Study Reveals Close Genetic Links Across Advanced Aegean Civilizations
A landmark study of ancient DNA has shed new light on the genetic characteristics of people who built the great Bronze Age Aegean civilizations. A team of researchers from Greece and Switzerland performed a genetic analysis of DNA samples collected from the skeletal remains of 17 individuals found at different Aegean civilizations’ archaeological sites in the region.
These men and women mostly lived during the Early Bronze Age, or approximately 5,000 years ago. They were members of three highly advanced Early Bronze Age Aegean civilizations: the Minoan civilization of Crete, the Cycladic civilization that occupied the Cyclades islands, and the Helladic civilization that formed on the Greek mainland.
It had previously been assumed that these three great civilizations consisted of separate cultures created by genetically distinct peoples. While they were located in the same general region, there are significant differences in art, architectural, and burial practices between them.
But the results of this new research calls this assumption into question. The Swiss and Greek researchers were surprised to discover great genetic similarities between the various Early Bronze Age DNA samples. It seems these three great Aegean civilizations were not as isolated from one another as initially believed, but instead could trace their origins back to common ancestors.
The findings of this study were introduced in an article entitled “The Genomic History of the Aegean Palatial Civilizations,” which was published on April 29 in the peer-reviewed journal Cell.
Aegean civilizations left their mark all over the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This photo shows the House of Cleopatra and Dioskourides in Delos, Greece, which was home to the Cycladic civilization. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Aegean Civilizations Shared Common Ancestors and Culture
The Minoan, Cycladic, and Helladic civilizations did share some notable characteristics. All built grand urban centers, constructed elaborate monuments, found ingenious uses for various metals, and created thriving trade networks that connected them with their neighbors.
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In the past, it was believed these overlaps were a consequence of mass immigrations from the east, specifically from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Migrants would have introduced some of these concepts and innovations to each civilization or culture they encountered, as they made their way westward centuries before the Bronze Age began. Eventually, migratory movements would have included intermixing between representatives of the Minoan, Cycladic, and Helladic civilizations, as trade networks developed that connected these various powers more closely. This would have further accelerated the adoption of certain cultural practices by all three civilizations in roughly the same time period.
But the latest genetic analysis suggests an alternative explanation. If the Aegean civilizations were more closely related than previously thought, it means they would have shared a common culture reaching far back into antiquity. They became more diverse as time passed, which would explain the differences between their preferred forms of art and architecture. But their divergence wouldn’t have been complete, meaning the characteristics they had in common (like their city building and metal working practices) would have emerged from their shared cultural heritage.
It is important to emphasize that migration would have still been a factor that helped shape cultural development in the region. However, it would not have been the sole factor at work. The peoples of the Early Bronze Age Minoan, Cycladic, and Helladic civilizations would have inherited many of their social, economic, and political attributes from their common ancestors, creating a continuous cultural unity.
The skeleton of one of the two individuals who lived in the middle of the Bronze Age and whose complete genome was reconstructed and sequenced by the Lausanne research team. The remains are from the archaeological site of Elati-Logkas, which belongs to the Aegean civilizations’ region. (Ephorate of Antiquities of Kozani / Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports)
Genetic Divergence in the Middle Bronze Age
While most of the DNA samples studied by the Swiss and Greek researchers came from Early Bronze Age sites, two were retrieved from sites that dated to the Middle Bronze Age. Analysis of these two samples produced somewhat different results from the analysis of the earlier genetic material.
By the Middle Bronze Age (approximately 4,600 to 4,000 years ago), it seems a significant amount of contact had occurred between the people of the northern Aegean (mainland Greece) and herders who had migrated from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Middle Bronze Age DNA samples contained equal parts Helladic and Pontic-Caspian genetic material, which made them genetically distinct from their Early Bronze Age ancestors.
The Pontic-Caspian steppe was an expansive region of flat grassland to the north and east of the Aegean Sea. It covers sections of modern Russia and the former states of the Soviet Union, and is bordered by the Danube Riverand Ural River. The nomadic people that resided there in ancient times were known to be geographically mobile, and as they traveled and settled in new areas they influenced the development of many European cultures.
Their legacy may include the spoken and written languages shared by modern-day occupants of Europe, North America, and South America. It is believed that the earliest form of the modern Greek language, along with all the other Indo-European languages, may well have originated in the Pontic-Caspian steppe region.
The gold death mask known as the "Mask of Agamemnon," found in shaft grave V, Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. Mycenae was an Aegean civilization center of great renown. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens / CC BY 2.0)
Tracing the Lines of History from Present to Past
The scientists behind this fascinating study have broken new ground in prehistorical research.
“Ancient samples allowed us to reconstruct ancestral relationships between ancient populations, and reliably infer the amount and timing of massive migration events that marked the cultural transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in the Aegean,” explained study co-author Olga Dolgova, who is affiliated with the Barcelona-based Centre for Genomic Regulation.
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The Bronze Age Aegean civilizations created the first large urban centers and built the first monumental palaces. Their social, cultural, political, and economic innovations still resonate with us today, as they were the forerunners of ancient Greek, Roman, and modern western civilizations. In a very real sense, their history is our history, and learning more about them can simultaneously help us learn more about ourselves.
Top image: The terrace of the lions at Delos island in Greece, which is associated with the Cycladic civilization, one of the Aegean civilizations focused on in the latest DNA study. Source: dudlajzov / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde