UW Today

May 14, 2013

DNA analysis unearths origins of Minoans, the first major European civilization

UW Health Sciences & UW Medicine

Illustration of the Bull-leaping Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete

Illustration of the Bull-leaping Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, CreteGetty Images

DNA analysis is unearthing the origins of the Minoans, who some 5,000 years ago established the first advanced Bronze Age civilization in present-day Crete. The findings suggest they arose from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier.

The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900’s named the Minoans after a legendary Greek king, Minos. Based on similarities between Minoan artifacts and those from Egypt and Libya, Evans proposed that the Minoan civilization founders migrated into the area from North Africa. Since then, other archaeologists have suggested that the Minoans may have come from other regions, possibly Turkey, the Balkans, or the Middle East.

Now, a team of researchers in the United States and Greece has used mitochondrial DNA analysis of Minoan skeletal remains to determine the likely ancestors of these ancient people.

Mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of cells, contain their own DNA, or genetic code. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to their children via the human egg, it contains information about maternal ancestry.

Knossos site Crete

One of the buildings in Knossos restored by British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Knossos was the major civil center of the Minoans.Getty Images

Results published May 14 in Nature Communications suggest that the Minoan civilization arose from the population already living in Bronze Age Crete. The findings indicate that these people probably were descendents of the first humans to reach Crete about 9,000 years ago, and that they have the greatest genetic similarity with modern European populations.

Read the scientific paper.

Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington professor of medicine and genome sciences, is the paper’s senior author. He believes that the data highlight the importance of DNA analysis as a tool for understanding human history.

“About 9,000 years ago,” he noted, “there was an extensive migration of Neolithic humans from the regions of Anatolia that today comprise parts of Turkey and the Middle East. At the same time, the first Neolithic inhabitants reached Crete.”

“Our mitochondrial DNA analysis shows that the Minoan’s strongest genetic relationships are with these Neolithic humans, as well as with ancient and modern Europeans,” he explained.

“These results suggest the Minoan civilization arose 5,000 years ago in Crete from an ancestral Neolithic population that had arrived in the region about 4,000 years earlier,” he said. “Our data suggest that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.”

Stamatoyannopoulos, who directs the UW Markey Molecular Medicine Center and who formerly headed the UW Division of Medical Genetics in the Department of Medicine, added, “Genetic analyses are playing in increasingly important role and predicting and protecting human health. Our study underscores the importance of DNA not only in helping us to have healthier futures, but also to understand our past.”

Stamatoyannopoulos and his research team analyzed samples from 37 skeletons found in a cave in Crete’s Lassithi plateau and compared them with mitochondrial DNA sequences from 135 modern and ancient human populations. The Minoan samples revealed 21 distinct mitochondrial DNA variations, of which six were unique to the Minoans and 15 were shared with modern and ancient populations. None of the Minoans carried mitochondrial DNA variations characteristic of African populations.

Further analysis showed that the Minoans were only distantly related to Egyptian, Libyan, and other North African populations. The Minoan shared the greatest percentage of their mitochondrial DNA variation with European populations, especially those in Northern and Western Europe.

When plotted geographically, shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was lowest in North Africa and increased progressively across the Middle East, Caucasus, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, and mainland Europe. The highest percentage of shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variation was found with Neolithic populations from Southern Europe.

The analysis also showed a high degree of sharing with the current population of the Lassithi plateau and Greece. In fact, the maternal genetic information passed down through many generations of mitochondria is still present in modern-day residents of the Lassithi plateau.

Co-authors of the study are Jeffery R. Hughey of Hartnell College; Peristera Paschou of Democritus University of Thrace; Petros Drineas of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Manolis Michalodimitrakis of the University of Crete; and Donald Mastropaolo, Dimitra M. Lotakis, Patrick A. Navas, and John A. Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington. The study was partially supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (5T32 GM007454), as well as from private funding.

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