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Green Templeton College | Oxford


Professor Robert Arnott, a Common Room Member and a specialist in human skeletal remains and the medical and disease history of the Eastern Mediterranean in the third and second millennia BC, is part of an international team studying the genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, who have just published their results in the journal Nature.

'The Genetic Origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans', which appeared in the journal on 10 August 2017 and which has been subsequently featured in the world’s press, including the Times, has reported the work of an international team of geneticists and archaeologists led by colleagues from the Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, which includes Professor Arnott.

They have reported for the first-time data from a genome-wide mitochondrial DNA sequence of the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete, and southwestern Anatolia (now modern Turkey). This analysis of their DNA has revealed that the Minoans from Crete, who lived from 2100 to 1100 BC and the Mycenaeans from the Greek Mainland, who lived from approximately 1700 to 1100 BC, were genetically similar to each other and were both descended from Early Neolithic farmers that likely migrated from Anatolia to Greece and Crete thousands of years before the start of the Bronze Age. To reach these conclusions, the researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA from the teeth of the skeletal remains of nineteen ancient individuals who could be positively identified by their archaeological context as Minoans, Mycenaeans or from the Bronze Age populations of southwestern Anatolia.

The analysis also shows that modern Greeks, in turn, are largely descendants of the Mycenaeans, the study has also found. By comparing one million two hundred thousand letters of genetic code across these genomes to those of three hundred and thirty-four other ancient people from around the world and thirty modern Greeks, the researchers could plot how the individuals were related to each other.

The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece towards the end of the nineteenth century, helped to give birth to modern archaeology. The Minoan civilisation was highly advanced culturally and technologically and were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilisation emerged in mainland Greece some centuries later and shared many cultural and religious features with the Minoans. They both used Linear scripts with the latest version, Linear B, an early form of Greek, the language of the Mycenaeans. The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have eluded archaeologists for over a century. Hitherto it had been widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations. This new analysis of well-preserved Minoan and Mycenaean DNA has now provided important answers and insights.

The work continues and Professor Arnott is part of a team from the Universities of Oxford and Huddersfield who are studying a significant number of ancient DNA samples from the Late Minoan Necropolis of Armenoi in Western Crete, in use from 1400 to 1200 BC. It is anticipated that this new work will produce significant results to not only replicate this recently published work, but will also answer other important questions of identity, migration and health at the end of the Bronze Age.

Iosif Lazaridis, Alissa Mittink, Nick Patterson, Swapan Mallick, Nadin Rohland, et. al. (including Robert Arnott), ‘Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans’ Nature, 2017, 548: 214-218.