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Ancient DNA

Origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans

München, 08/03/2017

The mysterious Minoans descended primarily from local Stone Age farmers, as did their cultural counterpart, the Mycenaeans – and their descendants still inhabit Greece today.

The Bull-Leaping-Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete. Capture: akg-images

The Minoan Civilization and its counterpart on the Greek Mainland, the Mycenaean Civilization, were Europe’s first literate societies and the cultural ancestors of later Classical Greece. However, the question of the origins of the Minoans and their relationship to the Mycenaeans has long puzzled researchers. A paper published today in Nature suggests that, rather than being recently arrived, advanced outsiders, the Minoans had deep roots in the Aegean. The primary ancestors of both the Minoans and Mycenaeans were populations from Neolithic Western Anatolia and Greece and the two groups were very closely related to each other, and to modern Greeks.

The Minoans and Mycenaeans occupy an important place in Greek, and European, history. The Minoan civilization (c. 2600 to 1100 BC) has been described as the first literate society in Europe, with their Linear A script. Because Linear A, and the hieroglyphic scripts used on Crete, were never deciphered, the origins of the language they represent are not clear but it is thought to be distinct from early Greek. Minoan Crete is the setting for many Greek legends and immediately conjures images of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. The Mycenaean civilization (c. 1700 to 1050 BC) originated in mainland Greece eventually controlling the nearby islands, including Crete. Their Linear B script represented an early form of Greek.

Cultural Innovations

Despite this rich archaeological and textual history, the origins of the Minoans have long puzzled researchers. Their cultural innovations, including the first European writing system, vast palace complexes, and vibrant art, seeming to spring up in isolation on Crete, have led to speculation that they moved to the area from a more advanced society in another location. The Mycenaeans, with their roots in mainland Greece, seem to have adopted much of the Minoan technology and culture, but it is not clear how they were related. “We wanted to determine if the people who made up the Minoan and Mycenaean populations were actually genetically distinct or not. How were they related to each other? Who were their ancestors? And how are modern Greeks related to them?” says Johannes Krause, director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and one of the corresponding authors of the study.

To answer these questions, the researchers analyzed genome-wide data from 19 individuals, including Minoans, Mycenaeans, a Neolithic individual from mainland Greece, and Bronze Age individuals from southwestern Anatolia, which they were able to recover despite the notoriously poor preservation in the Mediterranean. By comparing the data generated from these persons with previously published data from nearly 3,000 others, both ancient and modern, the researchers were able to clarify the relationships between these groups.

The researchers found that the Minoans, rather than coming from a distant civilization, were locals, descended from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean. They found that the Minoans and Mycenaeans were very closely related, but with some specific differences that made them distinct from each other. Both the Bronze Age Minoans and Mycenaeans, as well as their neighbors in Bronze Age Anatolia, derived most of their ancestry from a Neolithic Anatolian population, and a smaller component from farther east, related to populations in the Caucasus and Iran.

Previously unknown migration event?

It was previously believed that this eastern ancestry was brought to Europe by steppe pastoralists from the north, who themselves shared this eastern ancestry. However, although the Minoans have this eastern heritage, they do not show genetic heritage from the northern steppe populations. On the other hand, the Mycenaeans show evidence of both eastern and northern genetic heritage. This indicates that, at least in some cases, this eastern heritage from the Caucasus and Iran arrived in Europe on its own, perhaps in a previously unknown migration event. It also indicates that the migration of the northern steppe pastoralists reached as far as mainland Greece, but did not reach the Minoans on Crete. “In light of the fact that the Greek mainland and the island of Crete were culturally so closely interlinked, it is astonishing that the two populations can be so clearly differentiated genetically,” adds archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, who is based at LMU Munich and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and was directly involved in the project from the beginning.

The study helps to provide boundaries on the timing of the arrival of both the eastern and the northern ancestry. “Neolithic samples from Greece, down to the Final Neolithic, approximately 4100 BC, do not possess either type of ancestry, suggesting that the admixture we detect probably occurred during the 4th-2nd millennium BCE time window,” explains David Reich of Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute and a co-corresponding author of the study. To determine the timing of these events more precisely, further samples from broader time periods and geographic locations will be necessary.

Modern Greeks closely related to ancient Mycenaeans

While they are not identical to the Bronze Age populations, modern Greeks are genetically closely related to the Mycenaeans. Modern Greeks show some additional admixture with other groups and a corresponding decrease in heritage from the Neolithic Anatolians. This suggests that there has been a large degree of population continuity in Greece, but it has not been isolated.

“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,” stated Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard Medical School, lead author of the study.

The findings help to clarify some aspects of the relationships in Bronze Age Greece, but leave other questions open. The scientists hope to clarify the time period of this possible new influx of eastern genetic heritage, and the logistics of the arrival of northern steppe heritage – slowly over time, or in a mass migration – in future research. (MPI for the Science of Human History/LMU)
Nature 2017

For more information on Philipp Stockhammer’s research, see:
Archaeology: Back to the future