Category Archives: Greece

Ancient Minoan mtDNA

Early Minoan jar
(CC by Wolfgang Sauber)
An ancient Minoan cave ossuary from Ayios Charalambos, Lasithi Plateau (around Mt. Ditke, Eastern Crete), dated to c. 2400-1700 BCE, has produced 37 valid mtDNA sequences (HVS-I).
Jeffrey R. Hughey et al., A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete. Nature Communications 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1038/ncomms2871]


The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years before present. Since Sir Arthur Evans exposed the Minoan civic centre of Knossos, archaeologists have speculated on the origin of the founders of the civilization. Evans proposed a North African origin; Cycladic, Balkan, Anatolian and Middle Eastern origins have also been proposed. Here we address the question of the origin of the Minoans by analysing mitochondrial DNA from Minoan osseous remains from a cave ossuary in the Lassithi plateau of Crete dated 4,400–3,700 years before present. Shared haplotypes, principal component and pairwise distance analyses refute the Evans North African hypothesis. Minoans show the strongest relationships with Neolithic and modern European populations and with the modern inhabitants of the Lassithi plateau. Our data are compatible with the hypothesis of an autochthonous development of the Minoan civilization by the descendants of the Neolithic settlers of the island.

From the paper (emphasis mine):
The majority of Minoans were classified in haplogroups H (43.2%), T (18.9%), K (16.2%) and I (8.1%). Haplogroups U5A, W, J2, U, X and J were each identified in a single individual

Figure 2: Minoan mtDNA haplotypes in extant and ancient populations.
(a) Minoan mtDNA HVS-1 haplotypes shared with the modern or ancient populations. (b) Frequency distribution of the 15 shared Minoan haplotypes among the various modern and ancient population groups.

I find very interesting that of the six non-singleton shared HVS-I sequences, four match those of Central European Neolithic (ht 5, 11, 13 and 14, plus singleton ht 4). The total percentage of coincidences is smaller than with Southern Neolithic but this grouping only has two matches with Minoan common haplotypes (ht 11 and 14, plus singleton ht 4), not any striking match.
Among modern populations the best fits seem to be the Balcans, Turkey and Middle East, both with five non-singleton matches out of six possible ones (ht 20 is only found in Turkey, click to expand if you don’t see it, while ht 8 is found in the Balcans and the Middle East). 
So I would conclude that the Minoan sample fits well with a mix of Anatolian and Balcanic (or less likely Near Eastern) origin, after due founder effect, fitting also reasonably well with Danubian Neolithic and therefore with their likely (partial?) origins at the Balcanic Painted Ware Neolithic.
The greater pseudo-affinity with other populations, based only on overall frequency, seems to be inflated by four haplotypes only: ht 14 (the omnipresent CRS), ht 11 (apparently a common K variant), ht 4 (a relatively common T variant but only present in a single Minoan individual) and ht 12 (H5, again present only in an isolated case in the Minoan sample).
So let’s please be careful and try not to mix quantity (frequency) with quality (relevant haplotype matches). 
The paper also includes a principal component analysis with a more detailed array of populations:

One of the most intriguing facts here is the near-identity between Minoan and modern Lasithi Plateau populations. It would seem logical but Wikipedia describes an instance of ethnic cleansing and later repopulation by the Venetians (emphasis mine):

The fertile soil of the plateau, due to alluvial run-off from melting snow, has attracted inhabitants since Neolithic times (6000 BC). Minoans and Dorians followed and the plateau has been continuously inhabited since then, except a period that started in 1293 and lasted for over two centuries during the Venetian occupation of Crete. During that time and due to frequent rebellions and strong resistance, villages were demolished, cultivation prohibited, and natives were forced to leave and forbidden to return under a penalty of death. A Venetian manuscript of the thirteenth century describes the troublesome plateau of Lasithi as spina nel cuore (di Venezia) – a thorn in the heart of Venice. Later, in the early 15th century, Venetian rulers allowed refugees from the Greek mainland (eastern Peloponnese) to settle in the plain and cultivate the land again.

