Some of the earliest traces of European civilizations are mostly found in modern Greece along the Aegean Sea. In the Bronze Age, two well-known archaeological cultures emerged in that region. The culture of the island of Crete is widely considered “Europe’s first major experience of civilization”.
It actually is Europe’s first literate civilization. But the origins of that culture remain unknown due to the Linear A syllabic ideographic and Cretan hieroglyphic scripts remaining undeciphered.
The other culture was the civilization of mainland Greece, which’s language was an early form of Greek as well as is a part of the Linear B script. But there has to be some kind of an origin for these cultures. Where did they come from and who were the first people that built some of the very first European civilizations?
Scholars have debated on the origins of Greeks for a long time. Their language, like the Armenian, belongs to the Indo-European family. In his book The Coming of the Greeks (1988), Robert Drews described how the ancestors of Greeks came to Europe from the Armenian Highlands, bringing with them their language and their significant inventions of chariot riding and horse breeding.
It is certain that the inhabitants of the forested areas of Armenia very early became accomplished woodworkers, and it now appears that in the second millennium they produced spoked-wheel vehicles that served as models as far away as China.
And we have long known that from the second millennium onward, Armenia was important for the breeding of horses. It is thus not surprising to find that what clues we have suggested that chariot warfare was pioneered in Western Armenia. Finally, our picture of what the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) speakers did, and when, owes much to the recently proposed hypothesis that the homeland of the PIE speakers was Armenia.
One of the number of theories indeed places the homeland of the Indo-European language’s origins in the Armenian Plateau. A quite known genetics study of the Indo-European homeland (Haak et. al, 2015) confirmed its possibility:
The Armenian plateau hypothesis gains in plausibility by the fact that we have discovered evidence of admixture in the ancestry of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists, including gene flow from a population of Near Eastern ancestry for which Armenians today appear to be a reasonable surrogate.
Some of the oldest traces of transition from hunting gathering to farming can be found in the Armenian Plateau. It is not surprising that many scholars consider the Plateau the place of origins of the Indo-European language. Similarities can be noticed in early European and ancient Armenian art.
Common ancestry of Armenians and Greeks has been long hypothesized by ancient historians as well as modern linguists. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus (440 BC) believed that Armenians had Greek origins related to Phrygian colonists. Some linguist proposed a Greco-Armenian language hypothesis based on the similarities between the languages.
Professors at the University of Auckland Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson (2003) equally support a Greco-Armenian subgroup. They dated the split between the Armenian and Greek languages at 7000 years ago.
As methods of analysis progress, modern studies can offer more comprehensive understanding of the past based on genetics of ancient and modern people.
A recent DNA study of the Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans led by Iosif Lazaridis and published in Nature magazine in 2017 shed some needed light on the origins of ancient Greek civilizations.
In the scope of the study, DNA of 19 ancient individuals were tested, including 10 Minoans from Crete dated at 2900-1700 BC, 4 Mycenaeans from mainland Greece (1700-1200 BC), 1 individual from a village with an interesting name Armenoi (Greek: Αρμένοι for Armenians) in Western Crete (1370-1340 BC), 1 sample from southern Peloponnese (about 5400 BC), and 3 Bronze Age samples (2800-1800 BC) from from Harmanören Göndürle in southwestern Anatolia (modern Turkey).
Further, the researchers assessed data of 332 other ancient individuals from previous studies as well as 2616 present-day individuals.
The Minoans and Mycenaeans, sampled from different sites in Crete and mainland Greece, were homogeneous, supporting the genetic coherency of these two groups. Differences between them were modest, viewed against their broad overall similarity to each other and to the southwestern Anatolians, sharing in both the ‘local’ Anatolian Neolithic-like farmer ancestry and the ‘eastern’ Caucasus-related admixture. – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
The bulk of their DNA has seemingly come from the so-called Neolithic Anatolian Farmers who migrated to Europe during the Neolithic revolution. The most of the rest of their genetics is traced to the east of Anatolia.
The Armenian genetic influx appears to be the strongest, especially during the Bronze Age, when the more advanced and creative civilizations were formed. This prompted the authors of the study to call them “bearers of innovations”.
[Mycenaeans] can only be modelled as a 2-way mixture of Neolithic Anatolia and Chalcolithic or Middle/Late Bronze Armenia. This suggests that Mycenaeans could be a mixture of early Neolithic people (represented by the Neolithic Anatolian population) and further input from the east related to populations of Armenia.” – Lazaridis et. al (2017) Supplementary information
Considering that the ancestral homeland of Armenians includes a large portion of Western Armenia, Northern Iran, and even Syria, extending way beyond the borders of the modern Republic of Armenia, it is quite safe to assume that perhaps the Anatolian (and other) genes of the ancient Mycenaeans similarly trace their origin to the ancient Armenians, as they too possess a great deal of genetics considered “Anatolian” by modern geneticists.
Simply put, it is quite possible that the Anatolian side of the Mycenaeans came from ancient Armenians because the genes known as Anatolians are common with Armenians as well. This position is indeed supported by the study:
“Note that when modeling Mycenaeans as a mixture of Anatolian Neolithic- and Armenia-related populations (Table S2.13) we infer that they have ~56-63% Anatolian Neolithic-related ancestry, which is smaller than the ~74-80% of such ancestry when modeling them without the later populations as a source (Table S2.2). This is due to the fact that populations from Armenia themselves have Anatolian Neolithic-related ancestry.”
