Minoans Were Genetically European

This one is filling my box in various forms … here’s a UWashington press release via PhysOrg:

DNA analysis is unearthing the origins of the Minoans, who some 5,000 years ago established the first advanced Bronze Age civilization in present-day Crete. The findings suggest they arose from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier.

The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900’s named the Minoans after a legendary Greek king, Minos. Based on similarities between Minoan artifacts and those from Egypt and Libya, Evans proposed that the Minoan civilization founders migrated into the area from North Africa. Since then, other archaeologists have suggested that the Minoans may have come from other regions, possibly Turkey, the Balkans, or the Middle East.

Now, a team of researchers in the United States and Greece has used mitochondrial DNA analysis of Minoan skeletal remains to determine the likely ancestors of these ancient people.

Mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells, contain their own DNA, or genetic code. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to their children via the human egg, it contains information about maternal ancestry.

Results published May 14 in Nature Communications suggest that the Minoan civilization arose from the population already living in Bronze Age Crete. The findings indicate that these people probably were descendents of the first humans to reach Crete about 9,000 years ago, and that they have the greatest genetic similarity with modern European populations.

Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington professor of medicine and genome sciences, is the paper’s senior author. He believes that the data highlight the importance of DNA analysis as a tool for understanding human history.

“About 9,000 years ago,” he noted, “there was an extensive migration of Neolithic humans from the regions of Anatolia that today comprise parts of Turkey and the Middle East. At the same time, the first Neolithic inhabitants reached Crete.”

“Our mitochondrial DNA analysis shows that the Minoan’s strongest genetic relationships are with these Neolithic humans, as well as with ancient and modern Europeans,” he explained.

“These results suggest the Minoan civilization arose 5,000 years ago in Crete from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier,” he said. “Our data suggest that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.”

Stamatoyannopoulos, who directs the UW Markey Molecular Medicine Center and who formerly headed the UW Division of Medical Genetics in the Department of Medicine, added, “Genetic analyses are playing in increasingly important role and predicting and protecting human health. Our study underscores the importance of DNA not only in helping us to have healthier futures, but also to understand our past.”

Stamatoyannopoulos and his research team analyzed samples from 37 skeletons found in a cave in Crete’s Lassithi plateau and compared them with mitochondrial DNA sequences from 135 modern and ancient human populations. The Minoan samples revealed 21 distinct mitochondrial DNA variations, of which six were unique to the Minoans and 15 were shared with modern and ancient populations. None of the Minoans carried mitochondrial DNA variations characteristic of African populations.

Further analysis showed that the Minoans were only distantly related to Egyptian, Libyan, and other North African populations. The Minoan shared the greatest percentage of their mitochondrial DNA variation with European populations, especially those in Northern and Western Europe.

When plotted geographically, shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was lowest in North Africa and increased progressively across the Middle East, Caucasus, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, and mainland Europe. The highest percentage of shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was found with Neolithic populations from Southern Europe.

The analysis also showed a high degree of sharing with the current population of the Lassithi plateau and Greece. In fact, the maternal genetic information passed down through many generations of mitochondria is still present in modern-day residents of the Lassithi plateau.

Here’s the abstract from Nature, for those of you who like genetechy stuff:

The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years before present. Since Sir Arthur Evans exposed the Minoan civic centre of Knossos, archaeologists have speculated on the origin of the founders of the civilization. Evans proposed a North African origin; Cycladic, Balkan, Anatolian and Middle Eastern origins have also been proposed. Here we address the question of the origin of the Minoans by analysing mitochondrial DNA from Minoan osseous remains from a cave ossuary in the Lassithi plateau of Crete dated 4,400–3,700 years before present. Shared haplotypes, principal component and pairwise distance analyses refute the Evans North African hypothesis. Minoans show the strongest relationships with Neolithic and modern European populations and with the modern inhabitants of the Lassithi plateau. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis of an autochthonous development of the Minoan civilization by the descendants of the Neolithic settlers of the island.

… and just to make it more exciting, the article itself is free and can be downloaded from the above link! I suspect this study is going to spark a bit of discussion …

Not So Peaceful Minoans

The incipit of a piece from LiveScience … I don’t think this was part of the AIA/APA thing:

The civilization made famous by the myth of the Minotaur was as warlike as their bull-headed mascot, new research suggests.

