Some of Europe’s earliest traces of civilization are found in modern Greece along the Aegean sea. During the Bronze Age, two prominent archaeological cultures emerged in the Aegean. The culture of the island of Crete, sometimes referred to as ‘Minoan’, was Europe’s first literate civilization, and has been described as ‘Europe’s first major experience of civilization’. However, the Linear A syllabic ideographic and Cretan hieroglyphic scripts used by this culture remain undeciphered, obscuring its origins. Equally important was the civilization of the ‘Mycenaean’ culture of mainland Greece, whose language, written in the Linear B script, was an early form of Greek. But where did these civilizations come from and who were these people that build some of the first civilizations in Europe?
Scholars have long debated the origins of the Greeks whose language, like that of the Armenians, belongs to the Indo-European family tree. Robert Drews in his book The Coming of the Greeks (1988) described how the ancestors of the Greeks came to Europe from the Armenian Plateau bringing with them their Indo-European language and their inventions of chariot riding and horse breeding.
It is certain that the inhabitants of the forested areas of Armenia very early became accomplished woodworkers, and it now appears that in the second millennium they produced spoked-wheel vehicles that served as models as far away as China. And we have long known that from the second millennium onward, Armenia was important for the breeding of horses. It is thus not surprising to find that what clues we have suggest that chariot warfare was pioneered in eastern Anatolia. Finally, our picture of what the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) speakers did, and when, owes much to the recently proposed hypothesis that the homeland of the PIE speakers was Armenia.
Indeed one of several theories on the origins of the Indo-European language places its homeland in the Armenian Highlands. A prominent genetics study into the Indo-European homeland (Haak et. al, 2015) confirmed the possibility for such a scenario:
The Armenian plateau hypothesis gains in plausibility by the fact that we have discovered evidence of admixture in the ancestry of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists, including gene flow from a population of Near Eastern ancestry for which Armenians today appear to be a reasonable surrogate.
Some of the world’s oldest traces of human transition from hunting gathering to farming, can be found on the Armenian Highlands. It is therefore not a surprise that many scholars believe that the Indo-European language originated on this Highland. Similar observations have been made regarding early European art and its similarities with ancient Armenian art.
Common ancestry for the Armenians and the Greeks have long been hypothesized by both ancient historians and modern linguists. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (440 BC) believed that Armenians had Greek ancestry being related to Phrygian colonists. Several linguists have similarly proposed a Graeco-Armenian language hypothesis based on similarities between the Greek and Armenian language. Professors at the University of Auckland Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson (2003) equally supports a Graeco-Armenian subgroup and dated the split between the Armenian and Greek languages to 7000 years ago.
As science progresses however studies investigating ancient DNA offer a more comprehensive understanding of the past based on genetics of ancient and modern people.
A brand new DNA study on the Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, published in Nature magazine and led by Iosif Lazaridis (2017), a population geneticist at Harvard University, has shed much needed light on the origins of the ancient Greek civilizations.
They have tested the DNA of 19 ancient individuals. 10 Minoans from Crete dated to approximately 2900-1700 BC, 4 Mycenaeans from mainland Greece (approximately 1700-1200 BC), 1 individual from a village interestingly called Armenoi (Greek: Αρμένοι for Armenians) in western Crete (approximately 1370-1340 BC), 1 sample from the southern Peloponnese (about 5400 BC), and 3 Bronze Age (2800–1800 BC) individuals from Harmanören Göndürle in southwestern Anatolia (modern Turkey).
The researchers further assessed data of 332 other ancient individuals from previous studies and 2616 present-day individuals.
The study revealed that the ancestors of the Greeks, the ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically related to one another and trace their origins from the ancient people of Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands.
The Minoans and Mycenaeans, sampled from different sites in Crete and mainland Greece, were homogeneous, supporting the genetic coherency of these two groups. Differences between them were modest, viewed against their broad overall similarity to each other and to the southwestern Anatolians, sharing in both the ‘local’ Anatolian Neolithic-like farmer ancestry and the ‘eastern’ Caucasus-related admixture. – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
The bulk of their DNA seems to have come from the so called Neolithic Anatolian Farmers who swept across Anatolia during the Neolithic revolution into Europe. Much of the rest of their genetics is traced to the east of Anatolia.
Especially during the Bronze Age when the more advanced and creative civilizations were formed, the Armenian genetic influx appears to be the strongest, prompting the authors of the study to call them “bearers of innovations”:
“[Mycenaeans] can only be modelled as a 2-way mixture of Neolithic Anatolia and Chalcolithic or Middle/Late Bronze Armenia. This suggests that Mycenaeans could be a mixture of early Neolithic people (represented by the Neolithic Anatolian population) and further input from the east related to populations of Armenia.” – Lazaridis et. al (2017) Supplementary Information
Considering that the ancestral homeland of Armenians encompasses a large portion of Eastern Anatolia, Northern Iran and even Syria (extending way beyond the borders of the modern Republic of Armenia) it is safe to assume that perhaps the Anatolian (and other) genes of the ancient Mycenaeans equally trace their origin to the ancient Armenians, as they too posses a great deal of genetics considered “Anatolian” by modern geneticists. In other words it’s entirely possible that the Anatolian side of the Mycenaeans also came from ancient Armenians, simply because the genes known as “Anatolian” are also common with Armenians. This position is in fact supported by the study as the authors clarify:
“Note that when modeling Mycenaeans as a mixture of Anatolian Neolithic- and Armenia-related populations (Table S2.13) we infer that they have ~56-63% Anatolian Neolithic-related ancestry, which is smaller than the ~74-80% of such ancestry when modeling them without the later populations as a source (Table S2.2). This is due to the fact that populations from Armenia themselves have Anatolian Neolithic-related ancestry.”
