The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals
article published on the website sciencemag.org
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 Mycenaeans did have an important difference: They had some DNA—4% to 16%—from northern ancestors who came from Eastern Europe or Siberia. This suggests that a second wave of people from the Eurasian steppe came to mainland Greece by way of Eastern Europe or Armenia, but didn’t reach Crete, says Iosif Lazaridis, a population geneticist at Harvard University who co-led the study.
When the researchers compared the DNA of modern Greeks to that of ancient Mycenaeans, they found a lot of genetic overlap. Modern Greeks share similar proportions of DNA from the same ancestral sources as Mycenaeans, although they have inherited a little less DNA from ancient Anatolian farmers and a bit more DNA from later migrations to Greece.
The continuity between the Mycenaeans and living people is “particularly striking given that the Aegean has been a crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years,” says co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle. This suggests that the major components of the Greeks’ ancestry were already in place in the Bronze Age, after the migration of the earliest farmers from Anatolia set the template for the genetic makeup of Greeks and, in fact, most Europeans. “The spread of farming populations was the decisive moment when the major elements of the Greek population were already provided,” says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work.
The results also show it is possible to get ancient DNA from the hot, dry landscape of the eastern Mediterranean, Renfrew says. He and others now have hope for getting DNA from groups such as the mysterious Hittites who came to ancient Anatolia sometime before 2000 B.C.E. and who may have been the source of Caucasian ancestry in Mycenaeans and early Indo-European languages in the region. Archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who was not involved in the work, agrees. “The results have now opened up the next chapter in the genetic history of western Eurasia—that of the Bronze Age Mediterranean.”