The Near-Mythical Ancestors of Modern and Ancient Greeks

Fagjun | Published 2017-09-01 01:11

Image by Alexikoua


Ancient Greeks idealized and talked a lot about their Mycenaean ancestors, a number of whom led quite interesting lives. Famous Mycenaeans like Odysseus and the Mycenaean king Agamemnon may be fictitious, but the Mycenaean ancestors of the Greeks are very much real.


DNA testing has found that Greeks do in fact descend from ancient Mycenaeans, who in turn are related to the Minoans. Traditionally, scholars have considered these two groups of people to be distinct from one another, but it turns out that they're actually genetically related. What's more, 75% of the ancestors of Mycenaeans and Minoans came from what is now Anatolia, Turkey. The remaining 25% are people from eastern Caucasus, near what is now Iran.


Ancient literature can say a lot about ancient peoples, but we can't always be sure which bits are true and which bits are false. When hard science confirms what is expressed in artistic and literary work, however, the findings are definitely exciting.


Mycenaeans, Minoans, and Other Civilizations

The lady from Mycenae

© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0


There have been questions about how the Mycenaean civilization ended—did they die out, or did they leave descendants? DNA evidence suggests that the Mycenaean civilization still has living descendants today—the modern Greeks. Ancient Greeks may have been right in claiming descent from Mycenaeans.


Researchers tested DNA from the teeth of 19 individuals. 10 were Minoans from Crete, four were Mycenaeans, and five were people who had lived in Bronze Age cultures in both Greece and Turkey. The researchers compared the genome of these people to the genome of 334 other ancient people from around the world, as well as the genome of 30 modern Greeks.


Surprisingly, the Mycenaeans inherited part of their DNA—4% to 16%—from ancestors that came from Eastern Europe or Siberia. However, Minoans did not have these same genes. It's possible that the Mycenaeans' Eastern European or Siberian ancestors didn't reach Crete to intermingle with the Minoans.


Unsurprisingly, the ancient Mycenaeans and Minoans had some similarities. People from both civilizations had dark eyes and dark hair, and they also carried genes for brown hair and eyes. The art of both cultures depicted people who looked alike, though Mycenaean art was more fascinated with warfare than Minoan art. Minoans also used hieroglyphics, which led archaeologists to theorize that the Minoans may be part-Egyptian. This, however, has been proven false.


What Ancient Greeks Knew

Lion Gate in Mycenae [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]


The study also showed that it's possible to obtain DNA from remains in hot, dry landscapes like those in the Mediterranean. There's now hope for researchers who want to study the DNA of people like the Hittites, who may have contributed the Caucasian blood in Mycenaeans.


Thus, there may have been a sliver or two of truth in ancient stories telling of gods, goddesses, and nearly superhuman heroes. The Mycenaeans were almost mythical, thanks to their most famous—and actually fictional—king Agamemnon. Ancient Greeks may not have had the DNA testing technologies we have today, but they had their stories, myths, and epics. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these fictional works have truth in between layers of mythos.

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