DNA analysis traces origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans

The ancient civilizations central to Greek mythology had surprisingly diverse heritage.

The Minoans and Mycenaeans were prominent Bronze Age civilizations (c. 2600 - 1100 BC), known in part through ancient poetic works like those of Homer. Until now, little was known about their origins. A new genetic analysis of the DNA of ten Minoans and four Myceneans has found evidence of ancestry from as far away as the Caucasus, modern-day Iran, and Siberia. We spoke with the study’s author, Harvard University geneticist Iosif Lazaridis, to learn more.

ResearchGate: What’s the significance of the Mycenaeans and Minoans?

Iosif Lazaridis: The Minoans of Crete were the first literate Europeans, and they recorded their language in a script that unfortunately hasn’t been deciphered. They were a very sophisticated culture with amazing complex architecture—thought to be the source for the myth of the “Labyrinth”—art, and technology. They also had some unusual customs, such as elaborate bull leaping ceremonies. The Mycenaeans lived mostly in mainland Greece and some of the islands and were the first known speakers of the Greek language. Their society seems to have been strongly hierarchical as they often buried their chieftains in impressive tombs, with many gold ornaments and weapons, and they fortified their citadels with awe-inspiring “Cyclopean” walls.

RG: What was known about these populations’ origins prior to this study?

Lazaridis: The two populations belong to the world of the Aegean Bronze Age (roughly 3rd and 2nd millennium BC), and they have been studied very thoroughly by generations of archaeologists since the late 19th century. There is a range of opinion about their origins, going all the way from them being descendants of the local Neolithic people that lived in Greece before the Bronze Age, to them being migrants from the north, south, or east. Archaeology can study material culture very well, but it is not as powerful in tracing the spread of genes, and it hasn’t been clear how these populations came about genetically.

 

"Archaeology can study material culture very well, but it is not as powerful in tracing the spread of genes, and it hasn’t been clear how these populations came about genetically."



RG: Who were the individuals whose DNA you analyzed? When and where did they live?


Lazaridis: We studied 19 individuals in total, including one Neolithic sample from 5,400 BC from the Peloponnese in Greece, and three Bronze Age individuals from neighboring Southwest Turkey (around 2,800-1,800 BC). But the bulk of ours samples were from the Aegean Bronze Age and included four Mycenaeans (around 1,700-1,200 BC) from the Peloponnese and Salamis, and 10 Minoans (around 2,900-1,700 BC) from Crete. We also had one individual from Crete (around 1,350 BC) that postdates the arrival of Mycenaean culture on the island. The samples of our study were collected with the help of archaeologists and anthropologists from Greece and Turkey and the approval of the relevant authorities in the two countries.

RG: What did you find?

Lazaridis: We find that all three Bronze Age groups (Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Bronze Age southwestern Anatolians) trace most of their ancestry from the earlier Neolithic populations that were very similar in Greece and western Anatolia. But, they also had some ancestry from the “east,” related to populations of the Caucasus and Iran. The Mycenaeans also had some ancestry from the “north”, related to hunter-gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia and also to the Bronze Age people of the steppe. We could also compare the Mycenaeans—again, the first speakers of the Greek language—to modern people from Greece who are very similar to them, but with lower early Neolithic ancestry.

RG: What are the implications of these findings?


Lazaridis: Genetics will never answer the question why there were these amazing cultures springing up in Greece in the Bronze Age. But we can tell something about the people who lived there at the time. These were the descendants of earlier farming populations of the Neolithic, and there was a great deal of continuity between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. But this continuity was not absolute, as there were additional inputs from both east and north, and this process continued to the present. So, you could think as the gene pool of Greece as an evolving painting in which each generation adds its own brushstroke without erasing the work of the past generations. Thanks to ancient DNA we are figuratively peeling off the layers of paint to see how and when this all came about.

 

"It was quite surprising to see the 'eastern' influence in Greece, in both Minoans and Mycenaeans."


 

RG: Did any of your results surprise you?

Lazaridis: It was quite surprising to see the “eastern” influence in Greece, in both Minoans and Mycenaeans. In our past work we had shown that ancestry from this area came to Europe via migrations from the steppe, together with the “northern” (Eastern European/Siberian) ancestry. Now we can show that it came to at least parts of Europe independently of steppe migrations. But, we didn’t see any ancestry in Greece related to populations of the Levant or Africa. Some had theorized that the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations were influenced both culturally and genetically by the old civilizations of the Levant and Egypt, but there is no quantifiable genetic influence.

RG: What’s next for this research?

Lazaridis: I hope that this study marks the beginning of much more ancient DNA work in Greece and Turkey. Over the last five years, ancient DNA technology has matured to a point that it is practical to extract and study DNA from ancient remains. This is a pivotal area for human history, as it was the origin of the first farmers of Europe, the first European civilizations, and the two oldest recorded Indo-European languages (Hittite and Mycenaean Greek). Hopefully, over the next few years our team and others will be able to fit many more pieces of the genetic puzzle.



Featured image courtesy of Jebulon.