Where did the ancient Minoans come from?

The Minoans did not come from Africa

They founded the first European high culture about 5,000 years ago: the Minoans, named after the legendary King Minos of Crete. But where did they come from? So far, North Africa was considered the most likely origin, because the Egyptians were already well developed there and there were advanced cultures in today's Libya. Later research, however, cast doubts on this. Researchers have now re-analyzed DNA samples from Minoan bones. Their result, published in "Nature Communications": The Minoans definitely did not come from Africa, they were Europeans.

The first humans reached Crete about 9,000 years ago - around the time agriculture developed in the Middle East and carried to Europe. Their descendants later founded the Minoan high culture in the early Bronze Age. Around 1900 the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the famous palace of Knossos in Crete. Like some of his colleagues, he was convinced at the time that these people were originally refugees from northern Egypt. They had to flee from there when one of the southern kings conquered the country more than 5,000 years ago, he imagines.

Origin unclear

Since the time of Evans, researchers have made numerous studies into the origins of the Minoans. Many of their results can actually be interpreted as evidence of North African origins - for example, great similarities in funeral rites and jewelry or objects of art from Crete with those from Egypt and Libya. However, there is also data that points in the opposite direction. Some previous analyzes of genetic material from Minoan graves do not speak in favor of North Africa. However, they are so contradicting that no other origin could be proven beyond doubt.

Jeffery Hughey's team from Hartnell College in Salinas, California, has now analyzed DNA from almost 100 Minoan skeletons again. 39 of them came from graves excavated near the palace of Phaistos. The researchers took the remaining samples from skeletal remains in a cave on the Lasithi plateau in central Crete. This cave was probably used as a kind of ossuary from the first settlement on Crete until around 3,800 years ago and was finally buried.

Comparison across the maternal line

Since some samples were contaminated with modern DNA, the researchers ultimately only evaluated the mitochondrial DNA from bones from a total of 37 individuals who lived 4,400 to 3,700 years ago. This DNA, which is located outside the cell nucleus in the mitochondria, is always passed on through the maternal line without mixing with the paternal genome. Therefore, it is considered to be particularly helpful in determining lineages.

The scientists compared the DNA sequence of the samples with those of a total of 135 other populations from around the world that included people living today as well as groups that lived during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

European in-house development instead of Africa import

The team reports that the result was very clear in one respect: the African samples deviated by far the most from those from Crete - an origin from the north of the continent can therefore be practically ruled out. On the other hand, there were great similarities with the genetic make-up of people from today's Western and Northern Europe. However, the Minoan samples were even more similar to the DNA isolated from Bronze Age bones from southern Europe, especially the Iberian Peninsula.

According to the researchers, the Minoans developed from the first immigrants to Crete. These Stone Age people did not come from Africa, but probably more from the region of today's Anatolia. The Minoan high culture therefore has European roots, as Hughey and his colleagues explain: "It developed on the island itself from its Stone Age precursors."

And the DNA analysis showed something else: The people who live on the Lasithi plain today still carry the Minoan genetic make-up - to a greater extent than previously assumed. "The close relationship between today's Cretans and the Minoans is obvious," the researchers said. (Nature Communications, 2013; doi: 10.1038 / ncomms2871)

(Nature Communications, May 15, 2013 - ILB)

May 15, 2013