Origins of the Mysterious Minoans Unraveled by Scientists
The Minoan people of Crete—Europe’s first high civilization—present a mystery that has long perplexed scholars and inspired much speculation: Where did these people, whose culture and artifacts seemed different than nearby Greeks, come from? Some have speculated variously on North Africa, Syria, Palestine or the Balkans.
Research a few years ago into DNA from teeth taken from Bronze Age Cretan skeletons cleared up the mystery somewhat. 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.
Luckily for some modern scientists, the ancient Cretans took care in burying their dead and left some remains in an ossuary in a cave. The team, headed by Jeffrey R. Hughey of Hartnell College in California, examined maternal, mitochondrial DNA of people who lived more than 3,600 years ago.
“The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years before present,” the authors wrote in Nature Communications. “Since Sir Arthur Evans exposed the Minoan civic centre of Knossos [in 1900], archaeologists have speculated on the origin of the founders of the civilization. Evans proposed a North African origin; Cycladic, Balkan, Anatolian and Middle Eastern origins have also been proposed. Here we address the question of the origin of the Minoans by analyzing mitochondrial DNA from Minoan osseous [bony] remains from a cave ossuary in the Lassithi plateau of Crete dated 4,400–3,700 years before present.”
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. Crete is an island in the Mediterranean Sea situated south of Greece and southwest of Turkey.
Evans 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. Over the years archaeologists dug up other artifacts and posited that the Minoans came from various other places.
“Europa and the Bull,” by Noel Desensfans after Guido Reni. The bull was Zeus. Some stories say he raped her, others say she took him and then sacrificed him. Their child was Minos, king of Crete. Some mythographers say Minos means “moon man” and all Minoan kings were named that in the 2000 BC era. (Wikimedia Commons)
Geneticist George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle, along with Hughey and the 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.
In sum, the Minoans of Crete were of Cretan and Greek origin, the study says. The ancestors of the Cretans, the team found, likely came from the Near East and Turkey.
The ruins of the palace of Knossos (Photo by Lars Larson/Wikimedia Commons)
“Given that the timing of the first Neolithic inhabitants to reach Crete 9,000 YBP coincides with the migration of Neolithic farmers out of Anatolia, it is highly probable that the same ancestral population that spread to Europe also spread to Crete and contributed to the founding of the early Minoan civilization,” the authors wrote in 2013. “It has been suggested that in addition to agricultural methods, the Anatolian farmers also brought with them the Indo-European language. The current prevailing hypothesis is that the Minoan language was unrelated to the Indo-European family. Alternatively, as suggested by Renfrew, Proto-Minoan was one of the branches derived from the Proto-Indo-European language about 9,000 YBP.”
It is interesting to note that Minos was a son of Zeus and the Phoenician mortal Europa, who gave Europe its name. Some mythographers say Europa was not a mortal but was the Great Goddess of Indo-European religions.
Featured image: The bull-leaping fresco of Knossos palace, in Crete, Greece, dated to about 1600 to 1450 BC. The bull was an important animal in Minoan religion and closely related to the great goddess the Cretans worshiped. (Photo by Jebulon/Wikimedia Commons)
By: Mark Miller