When the ancestors were cyclops


The Greeks are important because Western civilization began with Greece. And therefore modern civilization. I don’t think the Greeks were “Western” truly; my own preference is to state that the West as we understand it is really just Latin Christendom, which emerged in the late first millennium A.D. in any coherent fashion. Yet without Classical Greece and its accomplishments the West wouldn’t make any sense.

But here I have to stipulate Classical, because Greeks existed before the Classical period. That is, a people who spoke a language that was recognizably Greek and worshipped gods recognizable to the Greeks of the Classical period. But these Greeks were not proto-Western in any way. These were the Mycenaeans, a Bronze Age civilization which flourished in the Aegean in the centuries before the cataclysms outlined in 1177 B.C.

The issue with the Mycenaean civilization is that its final expiration in the 11th century ushered in a centuries long Dark Age. During this period the population of Greece seems to have declined, and society reverted to a more simple structure. By the time the Greeks emerged from this Dark Age much had changed. For example, they no longer used Linear B writing. Presumably this technique was passed down along lineages of scribes, whose services were no longer needed, because the grand warlords of the Bronze Age were no longer there to patronize them and make use of their skills. In its stead the Greeks modified the alphabet of the Phoenicians.

To be succinct the Greeks had to learn civilization all over again. The barbarian interlude had broken continuous cultural memory between the Mycenaeans and the Greeks of the developing polises of the Classical period. The fortifications of the Mycenaeans were assumed by their Classical descendants to be the work of a lost race which had the aid of monstrous cyclops.

Of course not all memories were forgotten. Epic poems such as The Iliad retained the memory of the past through the centuries. The list of kings who sailed to Troy actually reflected the distribution of power in Bronze Age Greece, while boar’s tusk helmets mentioned by Homer were typical of the period. To be sure, much of the detail in Homer seems more reflective of a simpler society of petty warlords, so the nuggets of memory are encased in later lore accrued over the centuries.

When antiquarians and archaeologists began to take a look at the Bronze Age Aegean the assumption by many was that the Mycenaeans were not Greek, but extensions of the earlier Minoan civilization. The whole intellectual history here is outlined in Michael Wood’s 1980s documentary In Search of the Trojan War. But suffice it to say that many were shocked when Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B, and found that it was clearly Greek!

The surprise here was partly due to the fact that though Mycenaean cultural remains indicated a different civilization from that of the Minoans, its motifs are clearly inherited from the earlier group. Mycenaeans seemed in many ways to be Minoans in chariots. And the presumption has long been that the Minoans themselves were not an Indo-European population. In fact, the island of Crete had developed early on and become part of the orbit of civilized states from the northern Levant down to Egypt, including Cyprus. Therefore some scholars hypothesized an Egyptian connection.

In any case, the Mycenaeans were Greek. And Homer then most certainly must have transmitted traditions which went back to the Bronze Age.

At this point we can now speak to demographics with some data, as Nature has come out with a paper using ancient DNA from Mycenaeans, Minoans, as well as Bronze Age Anatolians, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans:

The origins of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. We have assembled genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals, including Minoans from Crete, Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and their eastern neighbours from southwestern Anatolia. Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean12, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus3 and Iran45. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia678, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe1,69 or Armenia49. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. Our results support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations.

About 85% of the ancestry of the Minoan samples could be modeled as being derived from Anatolian farmers, the ancestors of the “Early European Farmers” (EEF) that introduced agriculture to most of the continent, and whose heritage is most clear in modern populations among Sardinians. For the three Mycenaean samples the value is closer to 80% (though perhaps high 70s is more accurate).

Now the question though is what’s the balance? For the Minoans the residual is a component which seems to derive from “Eastern Farmer” populations. Additionally the authors note that the Y chromosomes in four out of five individuals in their Mycenaean-Minoan-Anatolians are haplogroup J associated with these eastern groups, rather than the ubiquitous G2 of the earlier farmer populations. The authors suggest that in the 4th millennium B.C. there was a demographic event where this ancestral component swept west, and served as the common Mycenaean-Minoan (and Anatolian) substrate.

But the Mycenaean samples (one of which was elite, two of which were not) also have a third component: affinities with steppe populations. One model which presents itself is that there was a pulse out of the Balkans, and this was part of the dynamic described in Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. But another model, which they could not reject, is that the steppe affinity came from the east, perhaps from a proto-Armenian population. Additionally, they did not find much steppe ancestry in the Anatolian samples at all.