Is this totally wrong? A brutal error? Erudite vandalism? I cannot say (and would appreciate knowledgeable feedback).
A clear issue is that the current inhabitants of the plateau have a distinctive genetic signature in their Y-DNA, quite different from that of other Cretans, with much higher frequencies of R1b and R1a and much much lower frequencies of the most common Cretan lineage: J2a1. However they also almost lack the main mainland Greek haplogroup E1b, what suggests that the recolonization from Peloponnese story is not correct either. 
Interestingly Cretan R1b, so important in Lasithi Plateau (almost 50%), is also largely derived from Western Europe (although the other half could be Balcanic), maybe via Italy, and cannot be ancestral to it (almost all the Western variant belongs to a derived subclade common in Italy, Central Europe and France: U152).
What is going on here then? I must admit that I do not really know.
Other very close populations in the PCA graph are Serbians (green star) and Bronze Age Sardinians (green rhombus). Take it as you wish. Bronze Age Sardinians are also top in the pairwise comparison table (the closest modern populations being Portuguese, Germans and Corsicans, also Neolithic Scandinavians). However these statistical analyses (both the PCA and the pairwise table) may well hide flaws (like the above mentioned confusion between quantity and quality), so I’d take them with the proverbial pinch of salt, as the confidence of the findings depends on the details of the methodology, not necessarily the best ones.
In any case, the general conclusions of the paper do not seem to be wrong: the Egyptian origin hypothesis is totally discarded and a Neolithic origin seems much more likely. However so many questions remain open…


Bronze Age Sweden imported its copper

Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog mentions this week several papers that dwell in the nature of the Nordic Bronze Age, specifically in Southern Sweden. It turns out that the copper used by the Nordic smiths was not local in almost all cases but imported from elsewhere in Europe (Sardinia, Iberia, Auvergne, Tyrol and British Islands) or even West Asia (Cyprus). This imported copper was exchanged by essentially amber, it seems, an export product of the Nordic area since the Chalcolithic. Nothing is said about the tin needed to make bronze but most likely it came from SW Britain and/or NW Iberia, as these were the two main producers of the strategic metal in old times.
Of the three mentioned papers only one is freely accessible, and also quite interesting to read:
Nils-Axel Mörner & Bob G. Lind, The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult. Journal of Geography and Geology 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.5539/jgg.v5n1p78]


The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area. Those visitors left strong cultural imprints as recorded by pictures and objects found in SE Sweden. This seems to indicate that the visits had grown to the establishment of a trading centre. The Bronze Age of Österlen (the SE part of Sweden) is also characterized by a strong Sun cult recorded by stone monuments built to record the annual motions of the Sun, and rock carvings that exhibit strict alignments to the annual motions of the Sun. Ales Stones, dated at about 800 BC, is a remarkable monument in the form of a 67 m long stone-ship. It records the four main solar turning points of the year, the 12 months of the year, each month covering 30 days, except for month 7 which had 35 days (making a full year of 365 days), and the time of the day at 16 points representing 1.5 hour. Ales Stones are built after the same basic geometry as Stonehenge in England.

The other two are sold under mercantile schemes:
Johan Ling et al., Moving metals or indigenous mining? Provenancing Scandinavian Bronze Age artefacts by lead isotopes and trace elements. Journal of Archaeological Science 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.05.040]
I.B. Gubanov, Grave Circle B at Mycenae in the Context of Links Between the Eastern Mediterranean and Scandinavia in the Bronze Age. Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.aeae.2012.08.011]
Ling’s paper is the one indicating that Swedish copper had exotic Atlantic and Mediterranean origins, while Gubanov’s highlights that amber from the Baltic is found in one Mycenaean grave (specifically Grave Circle B) and not in any known Minoan (Eteocretan) one. For him this means that bronze metallurgy and other associated elements like the quadruple spiral motif arrived with Mycenaean sailors in the Bronze Age. 
Grave Circle B is actually older than the much more famous Grave Circle A (the pseudo “Agamenon’s Tomb”), although both belong to the Late Helladic I period (c. 1550-1500 BCE).

(public domain, credit: myself)
This chronology is interesting because it was roughly in those dates when SE Iberian El Argar civilization began its phase B, characterized by Greek influence in burials (pithoi). It is worth mentioning here that while these are the first findings of amber from Nordic Europe in the Eastern Mediterranean, such jewels were common in Iberia since c. 3000 BCE (beginnings of Chalcolithic period). 
It would seem therefore clear that Iberia was a pivotal area in this purported Scandinavian-Greek exchange. The question is: did the early Greek sailors actually reached Scandinavia themselves or were they rather just receiving products by mediation of Iberian traders with a long tradition of Atlantic (and Mediterranean) navigation?
It is probably a hard to answer question. But the studies point to some relevant cues, like the Swedish drawings of ships with rams and the presence of the (originally Mediterranean?) motif of the quadruple spiral, so similar to the Basque lauburu (four heads) icon (probably related to both the svastika and triskel). 

