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Today’s Greeks Are Like Those of 2,000 BC, DNA Study Shows

Mycenaean death mask
A gold Mycenaean death mask. Credit: Sharon Mollerus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

A recent anthropological DNA investigation indicated that modern Greeks are genetically very close to those who lived more than 4,000 years ago.

The findings of the project, which sequenced the genes of ancient populations, were published in the scientific journal “Cell” recently.

Findings from the Early Bronze Age

The anthropological DNA research uncovered genetic information from the Early Bronze Age, which was approximately 5,000 years ago.

The research was led by Dr. Christina Papageorgopoulou of the Department of History and Ethnology of the Democritus University of Thrace and Dr. Anna-Sappho Malaspina of the Department of Computational Biology of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Other scholars from many other higher education institutions were involved as well, including the University of Democritus, Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, and the Aegean University. Researchers associated with the Ephorates of Antiquities of both Kozani and Florina were also a part of the wide-ranging project.

The study involved the sequencing of entire genomes from skeletons found around Greece. The researchers examined four Early Bronze Age skeletons and two Middle Bronze Age skeletons.

Genetic information from eleven other Early Bronze Age individuals was also analyzed in a historic first for anthropological DNA research into complete genomes from Greece.

Overcoming scientific challenges due to the natural decay of such old genetic material, researchers were nevertheless able to discover that Early Bronze Age populations were  genetically quite homogenous.

These findings show that amazing technological advances in Greek society during the Early Bronze Age, such as urban development, metallurgy, and increased trade, were not only due to migration from the East into Greece.

Although this has been the prevailing belief up until now, this new anthropological DNA research shows that many of these critical developments came from within the local Aegean populations.

The data seems to show that people who migrated from the East made up only a small percentage of the Aegean’s Early Bronze Age populations. Minoans from Crete, mainland Greeks, and Cycladic Greeks all shared very similar DNA during the Early Bronze Age.

Anthropological DNA research pegs Middle Bronze Age Greeks

However, by the Middle Bronze Age, migration from the East became significant enough to cause DNA to differ significantly in comparison to Early Bronze Age Greeks.

During the Middle Bronze Age, which began about 4,000 years ago, Greeks of the Aegean shared around half of their DNA with people from the Ponto-Caspian Steppe. This is an area which encompassed the Danube and Ural Rivers, as well as part of the Black Sea, forming part of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.

These findings show that today’s Greeks are extremely genetically similar to their Middle Bronze Age counterparts. They also support other theories surrounding waves of migration from the East and their impact on Greek society.

These waves of migration preceded the formation of early forms of the Greek language, supporting current theories surrounding language formation. The dominant theory shared by scholars is that the emergence of the Proto-Greek language was connected to the evolution of Indo-European languages in the Ponto-Caspian Steppe.

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