My own preference is for a migration through the Balkans. It seems relatively straightforward. As for why the Anatolian samples did not have the steppe ancestry, the authors provide the reasonable supposition that Indo-European in Anatolia branched off first, and the demographic signal was diluted over successor generations. Perhaps. But another aspect of Anatolia is that it seems the Hittites, the Nesa, where never a numerous population in comparison to the Hatti amongst whom they lived. Perhaps a good model for their rise and takeover may be that of the post-Roman West and the Franks in Gaul.

Then the question becomes how does a less numerous people impose their language on a more numerous one? This happens. See the Hungarians for an example. In fact the paper which covered the other end of the Mediterranean, The population genomics of archaeological transition in west Iberia: Investigation of ancient substructure using imputation and haplotype-based methods, suggests that language shift can occur in unpredictable ways. On the one hand Basques seem to have mostly Indo-European Y chromosomes, but their whole genome ancestry indicates less exogenous input than their neighbors. Speaking of which, we know by the Classical period large regions of western Spain were dominated by Celtic speaking peoples, but  the genetic imprint of the Indo-Europeans is still very modest in the Iberian peninsula.

I think what we’re seeing here is the difference between Indo-European agro-pastoralists arriving to a landscape of relatively simple societies with more primal institutions, and those who migrated into regions where local population densities are higher and social complexity is also greater. This higher social complexity means that external elites can takeover a system, as opposed to an almost animal competition for resources as seems to have occurred in Northern Europe.

Finally, at the end of the supplements there is an analysis of the physical features of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. There’s not much that’s surprising. The Minoans and Mycenaeans were a dark haired and dark eyed folk. Why should this surprise us at all? We actually have self representations of them! That’s what they look like. If anything they were darker than modern Greeks (small sample size means power to draw conclusions is not high). Why?

Two reasons that come to mind: natural selection, and the fact that modern Greeks seem to be shifted to continental Europeans to their north, likely due to migration. My number one contender here are the Scalveni Slavic tribes which pushed into much of Greece in the second half of the 6th century A.D. (though a minority of Greek samples I’ve seen don’t exhibit much skew toward Slavs at all).

In the future with more samples and more genomes we’ll know more. But I think this work emphasizes that when it comes to Europe most of the demographic patterns we see around us date to the Bronze Age or earlier.

18 thoughts on “When the ancestors were cyclops

  1. Mr. Khan,

    I’d like to thank you for the two blog entries about Greece and China, respectively. They were very informative.

    By the way, do you intend to blog about or otherwise mention in an open thread the article regarding America’s “warrior caste”? If so, I’ll wait to make some observations. If not, let me just point out briefly that they are not feoderati, but what Steve Sailer calls “core Americans.” They’d be feoderati if they were mostly Hispanic (at the officer and, even more so, general officer levels).

  2. You had mentioned previously that you thought you needed to go back and look at Ancient Greek history. Here are some things that I found helpful:

    Jeremy McInerney, Ancient Greek Civilization (Great Courses lectures)
    Jeremy McInerney, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age (Great Courses lectures)

    Herodotus, Histories translated by Robin Waterfield
    Thucydides, The The Peloponnesian War translated by Rex Warner
    Plutarch, On Sparta (Penguin)
    Plutarch, Greek Lives, selection translated by Robin Waterfield

    John R. Hale, The Greek and Persian Wars (Great Courses lectures)
    Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Great Courses lectures)
    Kenneth Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Great Courses lectures)

    Paul A. Rahe, The Spartan Regime
    Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia

    Anthony Everitt, The Rise of Athens
    Jeremy McInerney, The Age of Pericles (Great Courses lectures)

    Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon
    Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great

    Herodotus, Thucydides and Plutarch are all fun to read, so I thought I’d include them in with the modern works.

    I find listening to audio lectures while I drive, do chores, play with the daughter etc. is an efficient way to get information. McInerney, Harl and especially Vandiver from the Great Courses company are excellent lecturers.

  3. More on the cultural side:

    Paul Cartledge, The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others
    Anthony Andrewes, Greek Society
    M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus.

