Genetics of the Highland
Another important tool we have at our disposal to asses population dynamics (both ancient and modern) is the study of genetics. When looking at the Armenian genetics the first and foremost evidence comes to us from the mere fact that Armenians are quite uniquely considered to be proper representatives of the ancient Near East, some going as far as to call Armenians a “genetic fossil” of the region. Despite the turbulent history of the region, Armenians in particular managed to retain genetic continuity from the ancient populations of the Armenian Highlands, predating even the establishment of the kingdom of Urartu.
Our tests suggest that Armenians had no significant mixture with other populations in their recent history and have thus been genetically isolated since the end of the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago.Haber et. al. (2015) Genetic evidence for an origin of the Armenians from Bronze Age mixing of multiple populations.
From the genetics point of view, the Armenian ethnogenesis was already complete by the late Bronze Age, coinciding well with the foundation legends of the Armenian nation as described by Movses Khorenatsi. This astonishing discovery was reported even in the New York Times back in 2015, titled: Date of Armenia’s Birth, Given in 5th Century, Gains Credence
“Movses Khorenatsi, a historian in the fifth century, wrote that his native Armenia had been established in 2492 B.C., a date usually regarded as legendary though he claimed to have traveled to Babylon and consulted ancient records. But either he made a lucky guess or he really did gain access to useful data, because a new genomic analysis suggests that his date is entirely plausible.”New York Time (march 10, 2015), by Nicholas Wade
Similar conclusions can be made from Hellenthal et al. (2014) where they were unable to find traces of foreign admixture within the Armenians for the past 4000 years.
Furthermore, when comparing Urartian remains to modern Armenians, scholars have found a striking genetic continuity. Although the original heartland of the Urartian kingdom was located in and around lake Van, and the Turkish academia has yet to reveal the results of their collected genetic samples, the Urartian (and even pre-Urartian) samples discovered in modern Armenia and Iran however, already attest to the genetic continuity between the modern and ancient people of the Armenian Highlands.
“The results of genetic studies have shown that the DNA samples of the Bronze Age individuals that have been found on the territory of Armenia have a genetic portrait that is almost indistinguishable from the genetic portrait of people living today in Armenia”
“Modern Armenians are direct descendants of the people who lived in the territory of Armenia 5000 years ago.”Statement by the head of the laboratory of the Institute of Molecular Biodiversity of the National Academy of Sciences Levon Yepiskoposyan.
Some DNA studies even found older genetic continuity for Armenians. For example a DNA study conducted in 2017 revealed as much as 8000 years of genetic continuity for the Armenian mitochondrial DNA on the Armenian Highlands.
All of this effectively means that modern Armenians, unlike most other modern Near Eastern populations, represent a local population who are, at least genetically, directly tied to the people of the Kingdom of Urartu and beyond.
Armenians’ adoption of a distinctive culture early in their history resulted in their genetic isolation from their surroundings. Their genetic resemblance today to other genetic isolates in the Near East, but not to most other Near Easterners, suggests that recent admixture has changed the genetic landscape in most populations in the region.Haber et. al. (2015) Genetic evidence for an origin of the Armenians from Bronze Age mixing of multiple populations.
Out of nowhere
Several prominent “Armenologists”, including our own Richard G. Hovannisian have claimed that Armenians arrived to the Armenian Highlands after the “collapse” of the Kingdom of Urartu. Various theories have been postulated, the most prominent of which the so called “Out of Balkan” theory. Again, based largely on linguistics and some antique hypothesis of the Greek authors who were unable to properly identify Armenian ethnic affinity, these historians have tried to devise a migratory history for the Armenians, in order to simplify the historic narratives.
None of them however, were able to properly demonstrate a migration for the Armenians. There simply is no concrete evidence for such a migration. The “Out of Balkan” theory has been debunked by several DNA studies, including a recent one from 2020.
