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Sicilian Peoples: The Sicels
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Some Terms
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Bronze Age - Era of first tools and weapons made from copper and bronze, in Greece beginning around 3000 BC, prior to Iron Age.
Copper Age - Earliest period of the Bronze Age, varying by region, before copper was alloyed with tin to form bronze for tools and weapons.
Early Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 4000 BC to 2100 BC.
Indo-European - Many societies of Europe, southern Asia and southwest Asia, identifiable by 1000 BC based on linguistic similarities.
Iron Age - Era of tools made from iron, beginning around 1200 BC, in Greece around 1100 BC, in Sicily probably with Greeks circa 700 BC. Followed Bronze Age.
Late Bronze Age - In Sicily the era from about 1270 BC until circa 650 BC, immediately prior to Iron Age introduced by Greeks.
Late Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 1550 BC to 1100 BC.
Middle Minoan - Minoan (Cretan) civilization from 2100 BC to 1550 BC.
Minoan - Aegean civilization of ancient Crete, from 4000 BC to 1100 BC.
Mycenean - Late Bronze Age civilization of ancient Peloponnese contemporary to Late Minoan (Cretan) development. Relating to ancient Mycenae.
Phoenician - Semitic language of ancient Phoenicians.
Sicanian - Native people of Sicily, from "sika" for chalcedony (Italian "selce") found in valleys they inhabited. Origins identified from 2000-1600 BC following Proto-Sicanian cultures.
Sicels - Also Sikels from Greek "Si'Keloi," Italic people arriving in eastern Sicily circa 1200 BC.


Sicel-Hellenic, from Centuripe, circa 550 BC.The Sicels (or Sikels, from the Greek Sikeloi), though considered one of the three "indigenous" societies of Sicily (with the Sicanians and Elymians), were an Italic people who arrived several centuries before the Phoenicians and Greeks, probably between 1200 and 1000 BC (BCE), perhaps shortly after the arrival of the Elymians. It is fair to say that we probably know more about the Sicels than we do about the Sicanians or Elymians, from archeological as well as Greek literary sources. Though the Elymians assimilated with the Greeks quite readily and easily, the Sicels constituted a highly developed society that the Greeks respected profoundly, even if occasional conflicts arose between Sikelian and Hellenic populations. Indeed, it took several centuries for the Sicels to complete assimilate and amalgamate with their Greek neighbors. Except for the Romans, the Sicels were the only predominantly Italic people to settle in Sicily in large numbers as colonists.

Generally, the Sicels occupied a region extending from Cape Peloro, north of Messina, into the Peloritan and Nebrodi Phoenician, Greek, Early Roman. Sicel was written with the Phoenician alphabet.mountains, southwest toward Henna (Enna) and southward beyond Etna, to include a strip of coastal and inland areas toward Sicily's southeastern tip. They had extensive --usually peaceful-- contact with the Sicanians (Sicily's earliest race), who their settlements gradually displaced toward the west. Coincidentally, the Sicels were present in the first part of Sicily colonised by Greeks, whose initial, exploratory incursions began as early as 800 BC.

There are theories that the Sicels came from Liguria or Latium, and some scholars have also suggested an affinity with the Lucanian culture. A close link with the Etruscans (themselves early arrivals from beyond Italy) seems less likely. The Sicels' distinctive religious cults, characterised by worship of the Palikoi and other deities, co-existed well with veneration of the Hellenic gods. The Greek writer Thucydides attributes an Italic origin to the Sicels, and evidence supports this, but the accuracy of the quasi-historical musings of certain Greek writers (particularly Diodoros Siculos) has been called into question for a long time.

Identifying typically "Sicel" gene markers has, for the moment, proven challenging. In considering the earliest Sicilian societies, the very term "indigenous" is rather subjective because "modern" humans actually migrated to the Mediterranean region, albeit tens of millennia ago. (Nobody has "always" been here; in terms of remote human ancestry, we're all "African.")

The Sikelian language shared at least some characteristics with the languages that evolved into Latin; Siculan was probably an Italic tongue. Unlike Sicanian, Siculan was clearly Indo-European. It is generally accepted that the Sicels were related to various Italic peoples, such as the Italoi and Opicans, who were eventually assimilated by Oscan-speaking peoples, and this explains a degree of cultural affinity with the Italoi (of nearby Calabria). It is believed that Siculan was not written until the Greeks introduced their alphabet in Sicily. The Siculan "Inscription of Sciri" (near Caltagirone) consists of characters similar to Roman ones, though with some Greek elements. The verb "to be" in Sicel appears to have been esti --similar to Greek and to the Latin est.

So far as we know, the most important Sicel towns were Agyrium, Centuripae, Henna and three towns called Hybla, all still inhabited today. Their society was a loose federation which one of their last great leaders, the Hellenised Ducetius (Docetios), tried to restore and then liberate from Greek influence in a series of revolts in the 440s BC. In the end, the Greek Syracusans defeated the Sicels and destroyed their shrine at Palické.

Even Ducetius' name seems Latin (akin to the Latin dux meaning "leader"), but his education was Greek and he spent time at Corinth. When it was convenient, he played Greek against Greek, an effective strategy because Sicily's Greek cities were, in effect, independent states. In 446 BC, following a series of military defeats, Ducetius founded the Siculo-Greek city of Cale Acte, on the northern coast in what is now the province of Messina. He died around 440.

Genetic Research: In general, studies of population genetics in Sicily tend to confirm, rather than refute, what we already presume to know about the various Sicilian peoples based on available historical, archeological and ethnological information. Here is a brief summary of an early genetic study involving potential identification of Sicily's three "native" peoples correlative to genetic factors in the current population:

Autosomal Microsatellite and mtDNA Genetic Analysis in Sicily

DNA samples from 465 blood donors living in seven (7) towns of Sicily have been collected according to well defined criteria, and their genetic heterogeneityRoutes to Sicily... tested on the basis of 9 autosomal microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms for a total of 85 microsatellite allele and 10 mtDNA haplogroup frequencies. A preliminary account of the results shows that: a) the samples are genetically heterogeneous; b) the first principal coordinates of the samples are correlated more with their longitude than with their latitude, and this result is even more remarkable when one outlier sample (Butera) is not considered; c) distances among samples calculated from allele and haplogroup frequencies and from the isonymy matrix are weakly correlated (r = 0.43, P = 0.06) but such correlation disappears (r = 0.16) if the mtDNA haplogroups alone are taken into account; d) mtDNA haplogroups and microsatellite distances suggest settlements of people occurred at different times: divergence times inferred from microsatellite data seem to describe a genetic composition of the town of Sciacca mainly derived from settlements after the Roman conquest of Sicily (First Punic War, 246 BC), while all other divergence times take root from the second to the first millennium BC, and therefore seem to backdate to the pre-Hellenistic period.

A more reliable association of these diachronic genetic strata to different historical populations (e.g. Sicani, Elymians, Sicels), if possible, must be postponed to the analysis of more samples and hopefully more informative uniparental DNA markers such as the recently available DHPLC-SNP polymorphisms of the Y chromosome.

V. Romano, F. Calì, A. Ragalmuto, R. P. D'Anna, A. Flugy, G. De Leo, O. Giambalvo, A. Lisa, O. Fiorani, C. Di Gaetano, A. Salerno, R. Tamouza, D. Charron, G. Zei, G. Matullo and A. Piazza

- - - Annals of Human Genetics, January 2003 (Volume 67, Number 1, Page 42).    

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2005 Vincenzo Salerno