    Robert Garland, Daily Life in Ancient Greece
    M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology
    M.I. Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece

    Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity
    K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (get an earlier edition)

    Elizabeth Vandiver, Classical Mythology (Great Courses lectures)
    Jenny March, The Penguin Book of Classical Myth
    Walter Burkert, Greek Religion
    E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational

    Elizabeth Vandiver, The Iliad (Great Courses lectures)
    Elizabeth Vandiver, The Odyssey (Great Courses lectures)
    Elizabeth Vandiver, Greek Tragedy (Great Courses lectures)
    Peter J. Leithart, Heroes of the City of Man

    David Roochnik, Introduction to Greek Philosophy (Great Courses lectures)
    Michael Sugrue, Plato, Socrates and the Dialogues (Great Courses lectures)
    David Roochnik, Plato’s The Republic (Great Courses lectures)
    Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction
    Jonathan Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand
    Christopher Shields, Aristotle

    G.E.R. Lloyd, Early Greek Science

    —–

    If you’re interested in Greek mythology, Jenny March’s book is the best compilation: spare, comprehensive, compulsively readable. Vandiver’s Classical Mythology course contain a good balance of retelling and interpretation. The original sources like Hesiod, Homer and the Athenian dramatists are great, but can be cryptic and often have big gaps. They don’t have much on Hercules, for example.

    As with most philosophy, if you want to understand what the Greeks were up to and why it is relevant, I’d recommend going with secondary sources first over primary sources. For example, a good part of what Plato and Aristotle were up to was battling the Sophists, the equivalent of today’s postmodernists (see Sugrue and Lear). Plato also had a lot to say about the tendency of democracy to descend into a shallow youth culture (Roochnik on the Republic).

  4. In IE studies there are some indications that Ancient Greek can be grouped together with Indo-Iranian and Armenian (even if this grouping straddles the Centum-Satem isogloss), so a possible closer relation with Armenians is exciting.

    How did the Iranian Neolithic genes get to Europe? I thought that the agricultural expansion brought in only Anatolian/Western Levantine material.

  5. In all honesty this result was surprising to me. I expected much greater discontinuity between Minoans and the Greek speakers.

    Iosif Lazaridis was emphasizing this continuity since Minoan times and downplaying the steppe admixture: https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/dna-analysis-traces-origins-of-minoans-and-mycenaeans. “So, you could think as the gene pool of Greece as an evolving painting in which each generation adds its own brushstroke without erasing the work of the past generations.”

    It seems like an entire language replacement is hardly just a brushstroke!

    Same with Colin Renfrew, who has of course been arguing about continuity in Greece for decades: “The spread of farming populations was the decisive moment when the major elements of the Greek population were already provided,” says archaeologist Colin Renfrew”
    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/08/greeks-really-do-have-near-mythical-origins-ancient-dna-reveals

    I think this paper will add ammunition to “Proto-Indo European=Steppe” sceptics. Can a people really turnover their entire language with minimal genetic input? Why do the newly conquering elites who impose their language completely forget about their origins and embrace the local culture and myths?

    The answer certainly seems to be “yes”, but the process is not clear to me.

    Two more questions in my mind:
    1. Who are these Zagros farmers who spread to India and Greece? What did they speak?
    2. Will ancient DNA from India reveal a similar story or much greater Steppe input in the Bronze Age?

  6. Could have the Zagros farmers mixed with Proto-Indo-Greeks on the steppe before they went their separate ways? Did Harrapans have more or less Zagros DNA than modern South Asians?

    The indigenous language of Zagros (in the third millennium) was Elamite, but relation with any ancient Mesopotamian language, modern Caucasian language or Dravidian wouldn’t surprise me.

  7. How did the Iranian Neolithic genes get to Europe? I thought that the agricultural expansion brought in only Anatolian/Western Levantine material.

    there was reciprocal east-west gene flow in the near east in 4th millennium. it’s in the farmer paper. the pulse into aegean probably from anatolia so not 100% east. so the fraction probably higher than 15% of newcomers. perhaps 30%. (assuming 50/50 mix, though probably they were more anatolian than eastern).

  8. Can a people really turnover their entire language with minimal genetic input? Why do the newly conquering elites who impose their language completely forget about their origins and embrace the local culture and myths?

    For a more recent example, examine the history of the Mongol elites in much of their conquests, especially among the Turkic peoples.

  9. “Lazaridis was emphasizing this continuity since Minoan times and downplaying the steppe admixture: https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/dna-analysis-traces-origins-of-minoans-and-mycenaeans. “So, you could think as the gene pool of Greece as an evolving painting in which each generation adds its own brushstroke without erasing the work of the past generations.”

    It seems like an entire language replacement is hardly just a brushstroke!”

    The steppe admixture of Mycenaeans in connection with that language shift is about the same in magnitude as (or perhaps a bit larger than) the Turkish admixture associated with the language shift in Anatolia to the Turkish language, and much greater than the demic admixture of the Magyars who caused language shift in Hungary.