The “Anatolian” genes aside it is equally possible that even the “Eastern Hunter Gatherer-” and the so called “Iran-related” ancestries found within the predecessors of the Greeks came from ancient Armenia:
“However, populations of Armenia themselves have some EHG-related ancestry, so it is possible that Mycenaeans received both the Iran-related and EHG-related ancestry together from a population similar to that which inhabited Armenia. ” – Lazaridis et. al (2017) Supplementary Information
This scenario also make the most sense. The study reeds:
To identify more proximate sources of the distinctive eastern European/north Eurasian-related ancestry in Mycenaeans, we included later populations as candidate sources (Supplementary Information section 2), and could model Mycenaeans as a mixture of the Anatolian Neolithic and Chalcolithic-to-Bronze Age populations from Armenia (Table 1). Populations from Armenia possessed some ancestry related to eastern European hunter–gatherers, so they, or similar unsampled populations of western Asia, could have contributed it to populations of the Aegean. This model makes geographical sense, since a population movement from the vicinity of Armenia could have admixed with Anatolian Neolithic-related farmers on either side of the Aegean.
Regardless of the various possibilities of how the ancient Greeks received Armenian genetics, it is evident that ancient Armenian genetics played a role in the formation of the early Greek ethnos. Further support could be gained by analyzing ancient DNA samples from the many archaeological sites in historic Armenian territory in today’s Eastern Turkey, which the Turkish academia has yet to release.
Other results from this study were equally impressive. For example one hypothesis claiming that the ancient Greek civilizations might have been established by people from ancient Egypt or Phoenicia was rejected in this study:
Other proposed migrations, such as settlement by Egyptian or Phoenician colonists, are not discernible in our data, as there is no measurable Levantine or African influence in the Minoans and Mycenaeans, thus rejecting the hypothesis that the cultures of the Aegean were seeded by migrants from the old civilizations of these regions. – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
Indeed the ancestors of those who build the first civilizations in Europe seem to have come wholly or at least partially from the Armenian Plateau through Anatolia all the way into Greece, bringing with them their Proto-Indo-European language which later would evolve into Greek.
Regarding the origins of the Greek language the study notes the following:
The decipherment of Linear B tablets from the Aegean Bronze Age has proven that an early form of Greek was spoken during the Mycenaean period. The language(s) spoken by the Minoans are unknown pending a successful decipherment of the Cretan hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts from Crete. Greek belongs to the Indo-European language family, the origins of which have been contentious. According to the Anatolian farming dispersal hypothesis, the linguistic ancestor of Greek was spoken by early farmers migrating to the Aegean from Anatolia. As discussed above, there is strong evidence for such a migration. However, the fact that Mycenaean Greeks can be modeled as having two types of ancestry added to the Anatolian Neolithic substratum suggests one or more additional opportunities for the dispersal of a language family into the Aegean. If the additional ancestry was the vector for the dispersal of the linguistic ancestors of Greeks, then this would be consistent with alternative hypotheses deriving early Indo-Europeans from the Eurasian steppe or the highlands of the Armenian plateau. – Lazaridis et. al (2017) Supplementary Information
The analyses of the Y-chromosomes of the ancient individuals also reveals striking similarities with Armenians.
The eastern influence in the Bronze Age populations from Greece and southwestern Anatolia is also supported by an analysis of their Y chromosomes. Four out of five males belonging to Minoans, Mycenaeans, and southwestern Anatolians (Supplementary Information section 3) belonged to haplogroup J, which was rare or non-existent in earlier populations from Greece and western Anatolia who were dominated by Y-chromosome haplogroup G2.
Along with R1b1, J and G2 are the most common Y-chromosomal haplogroups among the Armenians and was equally present among the ancient samples.
When it comes to phenotypes of the ancient Greek civilizations the study concludes:
Phenotype prediction from genetic data has enabled the reconstruction of the appearance of ancient Europeans, who left no visual record of their pigmentation. By contrast, the appearance of the Bronze Age people of the Aegean has been preserved in colourful frescos and pottery, depicting people with mostly dark hair and eyes. We used the HIrisPlex26 tool (Supplementary Information section 4) to infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations (Extended Data Table 2), suggesting that art of this period reproduced phenotypes naturalistically.
The authors finally conclude the study with the following statement:
…the discovery of at least two migration events into the Aegean in addition to the first farming dispersal before the Bronze Age, and of additional population change since that time, supports the view that the Greeks did not emerge fully formed from the depths of prehistory, but were, indeed, a people ‘ever in the process of becoming’.
Considering that some of the oldest traces of the Neolithic Revolution are found on the Armenian Plateau in the eastern parts of Anatolia, it is safe to say that the invention of farming spread to western Anatolia and later further into Europe including Greece from the Armenian Plateau. This would also explain well the genetic affinity that exists between the Armenians and the Anatolian farmers and the ancient Greeks. The spread of civilization connects all of these groups both genetically and linguistically, irregardless of how distinct they became in later millennia.
All in all it’s an interesting study, that inevitably raises a lot of new questions, but provides us with much needed insight into the genetic origins of some of the earliest European civilizations.