DNA discovery unravels the mystery of early Greek civilizations

The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals

Ever since the days of Homer, Greeks have long idealized their Mycenaean “ancestors” in epic poems and classic tragedies that glorify the exploits of Odysseus, King Agamemnon, and other heroes who went in and out of favor with the Greek gods. Although these Mycenaeans were fictitious, scholars have debated whether today’s Greeks descend from the actual Mycenaeans, who created a famous civilization that dominated mainland Greece and the Aegean Sea from about 1600 B.C.E. to 1200 B.C.E., or whether the ancient Mycenaeans simply vanished from the region.

Now, ancient DNA suggests that living Greeks are indeed the descendants of Mycenaeans, with only a small proportion of DNA from later migrations to Greece. And the Mycenaeans themselves were closely related to the earlier Minoans, the study reveals, another great civilization that flourished on the island of Crete from 2600 B.C.E. to 1400 B.C.E. (named for the mythical King Minos).

The civilizations were Europe’s first literate societies and were the cultural ancestors of later Classical Greece. The Minoan civilization existed from around 2600 to 1100 B.C. and the Mycenaeans existed from around 1700 to 1050 B.C.

The Minoans have long puzzled historians. The civilization created the first European writing system and built vast palace complexes with vibrant art, but seemed to spring up in isolation, experts said.

The origins of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. We have assembled genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals, including Minoans from Crete, Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and their eastern neighbours from southwestern Anatolia. Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean1,2, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus3 and Iran4,5. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia6–8, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe1,6,9 or Armenia4,9. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. Our results support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations

Ancient DNA research has traced the principal ancestors of early European farmers to highly similar Neolithic populations of Greece and western Anatolia, beginning in the seventh millennium BC (refs 1, 2);  however, the later history of these regions down to the Bronze Age, a transformational period in the history of Eurasia4,6,9, is less clear. There is limited genetic evidence suggesting migrations from both the east (the area of Iran and the Caucasus), reaching Anatolia by at least  ~ 3800BC (ref. 4), and the north (eastern Europe and Siberia)  contributing ‘Ancient North Eurasian’ ancestry6,10 to all modern Europeans. The timing and impact of these migrations in the Aegean is, however, unknown.During the Bronze Age, two prominent archaeological cultures emerged in the Aegean. The culture of the island of Crete, sometimes referred to as ‘Minoan’11, was Europe’s first literate civilization, and has been described as ‘Europe’s first major experience of civilization’12. 

However, the Linear A syllabic ideographic and Cretan hieroglyphic scripts used by this culture remain undeciphered, obscuring its origins. Equally important was the civilization of the ‘Mycenaean’ culture of mainland Greece, whose language, written in the Linear B script, was an early form of Greek13. Cretan influence in mainland Greece and the later Mycenaean occupation of Crete link these two archaeological  cultures, but the degree of genetic affinity between mainland and Cretan populations is unknown. Greek is related to other Indo-European  languages, leading to diverse theories tracing its earliest speakers from the seventh millennium down to ~ 1600BC, and proposing varying degrees of population change (Supplementary Information section 1).Genome-wide ancient DNA data provide a new source of infor-mation about the people of the Bronze Age, who were first known through the ancient poetic and historical traditions starting with Homer and Herodotus, later through the disciplines of archaeology and linguistics, and, more recently, by the limited information from ancient mitochondrial DNA14,15. 

Here we answer several questions. First, do the labels ‘Minoan’ and ‘Mycenaean’ correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time? Second, how were the two groups related to each other, to their neigh-bours across the Aegean in Anatolia, and to other ancient populations from Europe1,2,6,8–10 and the Near East2–5,9,16,17? Third, can inferences about their ancestral origins inform debates about the origins of their  cultures? Fourth, how are the Minoans and Mycenaeans related to Modern Greeks, who inhabit the same area today?We generated genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals  (Fig. 1a, Extended Data Table 1 and Supplementary Information  section 1). These comprised ten Minoans from Crete (approximately  2900–1700BC; labelled Minoan_Odigitria, from Moni Odigitria near the southern coast of central Crete; and Minoan_Lasithi, from the cave of Hagios Charalambos in the highland plain of Lasithi in east Crete). Four Mycenaeans were included from mainland  Greece (approximately 1700–1200BC; from the western coast  of the Peloponnese, from Argolis, and the island of Salamis). An additional individual from Armenoi in western Crete (approxi-mately 1370–1340BC; labelled Crete_Armenoi) postdated the appearance of Mycenaean culture on the island. Our dataset also included a Neolithic sample from Alepotrypa Cave at Diros Bay in the southern Peloponnese (about 5400 BC), adding to previously published samples from northern Greece2 (collectively labelled Greece_N). 

