Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey immortalised the achievements of Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles and Ajax. The stories of these heroes, and their battles, were considered by the archaic and classical Greeks as records of their cultural origins- with some claiming direct descent from the heroes. While the Mycenaean king Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus may have been myth the connection to modern Greek people and these ancient warriors is closer than ever before.
The Mask of Agamemnon from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens; Necklace Bearer, Knossos; Facial reconstruction of the Griffin Warrior © Tobias Houlton & Lynne Schepartz, University of the Witwatersrand. '
A recent study Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, which looks into ancient DNA, suggests that living Greeks are indeed the descendants of Mycenaeans like the Griffin Warrior whose tomb was unearthed in Pylos. The study also shows that the Mycenaeans themselves were closely related to the Minoans of Crete but with enough of a difference to make them two distinct groups.
The research team extracted DNA from the teeth of 19 people, including 10 Minoans from Crete dating to 2900 to 1700 BCE, four Mycenaeans from the archaeological site at Mycenae dating from 1700 BCE to 1200 BCE, and five people from other early farming or Bronze Age (5400 to 1340 BCE) cultures in Greece and Turkey. By comparing 1.2 million letters of genetic code across these genomes to those of 334 other ancient people whose DNA had already been published, and samples from 2614 modern people, the researchers were able to plot the transfer of genetic material and population movement through the ages.
When the researchers compared the DNA of modern Greeks to that of ancient Mycenaeans, they found a lot of genetic overlap. According to co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle, the continuity between the Mycenaeans and living people is “particularly striking given that the Aegean has been a crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years. This suggests that the major components of Greek ancestry were already in place in the Bronze Age, after the migration of the earliest farmers from Anatolia set the template for the genetic makeup of Greeks and, in fact, most Europeans.
The study also used genetic data to predict the reconstruction of the appearance of people who lived in the ancient Aegean in the Bronze Age. Many depictions of ancient people on both pottery and wall paintings have been found over the years, particularly in Crete, where colourful frescoes of Minoan people adorn the walls of Knossos. These pictures depict a people with mostly dark hair and eyes. The researchers used the available genetic material to deduce that the appearance of their ancient samples matched the visual representations created by ancient people, suggesting that people of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilisations represented themselves naturalistically in art.
This study sheds much new light on the ancestry of ancient people as well as the threads of DNA linking them to the modern Greek population. The next exciting steps of this research will be to uncover the genetic history of the early Anatolian farmers which will further reveal the genetic history of the Bronze Age Mediterranean.