The ancient people of Crete, also known as Minoan, were once thought to be a bunch of peaceniks. That view has become more complex in recent years, but now University of Sheffield archaeologist Barry Molloy says that war wasn’t just a part of Minoan society — it was a defining part.

Logo of the University of Sheffield

Logo of the University of Sheffield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Ideologies of war are shown to have permeated religion, art, industry, politics and trade, and the social practices surrounding martial traditions were demonstrably a structural part of how this society evolved and how they saw themselves,” Molloy said in a statement.

The ancient Minoans

Crete is the largest Greek isle and the site of thousands of years of civilization, including the Minoans, who dominated during the Bronze Age, between about 2700 B.C. and 1420 B.C. They may have met their downfall with a powerful explosion of the Thera volcano, which based on geological evidence seems to have occurred around this time.

The Minoans are perhaps most famous for the myth of the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull that lived in the center of a labyrinth on the island.

Minoan artifacts were first excavated more than a century ago, Molloy said, and archaeologists painted a picture of a peaceful civilization where war played little to no role. Molloy doubted these tales; Crete was home to a complex society that traded with major powers such as Egypt, he said. It seemed unlikely they could reach such heights entirely cooperatively, he added.

“As I looked for evidence for violence, warriors or war, it quickly became obvious that it could be found in a surprisingly wide range of places,” Molloy said.

War or peace?

For example, weapons such as daggers and swords show up in Minoan sanctuaries, graves and residences, Molloy reported in November in The Annual of the British School at Athens. Combat sports were popular for men, including boxing, hunting, archery and bull-leaping, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Hunting scenes often featured shields and helmets, Molloy found, garb more suited to a warrior’s identity than to a hunter’s. Preserved seals and stone vessels show daggers, spears and swordsmen. Images of double-headed axes and boar’s tusk helmets are also common in Cretian art, Molloy reported. […]

We mentioned a couple of years ago how dispelling the “flower children” image of the Minoans seems to be an incipient topic of research (Questioning the Pax Minoica?). In case you miss it, Dr Molloy’s ABSA article is up at Academia.edu: Martial Minoans: War as social process, practice and event in Bronze Age Crete

Digging Zominthos

Folks might be aware that one of Archaeology Magazine’s ‘Interactive Digs’ is a Minoan site at Zominthos … they’ve been digging there for seven or eight years and have just started putting up the ‘field notes’ for this year’s installment. Most of the brief notes so far have a (raw) video clip accompanying them:

Rethinking Minoan Destruction

While looking for something else, I chanced upon this column in the Seismological Society of America newsletter (July/August 2012) … here’s the first paragraph as a bit of a tease:

Since its discovery in the beginning of the twentieth century by British archaeologist Arthur Evans, the Bronze Age (Minoan) civilization of Crete (Greece, ca. 3000–1200 B.C.) received considerable scholarly, scientific, and popular attention (e.g., Papadopoulos, 2005). Although subject to critique and revision (e.g., Hamilakis, 2002), Evans’s ideas and hypotheses about Minoan society remain remarkably central to modern archaeological research on the island (e.g., Schoep, 2010). The recognition of the disruptive effects of earthquakes on Minoan society represents one of Evans’s enduring legacies. Earthquakes have been considered as responsible for the successive destructions of the palace of Knossos (Evans, 1928) and as convenient time markers for Minoan archaeological periods (e.g., Driessen, 1987). Nowadays, they are often seen by Minoan archaeologists as an unattractive explanatory concept (Cadogan, 2011), at least when divorced from their wider social, political, and economic contexts (e.g., Driessen and Macdonald, 1997). Fear of catastrophism, undesirable use of deus ex machina phenomena, and resistance to Occam’s razor (lex parsimoniae) as a heuristic guide to archaeological explanation partly account for this situation. The ambiguous value of Minoan archaeological remains as indicators of ancient earthquakes may also have played a role: although damage typologies have been put forward in Greek archaeological contexts (Stiros, 1996), their applicability to Minoan earthen and rubble constructions is often limited. As a result, recognition of ancient earthquake damage on Minoan archaeological sites is frequently based on isolated observations (e.g., Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellaraki, 1981; Vallianou, 1996; Monaco and Tortorici, 2004) and limited archaeological/palaeoenvironmental evidence (e.g., Gorokhovich, 2005), thereby perpetuating a catastrophist research tradition initiated by Evans more than a century ago. In the current context of increased scientific and scholarly interest in evaluating the role of archaeological data in seismotectonic studies, we feel that the time is ripe to critically evaluate the nature of Minoan archaeological data and assess their significance as indicators of ancient earthquakes. Getting to grips with the Minoan case may provide us with a new methodological basis for assessing the archaeoseismological potential of comparable archaeological stratigraphical contexts in the Eastern Mediterranean (Bronze Age Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, and Levant) and in other parts of the world where cultural remains mainly consist of earthen and/or rubble constructions (e.g., Indus valley civilization and American Indian cultures). […]