Figure 3.B. the spiral ornament from Sweden and Greece

This spiral icon is not Mycenaean in origin, having been found in Minoan Crete and Megalithic Malta (right), which are respectively older and a lot older than the Mycenaeans. The motif is not even exclusive of Europe, with very similar concepts found for example in the pottery of Western Mexico.
So while the similitude is striking, this evidence is not conclusive on its own. 
The Cypriot copper evidence alone is not enough evidence of Mycenaean
presence in Scandinavia, very especially as Cyprus seems important, long
before the Mycenaeans in the East-West Mediterranean connections.
Cyprus used their own script (probably used for the native Eteocypriot
language) up to the 4th century BCE and while Mycenaean presence in the
island seems attested in the very late Bronze Age, the island was not a
Mycenaean center at all but rather was under Hittite and Ugaritic
influence instead.  
So we are left with the claim of rammed ships being coincident with the Mycenaean period. However what I find searching around are dates of c. 1700 BCE (Norway), very early in the Mycenaean chronology and some two centuries older than the single amber finding in Mycenae. It could indeed be a Mycenaean influence but how conclusive is it?
I have a vague memory of a Mycenaean ship (?) found years ago in the waters of Denmark or Germany, however I can’t find anything searching online. Does anyone know something more detailed on the matter? This would be key evidence but I cannot trust my memory alone. 
So there seems to be some sort of interaction between the Eastern Mediterranean and Scandinavia but, as far as I can tell, specifically Mycenaean presence in the Far North is circumstantial rather than conclusive. 
Besides the issue of purported trade with the Mediterranean, there are some other interesting elements in Mörner & Lind 2013, notably the description of the Ales Stones ship-shaped megalith (“sun ship”) as an astronomical calendar:

Not sure how new this is but it is a very interesting thing to know, right?

Update (May 17): Dispatches from Turtle Island has some interesting and realistic calculations on how long would take an ancient ship to sail from Greece to Sweden and back (c. 112 days, he estimates).


Did Neolithic Greeks build their homes entirely of stone?

Wall remains at Koutroula Magoula
It has been generally assumed that ancient Greek farmers from the Neolithic period built their homes of mudbrick on stone foundations. However recent research at Koutroula Magoula (Phthiotis) has found some stone walls as high as one meter, suggesting that maybe the whole structure was built with this material.
The site is a magoula or tell, a hill created by the piling up of one town above the remnants of the previous, typical from West Asia and the Balkans, belonging to the Middle Neolithic period. This means Early Dimini culture, similar to Vinča in pottery style and other cultural traits. However, while Starčevo and Vinča farmers from Serbia and surroundings built their homes as wooden structures closed with mudbrick (a method also used further North in the Danubian Neolithic), their Greek relatives erected at least the foundations on stone since the times of Sesklo (i.e. the very first European Neolithic known). Now it may end being that it was not just the foundations but the whole walls which were built with such materials. 

Posted by on November 12, 2012 in European prehistory, Greece, Neolithic


Should the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece?

I’m all for it, it is not just “classy” as Stephen Fry said recently in a TV debate but actually it was since the very beginning an act of imperialist looting that would be frowned upon also today (and was already back in the day considered quite questionable). 
By all accounts, the marbles were looted by the British ambassador in Constantinople Thomas Bruce (alias “Lord Elgin”) without any sort of authorization by even the imperial authorities of the Ottoman Empire, then occupying power of Greece. 
The marbles, which date from Classical Greece, exposed since the early 19th century in the British Museum, suffered from the brutal pollution of London in much of all this time and have been damaged by primitive restorers.
Meanwhile the Parthenon in Greece stands as a naked ruin, largely deprived from its original fullness.


Neanderthals crossed the sea at least once

New research has found that the Ionian islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos were never united to land, what implies that the Mousterian findings (probably Neanderthal-made) belong to peoples who crossed from the mainland, almost necessarily on boat or raft of some sort (they could have swam in theory but hardly with kids and all the family, you know).
Source and more data at New Scientist (found via Pileta).
Reference paper: G. Ferentinos et al., Early seafaring activity in the southern Ionian Islands, Mediterranean Sea. Journal of Archaeological Science 2012. Pay per view.