    RE Armenian. I think that the only way to fairly understand the origins of Armenia is to see it as experiencing areal contributions from IE languages on either side of it from very diverged branches of the IE language family, rather than trying to pin it to just one branch. It is the prototypical Ewok village case of the IE language family tree.

  10. I don’t think we know with great precision how much demic change was really involved in the “Turkification” of Anatolia. The model of a small minority with a high level of Mongolian-like ancestry with a large Anatolian population may not be accurate.

    If the population influx was a population who had kept their Turkic language but shifted to a mostly West Asian autosome, and the population shift may be of proportions more alike to the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England (IRC 30%, possibly some male bias in the proportion). Another one for ancient dna.

    (Similar thing may be true for Magyar, but substitute Turkic for Finno-Ugric and West Asian for Eastern European).

    Plus in this environment there might be an the effect of Turkish being able to be the lingua franca over a linguistically diverse population.

    Similarly, Greek to Mycenaeans may be more to do with a 50% movement by a proximate population that had approx 20% steppe, as looks likely to exist in the Balkans of the Bronze Age and is tenable in Anatolia, rather than any kind of elite population able to “impose” a language.

  11. Read the Iliad fairly recently, and was struck by how many characters were described as blond or light hair and eyes. Seems odd given the location. Old Homer must have had a few local examples in mind when he described them.

  12. I don’t think we know with great precision how much demic change was really involved in the “Turkification” of Anatolia. The model of a small minority with a high level of Mongolian-like ancestry with a large Anatolian population may not be accurate.

    i think it had to be high, the sejulks moved into anatolia in the late 11th after only a few centuries traversing turan & iran. groups like turkmens are quite high in east asian fraction today, and that’s after ~1,000 years.

    Read the Iliad fairly recently, and was struck by how many characters were described as blond or light hair and eyes. Seems odd given the location. Old Homer must have had a few local examples in mind when he described them.

    one hypothesis is that the archetypes in the stories are quite old. pre-dating even mycenae. if so, they may reflect phenotypes which were prevalent in the balkans before they arrived in greece.

    but yes, it’s pretty striking when you read it. another explanation could be ascertainment bias due to salience.

  13. @Razib, IRC from ADMIXTURE runs Turkmens≈30 today, Turkish≈6-10 (depending on subpopulation and method). I see what you mean, you could well be right, but I don’t know much about their demographic history. Not totally impossible that a lot happened in a few centuries then not much change after that (e.g. if it’s a small Turkic population amongst much larger ones = more bringing outside females / males in to the group). eventually dna will sort this stuff out finally.

  14. i did some rereading. the seljuks were pre-muslim occupying area btwn caspian and aral in 1000. they were pushing into anatolia by the end of the 1000s (after manzikert in 1071).

    the turkmens not good proxies. kazakh or kyrgyz would be far better for how ‘uncooked’ the seljuks were. they really didn’t spend much time in iran and turan before shifting focus to anatolia.

    so definitely i am mildly confident they’d be majority east asian like the kyrgyz, though if they picked up older turkic speaking groups in iran that would drop it some.

    (last plot)
    http://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2014/08/13/005850.full.pdf

  15. Spaniards steppe IE input is about 25-30% I wouldn’t call that “very modest levels”…And this also gels well with their 70% R1b

  16. @Razib, fair enough, if the early Seljuk do turn out to be 60% East Asian, like Kazakhs then the contribution would be around 15% direct to Anatolia then seems like the model we would have to think about elite dominance (or some process where the Seljuks were numerically or socially dominant during actual real interactions anyway, even if they weren’t so numerous). For now this seems like as far as this can go.

    @jastt, on the autosomal side, Bell Beaker is roughly 50:50 Early Bronze Age Steppe:European Farmer, so you would need a mix of 50:50 Iberian Copper Age:Bell Beaker to get to the 75% Steppe and 25% Neolithic Farmer on the autosome, which Spaniards seem to have.

    Still, I probably wouldn’t call 50% influx modest levels.

    However, will also say in Spain if you we simply had 50:50 Bell Iberian Copper Age:Bell Beaker, you’d expect get y-dna of roughly 35:15:50 I2:G:R1b. Whereas actually I think we have 70% R1b and much more diversity going on for the remainder (substantial J2, E3b, etc. and I2 and G not at any particular prominence). So later migrations from Italy/Greece/Balkans/North Africa and some kind of social process of founder effects or something will matter.

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