According to the broadly accepted Balkan theory based on the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ writings, the ancestors of the Armenians were Phrygian colonists who migrated to the Armenian Highland from the Balkans . The conclusion was derived mainly from the fact that Armenians were armed in the Phrygian fashion when they were part of the Persian army.New DNA study rejects the Balkan origin of Armenians
We focused on solving a long-standing puzzle regarding Armenians’ genetic roots. Although the Balkan hypothesis has long been considered the most plausible narrative on the origin of Armenians, our results strongly reject it, showing that modern Armenians are genetically distinct from both the ancient and present-day populations from the Balkans. On the contrary, we confirmed the pattern of genetic affinity between the modern and ancient inhabitants of the Armenian Highland since the Chalcolithic, which was initially identified in previous studies.New DNA study rejects the Balkan origin of Armenians
Nowhere outside of the Armenian Highlands has there ever been a community of Armenian speakers, in the antiquity. There is absolutely no credible records of an Armenian invasion into the Highlands either, and there is no genetic evidence for a population turnover in the Armenian Highlands at the end of the Iron Age, when Urartu is said to have been mysteriously “destroyed”, whose people have vanished into thin air and at the same exact time the Armenians supposedly sprung forth into existence to replaced them. All of the available genetic evidence, however, points to the contrary.
So, from the genetical point of view, at least, one cannot conclude any other way than to admit that people of the kingdom of Urartu are direct genetic ancestors of modern Armenians.
But but but Indo-European…
Another commonly cited argument against the Armenian-Urartian continuity is the commonly held theory that the Urartian language wasn’t an Indo-European language, while the Armenian is. Therefore, some have concluded, it is not possible that Urartians were Armenians. After all they seemingly spoke a different language (so they say).
Not to mention the fact that the final classification of the Urartian language is still up for debate, this argument is anything but strong. As we have seen before, linguistics alone cannot define an ethnic group. If it were so, then we equally have to conclude that Armenians didn’t exist at all until the 5th c. A.D. when the Armenian language was firstly attested. Before that, after all, the Armenian court wrote Greek, Persian and Aramaic. Such conclusion would of course be considered absurd. We simply don’t know the true motives for the usage of a form of Hurrian by the Urartian scribes. Furthermore, the relation between Hurrian and Indo-European has been demonstrated and attested from other kingdoms, such as Mitanni as well. Clearly, it wasn’t strange for the Indo-European to coexist with Hurrian, especially when the ambitions of an empire where international.
Yet another popular linguistic argument often cited goes something like this: “The Indo-European language originated outside of Armenia, therefore it had to have come to Armenia from outside. The Urartian on the other hand is a local language and therefore the original language of the Highlands. The Armenian, has replaced the Urartian, which suggest a foreign invasion.”
Such statement too lacks validity for several reasons. For one, the true homeland of Hurrian is up for debate. There actually is very little evidence of the usage of Hurrian specifically on the Armenian Highlands predating Urartu as I have discussed earlier. But even if it were so, the existence of Indo-European (like that of the Hittites) in the region is attested long before the establishment of the kingdom of Urartu. Not to mention the very plausible scenario of an origin of the Proto-Indo-European exactly from the Armenian Highlands. Some of the most prominent geneticists themselves have come to such a conclusion.
Ancient DNA available from this time in Anatolia shows no evidence of steppe ancestry similar to that in the Yamnaya. This suggests to me that the most likely location of the population that first spoke an Indo-European language was south of the Caucasus Mountains, perhaps in present-day Iran or Armenia, because ancient DNA from people who lived there matches what we would expect for a source population both for the Yamnaya and for ancient Anatolians. If this scenario is right the population sent one branch up into the steppe-mixing with steppe hunter-gatherers in a one-to-one ratio to become the Yamnaya as described earlier- and another to Anatolia to found the ancestors of people there who spoke languages such as Hittite.– David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018, p.120
For more details on the Armenian Hypothesis I’d like to direct your attention towards the following video I released in 2020.
However, just as language alone cannot define an ethnic identity, so can’t genetics alone define an ethnicity. It wouldn’t be strange at all, for example, to find an Urartian living near the border with Assyria, sharing more genetic affinity with his Assyrian neighbour, than with his ethnic Urartian kin living on the other side of the kingdom bordering the kingdom of Colchis. Ethnic borders after all are not the same as genetic nor linguistic borders. For more info on the Armenian Genetics visit the Genetics section of this site (note: you can load more posts at the bottom by pressing the “load more” button).