Echoes from the past (Sep 1)

Franchthi cave

Most are very interesting news that may deserve their own entries but I do not feel like writing so much right now:

Neanderthal cave in Jersey used almost continuously for 250,000 years, late extinction ··> BBC.

Mariners already reached the island of Melos in Greece as early as c. 15,000 years ago, providing obsidian to Franchthi cave and other parts of the mainland, new chronometric method finds. At that time some of the Cyclades were joined in a single island but were not part of the mainland in any case ··> PhysOrg.

Intriguing communal structure with water trough, mortar holes, etc. in PPNA of Wadi Faynan, Jordan, indicates some social centralization ··> Neolítico Ibérico[es], Mithen et al 2010 (PDF).

Wadi Faynan 075

Chalcolithic “goddess” idol found in Estepona (Málaga, Andalusia). This kind of “violin” figurines are typical specially of the Almerian culture (coalescing into Los Millares civilization) but are rarer elsewhere ··> Pileta de Prehistoria[es].

Venus of Estepona

Bronze Age Scottish mummy made up of parts ··> BBC.

Argentinean maternal lineages are Native American very often. A new open access study reveals that 41-70% of maternal lineages, depending on region, are Native American. However these may be in many cases from other origins than Argentina itself. This figure is different from the overall Native ancestry which is more in the 20% zone (other research).

··> Laura Catelli et al. The impact of modern migrations on present-day multi-ethnic Argentina as recorded on the mitochondrial DNA genome. BMC Genetics, 2011. Open access.

Above, fig. 1. Legend:

Frequency patterns of the main hgs in Argentina in the admixed groups (A) versus the Native American communities (B). NA: Native American component; Eu: European component; Af: sub-Saharan African component.

Red dots indicate sampled locations as undertaken in other studies from the literature; blue dots indicate the sampled locations in the present study.

Bacterian genome reveals what is essential to life. Only 12 of the genome is essential, at least in C. crescentus. Among these genes, there are 91 segments whose functions are totally unknown so far ··> Science Daily.


Provenzal genetic data… and weird speculations

The following paper offers some information on the genetics of Provenzals and some specific populations of Turkey (Foça, Izmir) which is compared with older studies (on Turkey and Greece) to reach quite unfathomable conclusions:
I’m split on this paper: on one side it does provide some interesting data and makes some common sense claims (like Provence having been little affected by Neolithic expansion direct colonization) but then you stumble upon absurd ideas, such as Cardium Pottery stemming somehow from “Anatolia”:

Using putative Neolithic Anatolian lineages: J2a-dys445=6, G2a-M406 and J2a1b1-M92 the data predict a 0% Neolithic contribution to Provence from Anatolia.

There is absolutely no reason to be looking at Anatolia: the Neolithic wave that arrived to Provence did not originate in Anatolia but in the Western Balcans. It is very possible that Anatolia was the ultimate origin of Greek Neolithic and this was in turn at the origin of Cardium Pottery Neolithic somehow, but the real origin of the Neolithic wave that arrived to Provence must not be looked for in any case in Western Anatolia – that is a total nonsense.
We know way too little as of yet to explain the exact process of cultural transference from West Asia (Anatolia specially) to the Balcans (Thessaly in particular) and from Thessaly to the Adriatic, where the cultural elements are so distinct anyhow. There is no particular reason to expect any arrival directly from Anatolia into Italy or SW Europe in the Neolithic. Any such migration would have been dampened in two filters: one in Greece and another one in the Adriatic Balcans.
From my ongoing (and slow) work of summarizing  European Neolithic in maps:

