Modern Greeks’ DNA Similar to Mycenaeans and Minoans, Study Finds

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s reproduction of the “Ladies in Blue” fresco excavated before 1914 at Knossos, Crete. The original is in the Archaeological Museum of Herakleion.

NEW YORK – According to a recent study of DNA from ancient Mycenaeans and Minoans, scientists have discovered that most of the genetic code is similar to that of modern Greeks. The findings were published in Nature: the International Journal of Science, and reported in Science magazine. Since Homer wrote his epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, Greeks have considered the Mycenaeans their ancestors.

The fictitious Mycenaeans depicted in those epics, including the ill-fated King Agamemnon, may not have actually existed, but the real Mycenaeans, who built their civilization and dominated Greece and the Aegean Sea around 1600 BCE-1200 BCE, are in fact the ancestors of modern Greeks, as reported in Science magazine. Only a small part of modern Greek DNA is from later groups that migrated into the country, Science reported, adding that the Mycenaeans are also “closely related to the earlier Minoans, the study reveals, another great civilization that flourished on the island of Crete from 2600 BCE- 1400 BCE.”

The DNA studied was “from the teeth of 19 people, including 10 Minoans from Crete dating to 2900 BCE to 1700 BCE, four Mycenaeans from the archaeological site at Mycenae and other cemeteries on the Greek mainland dating from 1700 BCE to 1200 BCE, and five people from other early farming or Bronze Age (5400 BCE to 1340 BCE) cultures in Greece and Turkey. By comparing 1.2 million letters of genetic code across these genomes to those of 334 other ancient people from around the world and 30 modern Greeks, the researchers were able to plot how the individuals were related to each other,” Science reported.

Three-quarters of the DNA of the ancient Mycenaeans and the Minoans came from early farmers living in Greece and southwestern Anatolia, now part of Turkey, with additional DNA from the eastern Caucasus, near present-day Iran which suggests, as Science reported, “an early migration of people from the east after the early farmers settled there but before Mycenaeans split from Minoans.”

The difference between the two groups is that the Mycenaeans had 4-16% of DNA of ancestors 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,” Science reported.

The two civilizations carried genes for brown hair and brown eyes, so they resembled each other, as suggested by the paintings, frescoes and pottery, which survive from both cultures, but they “spoke and wrote different languages,” as noted in Science. The article also cited Lazaridis’ observations that “the Mycenaeans were more militaristic, with art replete with spears and images of war, whereas Minoan art showed few signs of warfare,” as reported in Science. Minoan script also used hieroglyphics which led some to believe there could be an Egyptian connection which was disproved by the study, Science reported.

“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,” Science wrote.

Co-author of the study George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle commented on the “continuity between the Mycenaeans and living people” noting that it is “particularly striking given that the Aegean has been a crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years,” as quoted in Science.

The findings suggest that most of Greek DNA and that of most Europeans was therefore set in the Bronze Age. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, though not involved in this particular study, told Science, “The spread of farming populations was the decisive moment when the major elements of the Greek population were already provided.”

Renfrew added, as reported in Science, that the findings of the study mean that ancient DNA can be found in “the hot, dry landscape of the eastern Mediterranean” and will allow scholars to study groups like the Hittites who arrived in Anatolia before 2000 BCE. The Hittites could be the source of the Mycenaeans’ Caucasian DNA and the early Indo-European languages of the area, Science reported.

Archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, though not involved in the study, said, as quoted in Science, “The results have now opened up the next chapter in the genetic history of western Eurasia— that of the Bronze Age Mediterranean.”