May 16, 2013
Minoan Civilization Originated In Europe, Not Egypt
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Sir Arthur Evans first discovered the 4,000-year-old Palace of Minos on the island of Crete in 1900. The civilization that built this palace was set apart from later Bronze Age Greeks by the artifacts the British archaeologist recovered, leading him to suggest that they were refugees from Northern Egypt. The Minoans — named after legendary King Minos — had been expelled by invaders from the South about 5,000 years ago, Evans claimed.
This theory has been a subject of debate ever since, according to Nature Magazine, and now a new study using ancient DNA recovered from Cretan caves suggests that the Minoans emerged from the early farmers who settled the island thousands of years before.
Flourishing on Crete for as many as 12 centuries until 1,500 BC, the Minoan civilization is thought to have been devastated by a catastrophic eruption of the Mediterranean island volcano Santorini, followed by a tsunami. The Minoans are widely recognized as one of Europe´s first “high cultures.” They are renowned for their pottery, metal-work and colorful frescoes — as well as fueling Greek mythology with creatures such as the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who lived in a labyrinth constructed by King Minos.
After Crete gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1898, Evans and his team were among the first to explore the island. They discovered the Palace, and uncovered artifacts such as thick-walled circular tombs that bore a resemblance to those of ancient North Africans, and still-undeciphered scripts dubbed Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs. These artifacts marked the Minoans as a very different civilization than the Bronze Age Greeks.
BBC News reports that other theories have placed the origins of the Minoans in Palestine, Syria, or Anatolia, with genetic studies of modern Cretans doing little to form a consensus.
After working on this problem for over a decade, George Stamatoyannopoulos, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, hoped he could settle the debate once and for all by examining the DNA of the long-dead Minoans. “One of my motivations when I started the whole thing was to see whether Sir Arthur Evans was right or not,” he says.
Stamatoyannopoulos and his team gathered bone and tooth samples from more than 100 individuals who lived on Crete between 4,900 and 3,800 years ago. The remains were buried in a cave on the Lassithi plateau in the east part of the island. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), passed down through the female line basically unchanged, was obtained from 37 of their samples. They analyzed these in two different laboratories for quality control.
The team used data for 135 other populations, including ancient samples from Europe and Anatolia as well as modern peoples to compare the frequencies of distinct mtDNA lineages, known as "haplogroups," in this ancient Minoan set.
The researchers discovered that the Minoan samples had 21 different mitochondrial DNA markers, 6 of which were unique to Minoans and 15 that were common in modern, Bronze Age and Neolithic European populations. They found no mitochondrial markers in common with present-day African populations, such as the Libyans, Egyptians, or Sudanese. The Minoans were also genetically distant from populations in the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudis, and Yemenis.
Stamatoyannopoulos believes it´s most likely that the Minoans were descended from Neolithic populations that migrated to Europe from the Middle East or Turkey. Early farmers were living on Crete by around 9,000 years ago, according to archaeological excavations, so they could be the ancestors of the Minoans. The similarities that Evans and others saw between the Minoan artifacts and those of Egypt were probably the result of cultural exchanges across the Mediterranean Sea, rather than wholesale migrations.
"There has been all this controversy over the years. We have shown how the analysis of DNA can help archaeologists and historians put things straight," Prof Stamatoyannopoulos told BBC News in an interview. "The Minoans are Europeans and are also related to present-day Cretans - on the maternal side."
He added, "It's obvious that there was very important local development. But it is clear that, for example, in the art, there were influences from other peoples. So we need to see the Mediterranean as a pool, not as a group of isolated nations."
The team´s findings are limited because mitochondrial DNA represents only a single maternal lineage for each individual. The team plans to collaborate with Johannes Krause, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, to sequence the nuclear genomes of Minoans and other ancients to learn more about their history.
“For the last 30, 40 years there´s been a growing sense that Minoan Crete was created by people indigenous to the island,” Cyprian Broodbank, a Mediterranean archaeologist at University College London, told Nature Magazine's Ewen Callaway. He welcomes the latest line of support for this hypothesis. “It´s good to have some of the old assumptions that Minoans migrated from some other high culture scotched,” he says.
Crete´s early history is probably more complicated than this study suggests, Wolfgang Haak, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told Callaway. Haak thinks that multiple Neolithic populations arrived on the island around the same time. “It's nevertheless good to see some data – if authentic – from this region of Europe contributing to the big and complex puzzle,” he says.
The findings are published online in Nature Communications.