A brief history of Sardinia  

In order to understand the people of a region, it is useful to know a little of their history. Sardinia is a very ancient land mass, perhaps the oldest of all Italy, going back to the Cambrian period, 570 million years ago. With the periodic fluctuation of the sea level, caused by the coming and going of the periods of glaciation, the island of Sardinia had at times a land link to the rest of Italy.

During these periods, beginning two million years ago, many animals crossed the land bridge from Tuscany, through Elba and Corsica, then across the Bonifacio Straits into Sardinia. Of course in the interglaciation periods, Sardinia became an island once more. These animals, being cut off from any possibility of refreshing their genetic patrimony, slowly evolved into species quite different to their original ancestors. Curiously, the tendency was to decrease in size, perhaps for lack of space and food and we therefore find that the elephants in Sardinia (the climate was tropical at the time) had shrunk in size to that of a dog!

In the recent Pleistocene and in the more recent Olocene, between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, the first man ventured across the same land bridge and was similarly trapped on the island. Today, genetically, the Sardinians are very different from all mainland populations and are in fact a breed all of their own. 

The average stature of Sardinians is rather on the low side and perhaps the same principles of the little elephants have applied, but more likely the governing factor may have been the very rocky terrain that favours a lower centre of gravity and therefore shorter bodies. In fact contrarily, the flat African plains produced long legged and fast running natives (probably to outrun the many man-eating animals there).  

The scant population that lived in Sardinia from 1800 B.C. to 200 B.C. was known as the Nuragic people, who lived in stone dwellings and built the round conical towers, probably for religious - astronomical rituals, that are a characteristic feature of the Sardinian landscape. Their knowledge for the manufacture of bronze artifacts, probably came from the Etruscans on the neighbouring mainland, who most likely traded this know-how for the raw materials that were plentiful on the island.

They were mainly a pastoral people and the tradition and its very same, simple  methods, have been maintained in Sardinia for over 3000 years, right up to the present. It has only been over the past 10 to 15 years that we have seen a certain amount of mechanisation. Even today, you can still see peasant farmers travelling by donkey and up to just a few years ago, you could occasionally witness the tilling of the land with an ox-drawn, wooden plough!

An interesting note, is the intact survival of a Nuragic tribe well into the Roman times, since it lived well hidden in a wonderful "lost valley", the Valley of Lanaittu. This can be seen today, still intact, without any buildings, apart from the primitive ones. The two Nuragic villages were in an enormous natural cavern, in a very inaccessible place, Monte Tiscali, whose ceiling had caved in before their settlement, providing overhead lighting and ventilation.

Sardinia is rich in minerals, coal, silver, lead, zinc and iron and it wasn't long before the word got around the Mediterranean and many people came from afar to mine them. The Phoenicians, brave sailors and traders, made their first settlements here around the 9th century B.C. in Tharros, Caralis (Cagliari), Nova Sulcis, Turris Libyssonis (Porto Torres), Terranova (Olbia) and slowly made their way inland. Then came the Cartheginians, around the 6th century B.C., then the Greeks and finally came the Roman conquest in 238 B.C.  

Invasions of Sardinia

In the centuries that followed, Sardinia often fell prey to passing pirates and marauders, owing to its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean sea.  It is no wonder therefore that most of the main Sardinian cities are inland, wary as Sardinians were of the dangers that came from the sea. These raids in fact continued right up to recent times, as some of the older folk used to describe.

On the Costa Smeralda, for example, the natural caves at Liscia di Vacca were used as hiding places from the pirates by the Orecchioni family, just at the turn of the century. The highest local peak, Monte Moro, is so called because it provided a useful look-out against the Moors. Monte Canaglia (Rascal Hill), is the name given to the place where the scoundrels settled down and you can find traces in some local surnames, like Ragnedda,  "wicked like a spider" or in place names, Lu Saraghinu "the Saracen", La Petra di li Tulchi, the rock where the Turks set ashore.

There is still memory in present day families of not too distant events, like the mother who left her child on the beach to play, while she collected berries close by. When she returned, she found the Saracens sailing off with her child and  in grief lost all reason. She became known as "La scasciata d'Agnula Maria", Mad Angle Maria. The Casalloni family that today resides in nearby San Pantaleo, narrowly escaped a bitter fate for their two small children, Stephen and Luke, who fortunately were not in their house but under a nearby olive tree, when it was ravaged by the Moors. In thanksgiving they made a donation to the church of an 18 century flag.

It is curious to note a further indication of the natural fear of invaders from the sea, that on the coast, the old Sardinian cottages never have a sea view as they were always built in positions where they couldn't be seen from the sea. Moreover, Sardinians completely lack a fishing tradition and the few fishermen on the island are all migrants, or their descendants, from the Pontine Islands, close to the mainland.

It is an ironic quirk of fate, that today the recent economic prosperity of Sardinia has actually come from the sea, from an invasion of many summer tourists. This has also led to many intermarriages, with mainland Italians, Germans, Swiss, English, French, Scandinavian and even with Australians.

Presently, new waves are already beginning to come from the Eastern Block, Poland, ex-Yugoslavia, Albania, Russia and even from Africa, with young blacks selling their wares on the beaches. Certainly new romances will arise in the discotheques and eventually marriages, that will vary further the general genetic patrimony of the Sardinian population.

The conclusion, therefore, is that the Sardinian people are characterised by a very ancient stock, which remained cut off for thousands of years and was then periodically injected with very different racial chromosomes. Their mainland counterparts, on the other hand, during all this time had much more opportunity of racial intermingling and therefore diversified considerably.  One can safely say that modern mainland Italians are more closely related to say, the Germans, than to Sardinians, notwithstanding that they live in the same country and that twenty odd thousand years ago, they originated from the very same tribes.

These stories clearly show how racial types constantly change and develop, either in peaceful intermarriage or through violence. Today we are a product of the past and therefore to thoroughly know ourselves, it is fundamental to know those that came before us. Another lesson to be learnt is that racial hatred is pure folly, as we are all related at one point in time or another and probably much closer than what we all think.

From a language point of view, the Romans left the biggest mark in Sardinia and today we find that the Sardinian language is heavily based on the Latin language. In fact it is the best living example of what the Latin language sounded like. The isolation of the central parts of Sardinia from outside influences helped preserve their language over the last 2000 years.

Grammar however, was another matter, that is if the Sardinians ever learnt it properly in the first place. Dante Alighieri wrote that "the Sardinians mimic Latin grammar, just like the monkeys mimic humans, because they say 'domus nova et Dominus meus'.

The coastal areas of Sardinia, on the other hand, were very much influenced by the invading foreign forces: the Alghero area, by the Spanish Catalan dialect; the Gallura and Carloforte area, by the Genoan dialect and inflection.


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         Copyright L. Camillo 2000