Ancient DNA analysis reveals Minoan and Mycenaean origins

August 2, 2017, University of Washington Health Sciences
The Minoans were a literate Bronze Age civilization that flourished thousands of years ago (one woman shown dancing, in a fresco fragment that dates from 1600-1450 BCE). Credit: Wikipedia/Photo by Wolfgang Sauber is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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 Crete thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age. Modern Greeks, in turn, are largely descendants of the Mycenaeans, the study found.

The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only though Homer's epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.

The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium before the Common Era. and was astonishingly advanced artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium before the Common Era. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans. They used the Linear B script, an early form of Greek.

The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for over 100 years. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations. A new analysis of well-preserved Minoan and Mycenaean DNA now provides many answers and insights.

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, report the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete, and southwestern Anatolia.

The Bull-Leaping-Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete. (The original is located at Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete) Credit: By Lapplaender - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

UW Medicine researcher, George Stamatoyannopoulos, professor of genome sciences and of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the senior author on the paper describing the new findings.

The study appears August 2 in the advanced online edition o the journal Nature.

The researchers analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

The DNA samples were collected by Stamatoyannopoulos and his archaeologist collaborators, and were initially analyzed in his laboratory. Subsequently, Stamatoyannopoulos began collaborating with Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute, who undertook comprehensive genomic DNA sequencing using techniques developed in his laboratory, and P David Reich of Harvard Medical School, who worked with Iosif Lazaridis on collation and statistical genetic analysis of the data.

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.

The Mycenaeans, a Bronze Age civilization that conquered the Minoans, used a written language called Linear B (shown inscribed on tablet), that was an early form of Greek. Credit: Wikipedia/Photo by Zde is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

"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," said Lazaridis.

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."

While the new study does not resolve all the outstanding questions, it provides key answers. Importantly, the findings disprove the widely held theory that the Mycenaeans were a foreign population in the Aegean and were not related to the Minoans. The results also dispel the theory that modern Greeks did not descend from the Mycenaeans and later ancient Greek populations.

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 .

Explore further: Late Minoan tombs points way to early European migration

More information: Iosif Lazaridis et al, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature23310

Related Stories

Late Minoan tombs points way to early European migration

March 31, 2017

Researchers at the University of Huddersfield have visited Rethymnon in Crete, to collect samples from the late Bronze Age Necropolis of Armenoi, one of the world's finest archaeological sites. DNA analysis of the ancient ...

mtDNA study shows Minoans came from Europe not Africa

May 15, 2013

( —A new study conducted by a team of American and Greek researchers has found that the people of the ancient Minoan civilization living on the island of Crete most likely came from Europe. In their paper published ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2017
Wonderful work, exactly what science is expected to provide. All traces back to the ancient land of AR.
I have mulled over the possibility the Mycenae were the Minoans used to farm the shores of the Med who added in the few natives. Perhaps I am right.
not rated yet Aug 03, 2017
His work is good, but does not rule out another hypotheses. The ancient Israelosemitic tribe of Dan from the Exodus of about 1530BC or so...second millenium BC as the above article mentions.. migrated wtith the Exodus to the Canaanite lands. The Danites were assigned the northern Canaanite city of Laish, which the Danites conquered and renamed Tel Dan. Some Danites, however went to the shores, founded a place to settle but did not stay. They built ships and sailed to founded Mycenae in proto-Ancient Greece. Achilles probably was a Danite. Both the Danite/Mycenaens and the Danite/TelDanites were gold workers and worked similar art and practiced a slightly different form of Judaism. The only surviving large temple contruction in all Judaism is at Tel Dan in northern Israel. Mycenaens also colonized Sardinia, bringing back their shaft tomb practices to Tel Dan along with some of their artifacts and art.
not rated yet Aug 04, 2017
So Greeks are actually Turks? . . . Oops!
5 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2017

@osiris1. maybe because religious scripts are not considered valid historical sources and no one bothers?
@overthemoon... you can't be so historically illiterate to think that Anatolia was where turks lived back then, can you?
not rated yet Aug 07, 2017
What makes Black Athena even more absurd is the East Africans are not genetically close to the West Africans. Moreover skin color is no more predictive of decent than the color of a car tells you what company made the car. West Africans were the one that were taken as slaves to the Americas. Before that they were cut off from the rest of the world by the Sahara Desert, the Atlantic Ocean and the interior of Africa. Make no mistake the West Africans developed their own Bantu Civilization and it just as advanced as any other. The other theory denied the achievements of West Africans for one reason and one reason only. Its purpose was to argue that people with white skin are stupid and have never achieved anything.
not rated yet Sep 04, 2017
Isn't it obvious? Greek myth is actually given from Phoenicians. Archeologist George Bass proved that Phoenicians had already been controlling the Mediterranean before they were superpower in the sea with many studies on oldest underwater vessel. They all mixed early-farmer people from Levantine, Fertile Crescent and Anatolia. Was not ever best love story in the history, story of Paris and Helen that is about East - West argue? Why it is similar to the myth about the king Agenor's daughter Europe? Heredot mentioned that "Thales ancestry come from Cadmus". Why Socrates said "Beauty is a short-lived tyranny?" Why Anatolian kings like Lydian were obsessed on that having a beatiful wife. I guess some stories in the history may tell us something happened real?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.