The Kings of Minos were not Pharaohs


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in Nature Communications, A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete, addresses an old and frankly somewhat outdated question: whether the first European literate civilization derived from a transplantation from Egypt, or was autochthonous.

I say that this is a somewhat outdated test because the modern proponent of this theory, Arthur Evans, lived a century ago, when our understanding of pre-Classical antiquity (i.e., the world before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 ┬ásubject 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) ┬árepresent more ‘authentic’ ancient Greek populations.

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

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