Questioning the Pax Minoica?

A team of archaeologists have discovered a fortification system at the Minoan town of Gournia, a discovery which rebukes the popular myth that the Minoans were a peaceful society with no need for defensive structures.

The team’s efforts were led by Professor Vance Watrous and Matt Buell of the University at Buffalo. Located on the north coast, Gournia was in use during the neo-palatial period (ca. 1700-1450 BC), when Minoan civilization was at its height. The town sits atop a low ridge with four promontories on its coastline. Two of these promontories end in high vertical cliffs that give the town a defensive advantage, and it is here that the fortification system was discovered.

The team weren’t able to excavate the area, and so relied on photography, drawing and surveying to identify the fortifications. The eastern-most promontory had a heavy wall that was about 27 meters long. Beside it the team found a semi-circular platform of stone, almost nine meters in diameter, which they believe is the remains of a tower or bastion. The other fortified promontory had a two meter thick wall, running east-west, “as if to close off access from the sea,” said Buell.

The other two promontories slope gently down to the shore, and would have provided easy access to the town. “It was on these two promontories”, said Professor Watrous, “that the Minoans built structures.”

The town consists of around 60 tightly-packed houses, a ship shed, and a small palace in the centre, and archaeologists have discovered evidence of wine making, bronze-working and stone-working at the site. “Gournia gives you, the visitor, a real feeling of what an Aegean town was actually like. Walking up the streets, past the houses, you feel like you’ve been transported into the past,” said Buell.

In addition to the beach fortifications, it also appears that the Minoans built a second line of defence further inland. Heading back from the beach, there were two walls, together running about 180 meters east to west. Backed by a tower, or bastion, the walls would have posed a formidable challenge to any invader trying to march into the town.

Defenders manning this system of fortification would have rained projectiles down on attackers, by using bows and slings. The walls had stone foundations and were made of mud brick, making them sturdy enough to stand on.

It’s an open question as to whether the people guarding the fortifications were part of a militia or something more organized. There was “definitely a body of men who would have had that duty but we don’t know exactly what they were like,” said Professor Watrous.

Tombs uncovered by Hawes and other excavators have shown people buried with swords. Watrous said that there was one particular tomb that produced an entire collection of daggers, swords and other items.

However, Gournia’s fortifications did not prevent the town’s demise. The town fell around 1450 BC, along with other Minoan settlements. A new group called the Mycenaean appeared on Crete at this time, taking over the island.

Watrous said that Mycenaeans probably avoided attacking the town by sea. “Many other settlements were destroyed at the same time. My guess is that they just came along the land; they didn’t have to come up from the sea”.

He cannot say for sure if the town defences were ever actually put to their intended use. Any evidence of a battle near these fortifications, such as weapons or bodies, would be underground, and excavation would have to be carried out to see if they exist.

One thing that excavators can say is that the people of Gournia had something worth fighting for. Many of the goods they made – such as the wine and the bronze implements – were for export, suggesting that the people had some level of wealth.

via Crete fortifications debunk myth of peaceful Minoan society | The Independent (Owen Jarus).

Can’t tell from the article whether the ‘debunking the peaceful Minoan’ thing is something Watrous and Buell are bringing up or whether it is the journalist. FWIW, this seems to be flying in the face of some unfortified evidence from the same basic period which we mentioned a couple of years ago. While more folks seem to be questioning the ‘hippy flower children’ view of the Minoans, the question of how ‘peace-loving’ they actually were still seems to be an incipient topic of research