delineation of a historical picture of Mediterranean early history, meanwhile giving a more human dimension to the migratory phenomenon.

Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsUK AHRC Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorCaroline Malone (Supervisor), Paula Reimer (Supervisor) & Luca Bondioli (Supervisor)


  • Mobility
  • Early Iron Age
  • Italy
  • multidisciplinary approach
  • isotope analysis

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