It is possible that even the “Eastern Hunter Gatherer” and the so-called “Iran-related” ancestries found within the predecessors of the Greeks originated in ancient Armenia:
“However, populations of Armenia themselves have some EHG-related ancestry, so it is possible that Mycenaeans received both the Iran-related and EHG-related ancestry together from a population similar to that which inhabited Armenia.” – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
This scenario also makes sense. The study says:
To identify more proximate sources of the distinctive eastern European/north Eurasian-related ancestry in Mycenaeans, we included later populations as candidate sources (Supplementary Information section 2), and could model Mycenaeans as a mixture of the Anatolian Neolithic and Chalcolithic-to-Bronze Age populations from Armenia (Table 1).
Populations from Armenia possessed some ancestry related to eastern European hunter–gatherers, so they, or similar unsampled populations of western Asia, could have contributed it to populations of the Aegean. This model makes geographical sense, since a population movement from the vicinity of Armenia could have admixed with Anatolian Neolithic-related farmers on either side of the Aegean.
Regardless of the various ways of how the ancient Greeks received Armenian genetics, it is evident that the latter played a role in the formation of the early Greek ethnos. Further evidence could be gained by analyzing ancient DNA samples found in many archaeological sites in historic Armenian territory in today’s Eastern Turkey, which the Turkish academia has yet to release.
Other results of the study are impressive as well. For instance, one hypothesis claiming that the ancient Greek civilizations may have been originated from people from ancient Egypt or Phoenicia was rejected in the study:
Other proposed migrations, such as settlement by Egyptian or Phoenician colonists, are not discernible in our data, as there is no measurable Levantine or African influence in the Minoans and Mycenaeans, thus rejecting the hypothesis that the cultures of the Aegean were seeded by migrants from the old civilizations of these regions. – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
The ancestors of those who established the first European civilizations indeed seem to have come wholly or at least partially from the Armenian Highlands through Anatolia to Greece, bringing their Proto-Indo-European language with them, which would later evolve into Greek.
As for the origins of the Greek language, the study notes:
The decipherment of Linear B tablets from the Aegean Bronze Age has proven that an early form of Greek was spoken during the Mycenaean period. The language(s) spoken by the Minoans are unknown pending a successful decipherment of the Cretan hieroglyphic and Linear A scripts from Crete.
Greek belongs to the Indo-European language family, the origins of which have been contentious. According to the Anatolian farming dispersal hypothesis, the linguistic ancestor of Greek was spoken by early farmers migrating to the Aegean from Anatolia.
As discussed above, there is strong evidence for such a migration. However, the fact that Mycenaean Greeks can be modeled as having two types of ancestry added to the Anatolian Neolithic substratum suggests one or more additional opportunities for the dispersal of a language family into the Aegean.
If the additional ancestry was the vector for the dispersal of the linguistic ancestors of Greeks, then this would be consistent with alternative hypotheses deriving early Indo-Europeans from the Eurasian steppe or the highlands of the Armenian plateau. – Lazaridis et. al (2017)
Analyses of the Y-chromosomes of the ancient samples also reveal striking similarities with Armenians.
The eastern influence in the Bronze Age populations from Greece and southwestern Anatolia is also supported by an analysis of their Y chromosomes. Four out of five males belonging to Minoans, Mycenaeans, and southwestern Anatolians (Supplementary Information section 3) belonged to haplogroup J, which was rare or non-existent in earlier populations from Greece and western Anatolia who were dominated by Y-chromosome haplogroup G2.
Along with R1b1, J and G2 are the most common Y-chromosomal haplogroups among the Armenians and were equally present in the ancient samples.
In regard to phenotypes of the ancient Greek civilizations, the study concludes:
Phenotype prediction from genetic data has enabled the reconstruction of the appearance of ancient Europeans, who left no visual record of their pigmentation. By contrast, the appearance of the Bronze Age people of the Aegean has been preserved in colourful frescos and pottery, depicting people with mostly dark hair and eyes.
We used the HIrisPlex26 tool (Supplementary Information section 4) to infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations (Extended Data Table 2), suggesting that art of this period reproduced phenotypes naturalistically.
Finally, the authors conclude the study with the following:
…the discovery of at least two migration events into the Aegean in addition to the first farming dispersal before the Bronze Age, and of additional population change since that time, supports the view that the Greeks did not emerge fully formed from the depths of prehistory, but were, indeed, a people ‘ever in the process of becoming’.
As some of the earliest traces of the Neolithic Revolution are found in the Armenian Highlands in the eastern parts of Anatolia, it is safe to say that the invention of farming spread from the Highlands to western Anatolia and further into Europe, including Greece.
This would also explain the genetic affinity existing between the Armenians, the Anatolian farmers, and the ancient Greeks. The spread of civilization connects these groups both genetically and linguistically, regardless of how distinct they later became.
This interesting study raises a lot of new questions but provides us with necessary insight into the genetic origins of some of the earliest European civilizations.