Finally, it included three Bronze Age individuals (approxi-mately 2800–1800; labelled Anatolia_BA) from Harmanören Göndürle in southwestern Anatolia (Turkey),  adding knowledge about genetic variation in Anatolia after the Neolithic/Chalcolithic periods1,2,4,17 (Supplementary Information section 1). We processed the ancient remains, extracted DNA, and prepared Illumina libraries  in dedicated clean rooms (Methods and Supplementary Table 1),  and, after initial screening for mitochondrial DNA, used in-solution hybridization18 to capture ~ 1.2 million single nucleotide polymor-phisms (SNPs)6,19 on the ancient samples. We assessed contamination by examining the rate at which they matched the mitochondrial con-sensus sequence (Supplementary Table 2) and the rate at which male samples were heterozygous on the Xchromosome (Methods). 

We com-bined the dataset of the 19 ancient individuals with 332 other ancient individuals from the literature, 2,614 present-day humans genotyped on the Human Origins array, and 2 present-day Cretans (Methods).We performed principal component analysis (PCA)20 (Methods), projecting ancient samples onto the first two principal components inferred from present-day West Eurasian populations10 that form two south–north parallel clines in Europe and the Near East along principal component 2. Minoans and Mycenaeans were centrally positioned in the PCA (Fig. 1b), framed to the left by ancient pop-ulations from mainland Europe and the Eurasian steppe, to the right by ancient populations from the Caucasus and Western Asia, and to the bottom by Early/Middle Neolithic farmers from Europe and Anatolia. The Neolithic samples from Greece clustered with these farmers and were distinct from the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The Bronze Age individuals from southwestern Anatolia were also distinct, intermediate between Anatolian and Levantine populations towards the bottom, and populations from Armenia, Iran, and the Caucasus


Clues as to their origins have proved hard to come by. While the ancient palace of Knossos on Crete offers some insight into their society, and the Minoans feature prominently in Greek mythology, their main script, known as Linear A, hasn’t been deciphered.

Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and Harvard Medical School have drilled down into ancient DNA to find answers.  

“There is this assortment of hard archaeology, linguistics, and legends that give us some idea about what was going on in Crete during the Minoan period, which has led to many theories about where the Minoans came from,” Dr. Iosif Lazaridis, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, told Fox News via email. “But, no hard facts, because the language was unique and unknown and it's not clear who the relatives of the Minoans were outside Crete.”


Researchers analyzed genomic data from 19 individuals, including Minoans, Mycenaeans, a Neolithic individual from ancient Greece, and Bronze Age individuals from southwestern Anatolia, which is in modern day Turkey. By comparing the information generated with previously published data from nearly 3,000 other people, both ancient and modern, the researchers were able to work out the relationships between the groups.

The results show that the Minoans were genetically very similar to the Mycenaeans. Individuals in both civilizations shared more than 75 percent of their ancestry with farming people that lived in Greece and western Turkey thousands of years earlier during the Neolithic period.

“This is quite remarkable – it was genetic continuity with the first farmers of Europe – they settled the region about 4,000 years prior to the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures,” Dr. Alissa Mittnik, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Fox News.


“This is very surprising because the Mycenaeans were in many ways culturally different than the Minoans: their tombs and art are replete with weapons, they had horses, chariots, and were very hierarchical because they buried their chieftains with copious amounts of gold and built their ‘Cyclopean’ citadels with huge limestone blocks,” added Lazaridis. “The later Mycenaeans are usually identified with the Achaeans of Homer's ‘Iliad,’ who were the people that sacked Troy.”

Lazaridis explained that the remainder of the Minoans’ and Mycenaeans’ ancestry came from Armenia, Georgia and Iran. The latter civilization’s ancestry can also be traced back to Eastern Europe and Siberia, according to the researcher, who noted that modern Greeks are quite genetically similar to the Mycenaeans.

“We may be removing some of the mystique surrounding these people by showing that they weren't that different from the people that came before or after them,” Lazaridis told Fox News. “The Minoans and Mycenaeans didn't have any special ancestry: they were made of the same basic ‘stuff’ as other people from Europe and the Middle East. So we can't answer the question of why these civilizations flourished thousands of years ago, but we can at least cast some light on who they were and where they came from.”


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