The Kings of Minos were not Pharaohs

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2013 3:51 am

Credit: cavorite

A few years ago I predicted to some friends that ancient DNA would transform our understanding of the human past. The reason being that inferences of population movements via material remains were imprecise at best. We are beginning to see my prediction come to fruit (mind you, the prediction was not a bold or courageous one). A new short communication in Nature Communications, A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete, addresses an old and frankly somewhat outdated question: whether the first European literate civilization derived from a transplantation from Egypt, or was autochthonous.

I say that this is a somewhat outdated test because the modern proponent of this theory, Arthur Evans, lived a century ago, when our understanding of pre-Classical antiquity (i.e., the world before 600 BC and literate alphabetic Greek civilization) was sketchy at best. The reality is that ancient Crete, like the ancient Levant, does seem to have been in the greater Egyptian culture sphere of influence, just as ancient Elam (southwest Iran) was a de facto part of the Mesopotamian world. But we know the language of the Elamites, and it was not related to Mesopotamian languages. Just as the Finns have been influenced by their Nordic neighbors, so were the Elamites influenced by their Sumerian neighbors. But their linguistic difference points to fundamentally distinct origins. And so it is with the Minoans. It was already likely from the peculiar nature of Minoan writing, Linear A, that this civilization was not a simple derivation of Egypt. These genetic data just add more evidence.

Over at Nature Ewen Callaway has naturally written up an excellent summation of the relevant points of the paper. First, they used mtDNA. The maternal lineage (mtDNA is copious, so excellent for ancient DNA extraction). They compared their several dozen Minoan era (Bronze Age) samples to other various ancient and modern populations. Even with the modest sample sizes and the mtDNA as the sole line of inference it seems that the authors do a reasonable job of rebutting a North African origin for Minoans. Plenty of modern data imply that for whatever reason the Mediterranean is a formidable barrier, and that populations seem to have hugged the northern and southern coasts as they pushed from the East. The exceptions in later times, for example the migration of the Sea Peoples in the Bronze Age, seem not to have perturbed the underlying genetic substrate. More importantly, as I note above we know far more about the Bronze Age Aegean than Sir Arthur Evans. For example, we know that the mainland populations who seem to have displaced Minoan civlization >1500 BC were Greek speakers! Evans did not know this, and this fact was somewhat of a surprise when Michael Ventris stumbled upon this reality.

Credit: Rosemania

To understand why, one must grasp that we are arguably more culturally conscious of the Athens of the 5th century BC than those Athenians were of the Athens of the 12th century BC. At the end of the Bronze Age there was a great cataclysm in terms of the breakdown of the social and political order. Aegean civilization as it was properly understood was erased, and Greece descended into barbarism. Egypt itself barely managed to hold onto its sense of self in the face of barbarian attacks. While Egypt retrenched the mysterious Hittite Empire of Anatolia collapsed in totality. The only recollection of the Hittites persisting down to the modern era can be found in the Hebrew Bible, where there are references toward satellite Levantine Hittite principalities which limped onward after the fall of the center.

After the collapse of the Myceanean citadel culture which succeeded the Minoans Aegean Greek civilization was rebuilt on fundamentally different foundations. The Greeks forgot the art of writing, and invented their own alphabet after being stimulated by the Phoenicians. The legends of the Trojan War and the broader mythological backdrop of Classical Greek society recalled fragments of the memories of the Bronze Age, but only just fragments. The tales of Agamemnon reflect barbaric Dark Age Greece (1200-800 BC), not the bureaucratized world of the Mycenaeans.

In light of all this it is no surprise that early 20th century scholars posited an exotic origin for the peculiar Minoan-Myceanean civilizations whose material remains they stumbled upon. Many of these were gentlemen who were classically educated, and the coarse and brutal world of Bronze Age Greece was utterly alien to them. Not only that, these scholars would have been surprised that Crete and to a lesser extent the Myceaneans were part of the broader Near Eastern world system, despite being of fundamentally different cultural origin. The reality is that it is somewhat deceptive to label Cretan civilization as European, because Europe is an anachronism.

Over the next few years more and more DNA samples will come to light. I will predict that the Mediterranean islands were come to viewed as very specific reservoirs for ancient genetic variation. The mainland seems to have been  subject to folk migrations, but islands were spared (because barbarians from the hinterland lack native skill on the sea?) As more Greek samples come in I suspect that Slavic admixture will be obvious, meaning Create and Cyprus (along with Sardinia)  represent more ‘authentic’ ancient Greek populations.

Note: I highly recommend Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.

  • GuestOfGuests

    What’s your take on the ancient Levant though? Since Cypriots cluster close to Druze and other Levantine populations after all.

    • razibkhan

      i think that ‘hellenization’ can happen through elite takeover. i think this happened in crete, and in cyprus, where the achaeans showed up late in the bronze age. also, these islands were insulated from slavic intrusions, and so are not as ‘north shifted.’

      • GuestOfGuests

        I second that, regarding the slavic intrusions though it seems some Turks (at least according to what I’ve seen on the 23andMe RF) also share IBD segments with Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians and other Slavs…
        I wonder where that could’ve come from :/

        • razibkhan

          u think rumelian turks were always turks??? 😉

          • GuestOfGuests

            I am referring to Anatolian Turks, not Rumelian Turks…

            I’ve spotted quite a few of them sharing IBD segments with Poles and other Slavs.

          • razibkhan

            a lot of the modern anatolian population in the cities derives from displaced rumelians. i am skeptical that the geneticists checked all four grandparents were born in anatolia. though i suppose there are turkmen tribes….

          • christopher_y

            Also the substrate will have included a lot of descents of “Indo-Hittite” speakers, Greek colonists around the coast and even the odd Gatatian, to provide the Celtic input.

  • razibkhan

    that’s what i meant

  • marcel proust

    populations seem to have hugged the northern and southern coasts as they pushed from the East

    I had not known that Egyptians had come from Asia (or that at least there is genetic evidence supporting this.[1] Can you provide details or point me to something to read about this?

    [1] no surprise, since I am not sufficiently well informed to stay au courant the latest (and not so late) findings.

  • razibkhan

    yes. justinian ii did this i believe.

  • Mercurio

    “As more Greek samples come in I suspect that Slavic admixture will be obvious, meaning Create and Cyprus (along with Sardinia) represent more ‘authentic’ ancient Greek populations.”

    Not that I give a damn, but if you take a step back and really read the aforementioned statement, all you’re really saying is that the Greeks of both Cyprus and Crete are “pure/undiluted Greeks” and that mainland Greeks are a bunch of “Slavo-Greek bastards” (you forgot the Albanians, Gypsies, Jews, polar bears, salamanders, and hedgehogs).

    I mean haven’t genetic studies of Greek populations (using large/substantial Greek samples) already shown that Slavic admixture in Greeks is minor? Yet, one IBD study comes out that uses a small number of Greek samples (less than 10) and all of a sudden Greece is caught in a bastard-laden “Svarog Soup”.

    But in all fairness (since I am a fan of your blog), your “suspicion” of “obvious” Slavic admixture in Greeks is nothing a little in-depth historical research on your end can cure. I mean it can hardly compete against Arnaiz-Villena’s “proving” that Greek and Japanese populations are genetically sub-Saharan (yes, Arnaiz-Villena’s trash-masquerading-as-scholarship still appears in “scientifically rigorous” peer-reviewed journals such as Tissue Antigens).

    Nevertheless, the study on the Minoans is fantastic and you are a superb blogger for informing your readers about the latest developments in genetic science. Please keep up the work and thanks for letting me comment.



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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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