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Ancient DNA reveals living Greeks are descendants of Mycenaeans

The study's findings have dispelled various scholars' claims that call into question whether modern Greeks are descendants of the ancients

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A fresco of a Mycenaean woman from 1,400-1,200 BCE. Photo: The Stream of Time

03 August 2017

The long running debate amongst scholars as to whether Greeks descended from the Mycenaeans is closer to being put to bed once and for all.

A recently conducted study into ancient DNA from 19 human remains suggests that today's living Greeks are in fact descendants of the Mycenaeans with a small proportion of DNA found to be from later migrations to Greece.

Published on Wednesday in the advanced online edition of journal Nature, the DNA used included four Mycenaeans from the archaeological site at Mycenae and other cemeteries on the Greek mainland dating from 1700 B.C.E. to 1200 B.C.E, 10 Minoans from Crete from around 2900 B.C.E to 1700 B.C.E, and five people from other early farming or Bronze Age (5400 B.C.E. to 1340 B.C.E.) cultures in Greece and Turkey.

An international team of researchers and archaeologists led by University of Washington professor of genome sciences and medicine, George Stamatoyannopoulos compared 1.2 million letters of genetic code across the genomes with those of 334 other ancient people from around the world and 30 modern Greeks to study how they were potentially related to one another.

The closest match was between the ancient Mycenaeans who inhabited mainland Greece and the Aegean, and the Minoans from Crete and modern day Greeks.

While the Minoans and Mycenaeans spoke and wrote different languages, they both carried genes for brown hair and eyes, their similarities in appearance documented by artists on frescoes and pottery.

It was discovered that each group had gotten three-quarters of its DNA from early farmers who lived in Greece and also southwestern Anatolia (now part of modern day Turkey), and that they had also inherited DNA from eastern Caucasus, near modern-day Iran before the Mycenaeans split from the Minoans.

One difference however was found in the Mycenaeans' DNA, of which 4-16 per cent came from Eastern Europe or Northern Eurasia, which is one of the three ancestral populations of present-day Europeans also found in modern Greeks.

"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 co-leader of the study, population geneticist from Harvard University Iosif Lazaridis.

Meanwhile the continuity discovered between the Mycenaeans and living people of Greece suggests that major components of Greeks' ancestry were in fact already in place by the Bronze Age.

The study's findings are particularly exciting given that they have opened up the next chapter in the genetic history of western Eurasia - the Bronze Age Mediterranean, showing that it is possible to retrieve ancient DNA from the eastern Mediterranean.

While the study has not provided answers to all questions, it has dispelled the theory that modern Greeks did not descend from the Mycenaeans and other ancient Greek populations.

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