History of eastern Adriatic populations

Ethnohistorical overview

Archeological data show that the Middle Dalmatian islands of Hvar and Korčula were already inhabited in the Neolithic age (Čečuk, 1986; Novak, 1960) by a non-Indo-European population. According to the remains, these early inhabitants lived in the island caves and maintained contact with other populations in the Adriatic Sea and the Balkan peninsula as well as with those living on the Ionian and Aegean islands and in Asia Minor. Around 2,000 BC an Indo-European people, the Illyrians, settled on the Eastern Adriatic coast and the neighboring islands. The continuity of settlement since that time can be seen from the stone piles, ”gomila”, under which the Illyrians buried their dead, shepherd’s stone cottages, “bunja”, which were found near all the oldest villages situated in the interior of both islands, and the remains of watchtowers, “gradina“, situated on elevated points with good visibility of the interior of the islands near the majority of present settlements. During the 4th century BC, the Greeks founded colonies along the Adriatic coast, including both islands: Pharos on the island of Hvar and Korkyra Melaina on Korčula. During the 3rd century BC Romans colonized the whole region, including the islands, and their domination lasted until the 7th century AD. The first great influx of Croats (Slavs), i.e. “the first Slavic immigration wave” into the area occurred between the 6th and 8th centuries, when the entire area was gradually Slavicized and the romanized Illyrians and Romans on the Dalmatian islands were assimilated by the Croatian tribe of Neretljani, thus creating the biological-sociocultural Croatian (Slavic) substratum of the population. This process is evidenced by place names and other toponyms, which are predominantly Slavic. This new population was subjected, during subsequent centuries, to various political and sociocultural influences. Although these islands belonged for a few centuries to the Croatian Kingdom and later to the Kingdom of Croatians and Hungarians, to the Bosnian Dukes, etc., from the 12th century AD they were affected mainly by political, sociocultural and economic influences exerted by the Republic of Venice, the center of which – the town of Venice – is located in the extreme north of the Adriatic. Both islands fell under the rule of the Venetian Republic in 1420 and remained so until the fall of Venice in 1797. With the appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte in this region at that time, Venice’s direct influence on the populations of the Dalmatian islands ceased.

Historical ethnic and language strata in Dalmatia
Roman tower in Škrip on Brač island, with visible historic construction layers

During the previously described period, intensive migrations occurred in the interior of the Balkan Peninsula. The second Slavic immigration wave occurred during the Turkish wars, when large population groups migrated from the mainland interior of the Balkan Peninsula (from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro) to the coast and the nearby islands. Migrations from inland continued from the 15th to the 18th century, but the greatest influx of inhabitants to the Islands of Hvar occurred in the mid and late 17th century, during the Candian war (between the Ottoman Empire and Venice). This immigration formed a superstratum of newly arrived inhabitants on the islands and left evidence still apparent today in clearly distinctive differences in dialects and cultural and biological traits. The most expressed differences are linguistic, as the immigrants spoke the Štokavian dialect which has been the most widespread of the Croatian and Serbian dialects, and represents a basis for the standard Croatian and Serbian language of the Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Muslims. In comparison with the Čakavian dialect, it represents a more developed stage in relation to the original common Old Slavonic language, while the Čakavian dialect has preserved the most archaic Old Slavonic morphological, phonetic and lexical markings. Before the great migrations brought about by the Ottoman invasion of the Balkan peninsula, which influenced the spread of the Štokavian dialect to the west, the Čakavian dialect was spoken in a much larger geographic region which included a large part of western Bosnia and nearly all of Dalmatia, including the islands (e.g. Rubić, 1952; Rudan, 1972, 1980, 1982, 1982; Rudan et al., 1982, 1986, 1987a, 1987b, 1990a, 1990b; Sujoldžić et al., 1982-83, 1984-85, 1987; Bennett et al., 1983, 1989; Sujoldžić, 1990).

In summary, for a period of about 400 years a specific type of population migration and isolation took place on the Islands of Hvar and Korčula. The Venetian Republic gave the newcomers land and awarded them special privileges (called “the Paštrović Privileges”), according to which they were exempt from serving on the Venetian galleys in times of war and were freed from many taxes and public works. This resulted in animosity between newcomers and prior settlers and created many sociocultural barriers between the immigrant and indigenous population. Since, if they married native settlers, the newcomers could lose their privileges, there was a strong barrier to gene flow between the old population substratum and the immigrant superstratum throughout the whole period of Venetian rule on the islands of Hvar and Korčula (from 1420 to 1797). Thus, migration (gene flow) between the immigrant and indigenous population on the islands was prevented by socioeconomic privileges awarded to newcomers and by marriage restrictions. Since these socioeconomic influences were exerted for a few hundred years, they most probably affected the population structure of the island. These systems of interpopulational isolation were disrupted by Napoleon Bonaparte’s organization of the “Illyric Provinces” at the beginning of the 19th century, when migration movements were no longer limited. The results of linguistic research carried out to date have shown that the two dialects, old Čakavian and more recent Štokavian, still exist on both islands today and that the infiltration of Štokavian into individual Čakavian settlements has resulted in types of Čakavian speech which is exposed to greater or lesser degrees of “štokavization” (Sujoldžić, 1982, 1986, 1990; Sujoldžić et al., 1987). In each of the investigated settlements a specific local speech was remarked, which serves as a subdialect. This is the result of both historical events and the different language substrata and superstrata, as well as of the poor possibilities for communication, which existed among individual subpopulation (village) groups.