Here you can see in brown the first area of Cardium Pottery Neolithic: Dalmatia, Montenegro, Coastal Albania, most of Bosnia, Italy (in a second moment)… It has a precedent in Otzaki (Thessaly) and a derived influence in Biblos (Lebanon) but by no means can it be linked to “West Anatolia” of all possible places.
Universities and grants should require that any geneticist doing historical population genetics hire a prehistorian for assessment, sincerely.
Still there is a very interesting amount of data that is of interest, summarized (as I said before) in figure 2 specially. This is an extensive table that I cannot reproduce here with enough resolution without some previous work. So for reason of its relevance and novelty I’ll focus on the Y-DNA data of Provence (n=51, only attested lineages shown):
  • E1b1b1b1a2 (V13): 4%
  • E1b1b1b1c (M123): 2%
  • G(xG2a3a) (M201): 8%
  • I1 (M253): 2%
  • I2(xI2a2,I2b) (M438): 4%
  • J1 (M497): 2%
  • J2a4h1a (DYS445=6): 8%
  • J2a4b(J2a4b1) (M67): 2%
  • R1a1a (M198): 10%
  • R1b1b2 (M269): 59%
Up 26 to 30% (depending on how you evaluate I2*) of the genetic pool is “Eastern Mediterranean” in Provence. E1b1b1b1a2 (V13) is probably from Albania or other Adriatic areas (see Battaglia 2009). That can also be argued to be the case for all the other “transmediterranean” lineages, which agrees well with a Neolithic origin of all them. However it is not impossible that these Neolithic arrived in batches and with intermediate stops in Italy for example or, why not, in Phocaea in some cases. 
But the research falls very short from demonstrating what they claim to demonstrate. If they have demonstrated something at all they have failed to explain it properly. So the only interest of this paper is the raw data, which adds to other such data to be integrated into a careful and comprehensive exploration of all (and not just some) data with proper prehistoric assessment. 
It is in any case important to understand that under the Neolithic colonization hypothesis, E1b1b1a2 should not be expected to originate neither in Anatolia nor in Greece but in Albania, Montenegro and Dalmatia. And, if anything, in Greece rather than Anatolia. Attributing European Neolithic directly to Anatolia or West Asia in general is not an acceptable assumption but a wacko fetish that should be discarded altogether.

Bronze Age Iberian survived broken neck bone

Motilla del Azuer

Archaeological works at the Motilla del Azuer, in the steppary region of La Mancha, SE Spain, made an unexpected discovery: the skeletal remains of a man in his 40s who suffered a broken hyoid bone but survived the normally deadly injury. 

This bone, placed around the base of the tongue, is often broken in case of strangulation (including hangings) but otherwise a rare lesion. However the very fact that the man survived suggests to researchers that in this case the lesion was caused by a direct impact.
Full story at Unreported Heritage News (paper to be published at Journal of Osteoarchaeology). More information on the archaeological work at Motilla del Azuer at Science Daily (2007).
Las Motillas in context
The Motillas are fortifications, rather similar to the more famous Sardinian Nuraghe, erected at La Mancha in the Middle Bronze Age and abandoned a few centuries later. Culturally they are more akin to the Bronze of Levante (Valencian Country) but are surely also related to the regional power of the age: El Argar civilization (Almería, Murcia). This group of cultures is surely at the roots of historical Iberians.
El Argar and its hinterland was the core of the Iberian Bronze Age, beginning c. 1800 BCE. They are probably the ancestors of historical Iberians and were at a later stage (since c. 1500 BCE) influenced to some extent by Mycenaean Greece. It was in this B phase of the Middle Bronze Age, when the inland fortifications known as Las Motillas in Spanish (exactly the same concept as motte-and-bailey in English) were erected to live for about two or three centuries. 

Iberia Bronze
Las Motillas in the context of Middle Bronze Age Iberia

I believe that their construction in this otherwise uninteresting steppe (showing little signs of habitation before and after them) was triggered by the need of El Argar (surely a centralized state) of securing a safe inland route towards NW Iberia, which was like the Persian Gulf of the Bronze Age because of its huge reserves of tin, an otherwise rare metal necessary for the forge of bronze. The rest of the route would go (possibly) through the lands of the cattle-herder peoples of Cogotas I culture in the Iberian Plateau. 
An alternative route was through the sea but there it had to go by the coasts of another (maybe rival) power: Zambujal (Vila Nova de São Pedro culture). Some of the produce would surely remain in Iberia (El Argar and allies) but much, I understand, would be exported to Greece, where it would have fed their militaristic tendencies maybe (culminating in the destruction of Troy and much of the Sea Peoples‘ episode). No Greek outpost is known to have existed  anywhere in Iberia but Greek burial styles were adopted by the Argarians since c. 1500 BCE, strongly suggesting they were trade partners. Otherwise only a few glass beads of Oriental origin attest the trade which must have been mostly about raw products such as tin, copper, gold and silver.
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Posted by on December 18, 2010 in Bronze Age, El Argar, Greece, Iberia, Spain, tin, Zambujal