On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age

Today Nature published an article entitled “Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans“; it already seems to be circulating through the media (e.g., here, here, and here). I managed to get a hold of the article and thought that a quick response was in order. Some caveats: I’m an archaeologist and Linear B specialist, not a geneticist at all, so I’m going to assume that the genetics side of the article isn’t problematic. I’ll just be responding as an archaeologist who’s interested in the results and their analysis.

First, there’s not much new here. I mean, the data are new, but the conclusions are largely consistent with the archaeological consensus: there’s no big genetic difference between “Minoans” (Late Bronze Age Cretans) and “Mycenaeans” (Late Bronze Age inhabitants of the Greek mainland), and both are pretty close genetically to Late Bronze Age southwestern Anatolians:

This analysis showed that all Bronze Age populations from the Aegean and Anatolia are consistent with deriving most (approximately 62–86%) of their ancestry from an Anatolian Neolithic-related population (Table 1). However, they also had a component (approximately 9–32%) of ‘eastern’ (Caucasus/Iran-related) ancestry. It was previously shown that this type of ancestry was introduced into mainland Europe via Bronze Age pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe, who were a mix of both eastern European hunter–gatherers and populations from the Caucasus and Iran; our results show that it also arrived on its own, at least in the Minoans, without eastern European hunter–gatherer ancestry. This ancestry need not have arrived from regions east of Anatolia, as it was already present during the Neolithic in central Anatolia…

Genetically, the sampled “Mycenaean” individuals had 4-16% of their ancestry from a “northern” source connected to eastern Europe and Siberia, but generally “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” were genetically homogeneous.

This doesn’t seem to me to be particularly shocking. I do wonder about the sample sizes, though. The new data are from 19 ancient individuals, 11 from Crete, 4 from the LBA mainland, 1 Neolithic individual from the Mani, and 3 BA individuals from Harmanören Göndürle in southwestern Anatolia.

I do think that some opportunities were missed here. The article specifically positions itself as investigating the origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The authors do pose the question “do the labels ‘Minoan’ and ‘Mycenaean’ correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time?” but in the end there is no question of doubting that these cultural historical labels are meaningful and even have a genetic basis. Minoans were like this, Mycenaeans were like that.

Indeed, the article generally embraced the early-20th century intellectual inheritance of culture-history. A sentence like this

migrants from areas east or north of the Aegean, while numerically less influential than the locals, may have contributed to the emergence of the third to second millennium BC Bronze Age cultures as ‘creative disruptors’ of local traditions, bearers of innovations, or through cultural interaction with the locals, coinciding with the genetic process of admixture

is perfectly at home in the pre-WW II writings of Gordon Childe or some of the more traditional ideas of Aegean prehistorians prior to the war, but these ideas have been subjected to savage and devastating critiques since the 1960s. It is odd, and a little disturbing, to read in 2017 that “Relative ancestral contributions do not determine the relative roles in the rise of civilization of the different ancestral populations.” (I keep re-reading that sentence and it is far from clear what it actually means).

On a final note, I kept thinking while reading this article that many Greeks will certainly welcome the conclusion that the modern populations most similar to the Mycenaeans are Greeks, Cypriots, Italians, and Albanians. I can easily imagine many taxi rides in Athens where I talk to the drivers about this article. This occurred to me because I’ve been reading Johanna Hanink’s excellent The Classical Debt, in which she discusses (among many other things) the fury that Fallmerayer still provokes in Greece. (For those who aren’t aware, this is the guy who argued in the early 19th century that “Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece,” and I’ve had dozens of taxi rides where we talk about him and how terrible a person he was). That part of ancient genetics always gives me a little bit of pause; it can reinforce the tendency to think of people and communities in the past as belonging to well-defined nations defined by blood. Or, as Eric Wolf put it in Europe and the People Without History:

By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies, or cultures with the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the world as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls.

The article in question doesn’t seem to have a problem with the “billard ball” way of thinking. The article ends with “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” safely intact, δόξα τω Θεώ. The last sentence proclaims that “the Greeks did not emerge fully formed from the depths of prehistory, but were, indeed, a people ‘ever in the process of becoming'” (citing here JL Myres’ 1930 book Who were the Greeks?). Sure, I guess; I don’t know anyone who really thinks that they did emerge like Athena, fully armed, from her father’s head. But so what? Are these really the best questions we can ask?


10 thoughts on “On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age

  1. Jack Davis

    Thanks for this post, Dimitri. [I made some of the same points to one of the authors 18 months ago.] Why still can’t we see good archaeology and anthropology working in alliance with good geneticists? As much as we have cried for truly interdisciplinary research over so many decades now, we have such a long way to go. By the way, my own genetic testing recently concluded that I am 10% Greek. Is this useful in understanding my career and choice of research specialization? [Just thought I’d mention it.]

  2. Michael Sokoloski

    •I enjoyed the VG Childe reference
    •my understanding is that the Minoans were Pre-Indo-Europeans (Old Europeans, vis-á-vis Gimbutas), and that the Mycenaeans were IE
    •agree that the Bronze Age DNA sample is insufficient
    •I also enjoyed the implied Renfrew reference

    1. nakassis Post author

      Hi Michael: thanks! The Mycenaeans certainly spoke (or wrote, at least) an Indo-European language; since the other Cretan scripts (Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A) are undeciphered it’s anyone’s guess what kind of language the people of Crete spoke (at least, prior to the development of Linear B, which almost certainly happened on Crete). Linguists and geneticists seem more confident in an influx of IE speakers into Europe ca. 4500 years ago (https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v522/n7555/full/nature14317.html) than archaeologists are. Personally I find the conflation of genetics, language and cultural identity pretty disturbing.

      1. Michael Sokoloski

        It would be fascinating if the trajectory of the Mycenaeans and Dorians could be traced from the PIE Urheimat as clearly as that of the Indo-Iranians, i.e. the Afanasievo-Andronovo-Yamnaya progression.

        I think of the Minoans as Renfrew’s Pre-Proto-Indo-European Eneolithic/ early Bronze Age founders; they have not yet proven to be IE, but rather, more likely the descendants of Neolithic Farmers.

        The results of mtDNA are not at all in conflict with linguistics, as R1a is to R1b as the Satem branch is to the Centum. I agree that conflation can be the easy way out; however, when disciplines dovetail, it is a lovely thing to behold.

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  4. Double Helix

    From my perspective, a great deal of post-war archaeology was an attempt to present a view of pre-history that was more “palatable”. Genetics is showing us the real story, whether some people like it or not.

    1. nakassis Post author

      You are welcome to your perspective but it is not accurate. There is nothing in this study which is new to anyone with a passing knowledge of the period in question.

      1. Afterthought

        Double Helix was speaking broadly, not confining himself to this particular study. I’ll be more direct than Double Helix; the marching orders to the academy was “anything but Aryans”. Another marching order was “anything but human inequality.”

        That’s the funny thing about your reaction to the paper, despite not understanding the genetics; you are awfully keen to tell us that the differences between Mycenaeans and Minoans are a figment of the imagination, and whatever the differences were, it wasn’t Aryans!

        Science and politics don’t mix. Truth is too precious to be sacrificed to the back and forth of the political tides.

      2. nakassis Post author

        I wasn’t keen to tell you anything. I never made any such claim in my blog post, actually. It seems to me that you’re more interested in projecting onto my blog post an argument that I’m not making. If you want to have a serious argument, that’s fine. “Science and politics don’t mix” — that’s middle school stuff, man.

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