Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals the ‘Mythical’ Heritage of Modern Greeks
Phys Org reports that a recent analysis of ancient DNA suggests that Ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically identical, with both peoples descending from early Neolithic farmers. The study also reveals that they are both closely related to modern Greeks.
Who Were the Minoans?
The Minoan and the Mycenaean Civilizations, are widely considered the first literate civilizations of the Western World and the ancestors of what later would be defined as Classical Greece. However, many questions about the origins of the Minoans and their ties to the Mycenaeans have long perplexed historians and archaeologists alike. The main question is: where did these people came from?
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The detail of the Potnia Theron belongs to the largest piece of Mycenaean wall painting preserved in Mycenae (CC BY 2.0)
As a previous Ancient Origins article reports, the examination of DNA from teeth taken from Bronze Age Cretan skeletons cleared up the mystery to some extent. American and Cretan researchers showed that ancient Cretans of the Minoan civilization have the closest relationship to both Neolithic and modern Europeans, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications. The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years ago. However, according to their estimations people first arrived on Crete about 9,000 years ago, about the same time as the development of agriculture in the Near East and the migrations that brought farming to Europe, the authors wrote.
The "Blue Boy" or the "Saffron-Gatherer". Minoan fresco from Knossos (Evans reconstruction) (CC BY SA 4.0)
Arthur Evans, an archaeologist who exposed the Minoan civic center of Knossos in 1900, named the Minoans after mythical King Minos of Knossos, the ancient people’s capital. Based on similarities in art, burials and the shared practice of wearing codpieces, Evans speculated that they were refugees from Egypt’s Delta after King Narmer conquered northern Egypt about 3000 BC. Geneticist George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle, along with Hughey and other researchers, was able to extract mitochondrial DNA from the teeth of 37 ancient Minoans and compared it to 135 ancient and modern populations. The team found the Minoans had 21 mtDNA markers, including six unique to themselves and 15 common in Neolithic, Bronze Age and modern Europeans. None of the ancient Minoans had mitochondrial DNA similar to modern African people, proving how sadly mistaken Evans had been with his theories.
Archaeological Museum of Herakleion, Crete. Minoan bull-leaping fresco (1600-1450 BC) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Recent Study Disproves Previous Questionable Studies
A paper published yesterday in Nature, correlates with the previous study of Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos and suggests that the Minoans had deep roots in the Aegean. In this further analysis, Stamatoyannopoulos has worked in conjunction with Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute, who undertook comprehensive genomic DNA sequencing using techniques developed in his laboratory, and P David Reich of Harvard Medical School, who worked with Iosif Lazaridis on collation and statistical genetic analysis of the data. The researchers analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of nineteen ancient individuals – including ten Minoans from Crete dating to 2900 to 1700 BC, four Mycenaeans from the archaeological site at Mycenae and other cemeteries on the Greek mainland dating from 1700 to 1200 BC, and five people from other early farming or Bronze Age. The main ancestors of both the Minoans and Mycenaeans were natives of the Neolithic Western Anatolia and Greece and the two groups were very closely related to each other, and to modern Greeks.
"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia, and Iran. This finding suggests that some migration occurred in the Aegean and southwestern Anatolia from further east after the time of the earliest farmers," Iosif Lazaridis from Harvard University told Phys Org.
The lady from Mycenae as depicted in a fresco at Mycenae, mainland Greece (Public Domain)
Motivation Behind the Meticulous Study
The passion for history and justice were the main motivations of Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos when he launched this ambitions project, "For over a hundred years, many hotly contested theories have circulated concerning the origin of the inhabitants of Bronze Age, Classical, and modern Greece, including the so-called 'Coming of the Greeks' in the late second millennium, the 'Black Athena' hypothesis of the Afroasiatic origins of Classical Greek civilization, and the notorious theory of the 19th century German historian Fallmerayer, who popularized the belief that the descendants of the ancient Greeks had vanished in early Medieval times," he told Phys Org.
And despite the new study not replying definitively to every question there is, it definitely provides some key answers. The greatest example of all, is how the findings disprove the widely accepted until now theory that the Mycenaeans were a foreign population in the Aegean and were not related to the Minoans. The findings also disprove the theory that modern Greeks are not descendants of the Mycenaeans and later ancient Greek populations.
Ultimately, from a scientific point of view, the study once again highlights the incredible potential of ancient DNA analysis as a tool in the hands of scientists who attempt to solve perplexing historical issues.
Top image: Painted side of sarcophagus from Agia Triada, Crete, around 1400 BC. Painted plaster on limestone. Shows the relationship between the Minoans and Egyptians. (Public Domain)