Minoans and Mycenaeans shared common ancestry ancient DNA reveals

August 4, 2017 | By | Reply More

UW-led study settles long dispute over origins of the people who created the first European advanced civilizations

The Bull-Leaping fresco from the Minoan palace at Knossos in Crete (1450 BCE)

The Minoans and Mycenaeans who created Europe’s first advanced civilizations shared a common ancestry both being descendants of neolithic farmers who migrated to Crete and mainland Greece from Anatolia, in what is now eastern Turkey, about 9,000 years ago, a study of ancient DNA by researchers in Europe and the U.S. has found.

Since the discovery of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete and the Mycenaean civilization on the Peloponnesian peninsula of mainland Greece, there have been many theories about where these people came from and whether they were related, said George Stamatoyannopoulos, UW Medicine professor of Genome Sciences and of Medicine, who was the senior author on the paper describing the new findings.

Sir Arthur Evans, the British archeologist who excavated the palace at Knossos and named its builders Minoan after the legendary King Minos, theorized that the creator of the Minoan civilization were people from the Nile Delta region and the Libyan coast who fled their homelands after being defeated in a war with peoples from southern Egypt.

Bronze Age Greece

Others have argued the Minoan civilization was the creation of semitic peoples who brought their culture to Crete from the Levant, the region in the eastern Mediterranean that today encompasses Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and part of southern Turkey.

Mycenaeans on the other hand, according to some theories, were thought to have descended from peoples who migrated down into Greece from the north.

Certainly the two Bronze Age cultures were very different, Stamatoyannopoulos said, the Minoans, who flourished from about 3000 to 1450 BCE appeared to have been generally peaceful while the Mycenaeans, who flourished from 1400 to 1150 BCE, had a militarized, warrior society.

“Minoan art, for example, typically depicts flowers, fish and people dancing,” Stamatoyannopoulos said, “while in Mycenaean art you see knives being brandished and people killing each other.” Indeed, the Minoans are famous for the brilliant frescos of elegantly dressed women and lithe athletes leaping bulls for sport. Mycenae, in contrast, is famous as the home of Agamemnon, the mythological king who led the Greeks in the siege of Troy in Homer’s Iliad.

In the new study, which appears in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers analyzed DNA from teeth recovered from the remains of 19 ancient individuals: Minoans who lived in Crete; Mycenaeans who lived in mainland Greece; and individuals who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

The DNA was extracted and sequenced originally by the Stamatoyannopoulos lab at the UW and subsequently By the Johannes Krause lab at the Max Planck Institute in Sienna, Germany and much of the statistical analysis of performed by Iosif Lazaridis at the Reich lab in Harvard Medical School.

The genomes of these individuals were then compared to each other and with the genomes of more than 330 other ancient individuals and more than 2,600 present-day humans whose genomes have been previously analyzed.

The researchers found that Minoans and Mycenaeans were, in fact, genetically similar, deriving at least three quarters of their ancestry from the first neolithic farmers who migrated to the Aegean Islands, Crete and mainland Greece about 9,000 years ago from Anatolia.

Part of the remaining genes come from people from further east and north of Anatolia, in lands that are now part of the Caucasus and Iran, who may have migrated into the area several thousand years later.

The Mycenaeans, however, differed somewhat from the Minoans in that they also had some genetic inheritance, about 4% to 16%, from a northern source related to hunter-gatherers from eastern Europe and Siberia, peoples who migrated down into Greece from the Eurasian steppe.

Although there has been some dilution of their original ancestry, modern Greeks’ genomes still closely resemble that of their ancient Mycenaean forbears, the researchers found.

The researchers detected no evidence of African or Levantine origins in the Minoan and Mycenaeans. This finding appears to rule out that the Minoan and Mycenaean civilization were seeded by migrants from the ancient civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Lazaridis speculated that it is possible that a relatively small number of migrants from the north and east could have contributed to the rise of the Mycenaean civilization by serving as “creative disrupters” of local traditions by introducing innovations and through their interactions with the local population sparking cultural change. However, the persistence of the original Neolithic settlers suggests that the descendants of the original neolithic setters likely played a key role in the development of these civilizations, the researchers conclude.

The paper can be found here — but it is behind a paywall.


Category: Biotechnology, Genetics, Research, University of Washington Medical Center

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