The Minoans, considered the first advanced civilization in Bronze Age Europe, left behind massive building complexes, stunning artwork and hieroglyphs—but few clues about their origins.
Archaeologists first posited that the Minoans came to the Greek island of Crete from northern Africa, establishing themselves on the island about 5,000 years ago. Subsequent theories suggested Balkan or Middle Eastern origins for the civilization. But research published today in Nature Communications reveals both a more European, and home-grown, development.
Researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the skeletons of 37 well-preserved ancient Minoans found in a cave in east-central Crete. The team compared the mtDNA from the remains with that of 135 modern and ancient populations.
None of the ancient Minoans carried characteristic African mtDNA haplotypes, or stretches of DNA. That rules out a northern African origin, which was first espoused by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. Evans famously excavated the Minoan palace of Knossos and based his theory on similarities he saw between Minoan and Egyptian art.
Instead, the ancient Minoan mtDNA samples shared the greatest percentage of haplotypes with both ancient and modern European populations. Researchers noted the island of Crete was first settled about 9,000 years ago, which coincides with the development and widespread adoption of agricultural practices in the Middle East and Anatolia. Looking for new land to cultivate, these new farmers spread into Europe—and, it now appears, to Crete.
Once settled on the island, according to the study, the farmers with ancestral roots in Anatolia and the Middle East developed their own indigenous culture, which evolved into the Minoan civilization.
Although today’s paper focused solely on mtDNA similarities, it is possible to explain similarities in Minoan civilization, including its art, with that of ancient northern Africa as the result of established trade routes.