An analysis of ancient DNA has revealed that Ancient Minoans and Mycenaens were genetically similar with both peoples descending from early Neolithic farmers.
They likely migrated from Anatolia to Greece and Crete thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age. Modern Greeks, in turn, are largely descendants of the Mycenaeans, the study found.
The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only though Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.
The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium before the Common Era. and was astonishingly advanced artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium before the Common Era. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans. They used the Linear B script, an early form of Greek.
The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for over 100 years. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations. A new analysis of well-preserved Minoan and Mycenaean DNA now provides many answers and insights.
An international team of researchers from the University of Washington, the Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, together with archaeologists and other collaborators in Greece and Turkey, report the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete, and southwestern Anatolia.
UW Medicine researcher, George Stamatoyannopoulos, professor of genome sciences and of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the senior author on the paper describing the new findings.
The study appears August 2 in the advanced online edition of the journal Nature.
The researchers analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.
The DNA samples were collected by Stamatoyannopoulos and his archaeologist collaborators, and were initially analyzed in his laboratory. Subsequently, Stamatoyannopoulos began collaborating 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.
Study results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar — but not identical — and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey.
“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,” said Lazaridis.
While both Minoans and Mycenaeans had both “first farmer” and “eastern” genetic origins, Mycenaeans traced an additional minor component of their ancestry to ancient inhabitants of Eastern Europe and northern Eurasia. This type of so-called Ancient North Eurasian ancestry is one of the three ancestral populations of present-day Europeans, and is also found in modern Greeks.
A passion for history inspired Stamatoyannopoulos to initiate this project: “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.”
While the new study does not resolve all the outstanding questions, it provides key answers. Importantly, the findings disprove the widely held theory that the Mycenaeans were a foreign population in the Aegean and were not related to the Minoans. The results also dispel the theory that modern Greeks did not descend from the Mycenaeans and later ancient Greek populations.
In broad strokes, the new study shows that there was genetic continuity in the Aegean from the time of the first farmers to present-day Greece, but not in isolation. The peoples of the Greek mainland had some admixture with Ancient North Eurasians and peoples of the Eastern European steppe both before and after the time of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, which may provide the missing link between Greek speakers and their linguistic relatives elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
The study thus underscores the power of analysis of ancient DNA to solve vexing historical problems, and sets the stage for many future studies that promise to untangle the threads of history, archaeology, and language.
The Minoans were Caucasian: DNA Debunks Longstanding Theory that Europe’s First Advanced Culture was from Africa
Ancient genomic data from 19 European and Anatolian individuals, including Mycenaeans from mainland Greece and Minoans from Crete, are reported online in Nature this week. The findings provide new clues into the origins of these two prominent archaeological cultures that emerged in the Aegean during the Bronze Age and which were first known through ancient poetic and historical traditions, beginning with Homer and Herodotus.
Ancient DNA research has traced the primary ancestors of early European farmers to the highly similar Neolithic populations who lived in Greece and western Anatolian from the 7th millennium BC. The later history of these regions down to the Bronze Age is less clear, and many questions remain, including the degree of genetic affinity between mainland and Crete populations and how both groups related to other ancient populations from Europe and to Modern Greeks.
Iosif Lazaridis and colleagues analyse genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals, including 10 Minoans from Crete dating to around 2900-1700 BC, 4 Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland dating to around 1700-1200 BC, and 3 individuals from southwestern Anatolia dating to around 2800-1800 BC. They find that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically very similar, with about three-quarters shared ancestry with the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean and most of the remainder from ancient populations like those from the Caucasus and Iran….}
“The Minoans were Caucasian: DNA debunks longstanding theory that Europe’s first advanced culture was from Africa”:
British archaeologists who in 1900 discovered the Minoan culture believed they were from Libya or Egypt.
The Minoan civilisation arose on Crete in the 27th century BC and flourished until the 15th century BC.
DNA analysis has debunked the longstanding theory that the Minoans, who some 5,000 years ago established Europe’s first advanced Bronze Age culture, were from Africa.
The Minoan civilisation arose on the Mediterranean island of Crete in approximately the 27th century BC and flourished for 12 centuries until the 15th century BC.
But the culture was lost until British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans unearthed its remains on Crete in 1900, where he found vestiges of a civilisation he believed was formed by refugees from northern Egypt.
Modern archaeologists have cast doubt on that version of events, and now DNA tests of Minoan remains suggests they were descended from ancient farmers who settled the islands thousands of years earlier.
These people, it is believed, are from the same stock that came from the East to populate the rest of Europe.
Evans set to work on Crete in 1900 with a team of archaeologists soon after the island was liberated from the yoke of the Ottoman empire, almost immediately unearthing a great palace.
He named the civilisation he discovered after the legendary Greek king Minos and, based on likenesses between Minoan artifacts and those from Egypt and Libya, proposed that its founders migrated into the area from North Africa.
Since then, other archaeologists have suggested that the Minoans may have come from other regions, possibly Turkey, the Balkans, or the Middle East.
But now a joint U.S. and Greek team has made a mitochondrial DNA analysis of Minoan skeletal remains to determine the likely ancestors of the ancient people.
Mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells, contain their own DNA, or genetic code, and because mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to their children via the human egg, it contains information about maternal ancestry.
Findings suggest that the Minoan civilisation arose from the population already living in Crete, and that these people were probably descendants of the first humans to reach there about 9,000 years ago.
Further, they found, the remains have the greatest genetic similarity with modern European populations.
Senior researcher Dr George Stamatoyannopoulos, professor of medicine and genome sciences at the University of Washington, said the analysis showed these people probably came to the area from the East, not the South.
About 9,000 years ago there was an extensive migration of Neolithic humans from the regions of Anatolia that today comprise parts of Turkey and the Middle East,’ he said.
‘At the same time, the first Neolithic inhabitants reached Crete.
‘Our mitochondrial DNA analysis shows that the Minoans’ strongest genetic relationships are with these Neolithic humans, as well as with ancient and modern Europeans.
‘These results suggest the Minoan civilization arose 5,000 years ago in Crete from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier.
‘Our data suggest that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.’
Dr Stamatoyannopoulos and his team analysed samples from 37 skeletons found in a cave in Crete’s Lassithi plateau and compared them with mitochondrial DNA sequences from 135 modern and ancient human populations.
The Minoan samples revealed 21 distinct mitochondrial DNA variations, of which six were unique to the Minoans and 15 were shared with modern and ancient populations.
None of the Minoans carried mitochondrial DNA variations characteristic of African populations.
Further analysis showed that the Minoans were only distantly related to Egyptian, Libyan, and other North African populations.
Indeed, the Minoan shared the greatest percentage of their mitochondrial DNA variation with European populations, especially those in Northern and Western Europe.
When plotted geographically, shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was lowest in North Africa and increased progressively across the Middle East, Caucasus, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, and mainland Europe.
The highest percentage of shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was found with Neolithic populations from Southern Europe.
The analysis also showed a high degree of sharing with the current population of the Lassithi plateau and Greece.
In fact, the maternal genetic information passed down through many generations of mitochondria is still present in modern-day residents of the area where the Minoan skeletons were found.
Dr Stamatoyannopoulos said he believes that the findings highlight the importance of DNA analysis as a tool for understanding human history.
‘Genetic analyses are playing in increasingly important role and predicting and protecting human health,’ he said.
‘Our study underscores the importance of DNA not only in helping us to have healthier futures, but also to understand our past.’
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