Although, the many classical authors and early historians had no problem identifying Urartu, the Biblical Ararat, as an Armenian kingdom, it seems that more recently strong efforts have been made to dislocate the kingdom of Urartu from the Armenians. Even after such outlandish claims of Iron Age Armenian “invasion” theories, like the debunked “out of Balkan” theory, have clearly been disproven with genetic studies alone, it is hard to find today any “Urartologist” who would downright admit that Urartu was merely an early form of an Armenian kingdom.
Such conclusion however, can only be reached if we to deliberately ignore the contemporary records like that of Behistun; the similarities between ancient legends like that of Haldi and Hayk; the self-identification of the medieval Armenian historians with Urartian history; the undeniable genetic continuity of Armenians with the Bronze- and the Iron Age people of the Armenian Highlands; the undeniable connections of the many Armenian and Urartian words, including elements of grammar; the continuation of toponyms and of personal names of royal houses; and so on and so forth…
In light of everything discussed in this series of posts, you might be wondering how then should we properly understand the kingdom of Urartu and correctly identify their ethnic affinity?
Of course it needs to be understood in its proper historic context first. No modern nation is identical to their ancient ancestors, especially a nation as old as the Armenian. Modern Dutch are far from the old Batavians and the French of today are nothing like their Gaul predecessors. Besides, ethnic and national identities were viewed completely differently in the antiquity. Our modern understanding of a nation and ethnicity has largely been shaped by emerging philosophies somewhat prior and during WW1. In the antiquity however, loyalty to one’s immediate family and their feudal lord’s (nakharars) “tohm” was by and large the priority. Feudalism has been the main mode of operations on the Armenian Highlands from times immemorial up until quite recently actually. So much so that one could safely claim that it is in fact part of the Armenian character. When describing the Armenians and the Norsemen, for example, who together made up the main assault units of the Byzantine empire, F. W. Bussel (1910), underlined well the similarities in the way of thinking and the spirit of the Armenian feudal lords and the northern warriors. He claimed that, in both groups, there was a strange absence and ignorance of government and public interest and at the same time an equally large interest in achieving personal distinctions and a loyalty towards their masters and leaders.
If we look at the way Urartians recorded their battles, majority of which were with other highland lords, and how medieval Armenian chroniclers recorded the exploits of their Nakharar lords, its virtually indistinguishable. See below but a small example:
For more examples visit: http://www.attalus.org/armenian/pb12.htm
And this is exactly how one must view the kingdom of Urartu. An early attempt at unifying Armenian Highland tribes under one centralised entity with imperial ambitions. Not unlike the later medieval attempts of Armenian feudal lords.
A friend of mine once used the following analogy, I’m paraphrasing; “An ethnicity is like a table with many legs. No table can stand on a single leg alone, but a combination of several can hold a table well. The more legs a table has the stronger it stands”.
Thus, the correct approach to asses Urartu is an interdisciplinary approach, that looks at multiple factors, as I have been attempting in this series of posts. The available evidence of which leads us to only one plausible conclusion: As much as any modern people can identify with any ancient community, the Urartians, as is recorded on the Behistun inscriptions, are in fact none other than ancient Armenians.
Armenian history is filled with transitions from one era into another. Be it the Urartian, the Persian, the Hellenistic, the Roman, the Christian, the Arab, Ottoman, Soviet or current are all periods that have been marked with some cultural shifts. There is, however, more than enough continuity between the kingdoms of Urartu and Armenia, as we have seen in these posts, to connect this enigmatic kingdom to its rightful heirs, the Armenian people. So much so that everything discussed in this lengthy series of posts, is but the very tip of the iceberg.
I will, therefore continue to provide more evidence in support of this conclusion, as it only requires more study of the primary Assyrian, Babylonian, Urartian and medieval Armenian sources to further strengthen the thesis.