A recent study of ancient DNA suggests that there is genetic continuity between the predecessors of the Minoans and Mycenaeans and Greeks today. These civilizations emerged from Aegean farming communities and gave rise to the ancient Hellenes. The findings, which were published online August 2nd in the journal Nature, also raise some questions about prehistoric migrations that set the stage for the Bronze Age.

The Minoans and Mycenaeans were the first advanced, literate civilizations to appear in Europe (around 3000 BC for the Minoans and 2000 BC for the Mycenaeans). They left archaeologists with a wealth of material to pore over: palaces, golden jewelry, wall paintings, writing (some of it still undeciphered) and, of course, burials, in what is today Greece. Now, an analysis of ancient DNA has revealed that Ancient Minoans and Mycenaens were genetically similar with both peoples descending from early Neolithic farmers. They likely migrated from Anatolia to Greece and Krete thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age. Modern Greeks, in turn, are largely descendants of the Mycenaeans, the study found.

An international team of researchers from the University of Washington, the Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, together with archaeologists and other collaborators in Greece and Turkey, analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Krete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia. They compared the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world.

Study results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar - but not identical - and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey. Iosif Lazaridis:

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia, and Iran. This finding suggests that some migration occurred in the Aegean and southwestern Anatolia from further east after the time of the earliest farmers."

While both Minoans and Mycenaeans had both "first farmer" and "eastern" genetic origins, Mycenaeans traced an additional minor component of their ancestry to ancient inhabitants of Eastern Europe and northern Eurasia. This type of so-called Ancient North Eurasian ancestry is one of the three ancestral populations of present-day Europeans, and is also found in modern Greeks. A passion for history inspired Stamatoyannopoulos to initiate this project:

"For over 100 years, many hotly contested theories have circulated concerning the origin of the inhabitants of Bronze Age, Classical, and modern Greece, including the so-called 'Coming of the Greeks' in the late second millennium, the 'Black Athena' hypothesis of the Afroasiatic origins of Classical Greek civilization, and the notorious theory of the 19th century German historian Fallmerayer, who popularized the belief that the descendants of the ancient Greeks had vanished in early Medieval times."

In broad strokes, the new study shows that there was genetic continuity in the Aegean from the time of the first farmers to present-day Greece, but not in isolation. The peoples of the Greek mainland had some admixture with Ancient North Eurasians and peoples of the Eastern European steppe both before and after the time of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, which may provide the missing link between Greek speakers and their linguistic relatives elsewhere in Europe and Asia. The study thus underscores the power of analysis of ancient DNA to solve vexing historical problems, and sets the stage for many future studies that promise to untangle the threads of history, archaeology, and language.