Thus, during the past 400 years, a unique type of population structure has become established in the Dalmatian islands, in which, in addition to geographic and local isolation, socioeconomic factors, cultural and linguistic barriers have played important roles (see Rudan  et al. 1987, 1992; Sujoldzic 1991; Rudan et al. 1999).

Overview of demographic history

Demographic analyses carried out on the islands addressed population movements during the last 150 years, division of inhabitants by age and sex, rates of natality and mortality, rate of natural growth, the analysis of contemporary migration movements on the basis of the parents’ place of birth. These analyses of the island subpopulations during the last few hundred years indicate (Rudan et al., 1987a, 1987b, 1990a, 1990b, 1992; Špoljar-Vržina et al., 1989) that there was a decline in the population size during the 16th century – probably as a result of the plague epidemics in the area. Wars against the Ottoman Empire (the Cyprian War, from 1571 to 1573; the Candian War, from 1645 to 1669, and the Morean War, from 1684 to 1699) led to emigration from the mainland to the island, which could be clearly seen in an increase in population size.

With the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the islands came under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although the majority of the population were peasants (Croats), the islands showed a slight drop in population, probably due to emigration of the Italian inhabitants from the towns. Under the new local Croatian (Slavic) government, these Italians left the island to return to Venice. From the beginning of the 19th century (from 1815) up until the early 20th century, there was a dramatic increase in the population of the majority of islands. This is a significant finding which could be the consequence of a number of factors (Rudan et al., 1992):

  • New food articles were introduced into the diet of the population starting with 1816. Napoleon’s government encouraged the inhabitants to plant potatoes and incorporate them into their diet. The introduction of potatoes enhanced the dietary possibilities and carrying capacity of the population, as food resources were increased.
  • The first mandatory annual vaccinations for smallpox in this part of Europe were initiated between 1806 and 1813 (Grmek, 1964). As a result, infant and child mortality declined radically and the population size increased.
  • The vineyard phylloxera epidemic devastated the wine industry of western Europe and the Mediterranean over the second half of the 19th century. The Dalmatian islands, being on the periphery, were not affected by the phylloxera epidemic until much later (in 1894). There was therefore a greater demand for wines in the mid-19th century, which led to extensive agricultural activity in the planting of grape vines and increased wine production in Dalmatia. Wine was exported to Italy and the countries of western and central Europe, increasing the economic prosperity of the population.
  • This led to the introduction of the “Wine Act”, signed in 1892 by the Austrian government (which ruled this region following the end of Napoleonic rule, up until 1918) and the government of Italy (Perić, 1978). Following the Wine Act, duty was charged on the importing of wine from the islands. This led to a drop in wine exports from the islands and to economic decline. Furthermore, the islands were also hit by the phylloxera epidemic (1894). The political and economic consequences of the “Wine Act”, as well as the phylloxera epidemic, resulted in a drastic decrease in wine production over a period of 40 years and in massive emigration, mostly to the Americas and later to Australia.
  • Losses in the First and Second World Wars and increased mortality due to an epidemic of Spanish Influenza in the 1920’s are also seen in the population declines of the islands. Immediately following World War II, almost all the islands registered a population increase as a result of better economic conditions. However, the ensuing depopulation of all the islands still continues, mainly in the rural populations of the interior, as the inhabitants migrate to the islands’ urban and tourist centers and to the nearby mainland. The rate of natural growth also reflects this trend, in that it is negative or stagnant (e.g. Rudan et al., 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1992; Sujoldžić, 1988; Špoljar-Vržina et al., 1989).
  • In the historical processes of influx and assimilation, some villages have remained extremely isolated and have practiced near complete village endogamy, while in others the extent of isolation is not significantly pronounced. This has resulted in a variable degree of inbred matings in the islands of the Eastern Adriatic. As a consequence, the degree of inbreeding in Croatian island populations varies from relatively low to moderate to high. The research conducted suggests that inbreeding could be associated not only with certain hereditary disorders, but also with an increase in the prevalence of several common diseases.
Graph showing changes in the population sizes of islands Korčula, Hvar, Silba and Olib (1500 – present)