DNA analysis sheds light on the genetic roots of ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans

dna-analysis-genetic-minoans-mycenaeans_1Reconstruction of the Bull-Leaping-Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete. Credit: By Lapplaender - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In one of our previous articles, we talked about how the earlier Mycenaean artworks, architectural patterns and military arms, circa 1600–1450 BC, were very much similar to the contemporary Minoan styles. And now a comprehensive DNA analysis might just provide the credible context to this scope of maritime influence. To that end, according to a fascinating study conducted by an international team of researchers (with members from University of Washington, the Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, along with other archaeologists and collaborators) has revealed that the ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically quite similar.

Assessed from the remains of 19 different ancient individuals (from areas comprising what is now Greece, Crete and Turkey), this incredible genome-wide DNA sequence data also points to an interesting scenario where both the Bronze Age groups – Minoans and Mycenaeans, migrated from Anatolia, millennia before the advent of Bronze Age in the Mediterranean region. The pre-Bronze Age population comprised Neolithic farmers, and as such some of them also settled in southwestern Anatolia – thus alluding to a scope where genetically similar people resided in Greece, Crete and parts of Asia Minor. Furthermore the study also hypothesizes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the modern Greeks in turn retain a fair share of the genetic similarities of their Mycenaean predecessors. Iosif Lazaridis, who contributed to the statistical genetic analysis of the data, said –

It is remarkable how persistent the ancestry of the first European farmers is in Greece and other parts of southern Europe, but this does not mean that the populations there were completely isolated. There were at least two additional migrations in the Aegean before the time of the Minoans and Mycenaeans and some additional admixture later. The Greeks have always been a ‘work in progress’ in which layers of migration through the ages added to, but did not erase the genetic heritage of the Bronze Age populations


The undecipherable Linear B shown inscribed on this tablet. Credit: Zde, CC BY-SA 3.0

Now in terms of available physical evidence (before the study), archaeologists were particularly perplexed by the enigmatic origins of the Minoans. To that end, the early Minoans used the Linear A syllabic script – which is still undecipherable, and conveys a language entirely different from the Greek dialects, unlike the Linear B of the Mycenaeans. So in a way, the early Minoans were essentially considered ‘non-Greek’ who had their lasting influence on the perceived ‘Greek’ characteristics (like art and military) of the Mycenaeans.

But the impressive scale of this DNA analysis, entailing the comparison of the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world, suggests a more geographically-cohesive origin story behind these ancient peoples. It should however be noted that while the study alludes to the genetic similarity of Minoans and Mycenaeans, the researchers have pointed out this doesn’t mean they were ‘genetically identical’. And interestingly enough, Lazaridis also talked about the presence of more ‘eastern’ ancestry in both these Bronze Age groups –

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.


Artist’s depiction of the maritime trade between Minoans and Mycenaeans. Source: Pinterest

Till now, we have talked about the genetic similarity between the Minoans and Mycenaeans. On the other hand, some elements of minor divergence occurred in the Mycenaeans, as could be comprehended from traces of both Eastern European and northern Eurasian ancestry in these people (but are missing in case of Minoans). The northern Eurasian lineage also contributes to one of the three ancestral populations of present-day Europeans, including the modern Greeks. Simply put, the DNA analysis potentially disproves many of the lingering theories, as stated by George Stamatoyannopoulos, one of the senior authors of the study –

For over 100 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.

In essence, the study does resolve some (if not all of) the historical issues when it comes to the origins of these ancient Aegean civilizations; namely the addressing of the widely-held theory that Minoans were possibly not related to the Mycenaeans. At the same time, other scholars (not related to the study) have remarked how the migration pattern of the aforementioned Neolithic farmers from Asia to Europe shouldn’t be perceived as a mass singular event. For example, John Bintliff, an archaeologist at Leiden University, has talked about the practical possibility of how these agriculturists arrived in smaller groups, with a series of mini-migrations being fueled by “commerce and movement of artisans and other specialists.”

The study was originally published in the Nature journal.

Via: Phys / Popular-Archaeology

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