Mycenaeans and Italians

January 15, 2018

We don't have Ancient Roman DNA yet, but now we have the next closest thing: Ancient Mycenaean Greek DNA. This new study shows that Mycenaeans, like their Peloponnesean descendants, are genetically similar to modern Italians (and other Southern Europeans) because both are similar mixes of Neolithic farmers and Indo-Europeans, and also because of Ancient Greek settlements in Southern Italy.

We estimated the fixation index, FST, of Bronze Age populations with present-day West Eurasians, finding that Mycenaeans were least differentiated from populations from Greece, Cyprus, Albania, and Italy (Fig. 2), part of a general pattern in which Bronze Age populations broadly resembled present-day inhabitants from the same region (Extended Data Fig. 7). [...] 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.


The Mycenaeans settled all of mainland Greece up to Thessaly, and throughout the Aegean islands. There is evidence of extensive Mycenaean acculturation in Western Anatolia, Italy and Cyprus and trading relations with Egypt and the Near East. The Mycenaeans were literate and used for accounting purposes a syllabic script, Linear B, written in an early form of the Greek. They introduced this script into Crete after they occupied the island.

Lazaridis et al. "Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans". Nature, 2017.

Related: Ancient Roman DNA, Ancient-to-Modern Genetic Distances


Blogger said...

"...and also because of Ancient Greek settlements in Southern Italy."

Why would Italians as a whole be similar to Mycenaeans just because Greeks colonized some limited southern coastal areas (which moreover were already populated by non-Greek people at the time of their arrival)? The Greek presence in Italy is hugely exaggerated. It's fairly obvious that the shared ancestry between modern Italians and Greeks is purely Neolithic, i.e. non-Greek and pre-Greek, and has nothing to do with Greek colonization. It's not as if the Greeks exterminated Italians and filled the peninsula with Dorians and Ionians.

Nero said...
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Italianthro said...

>>> "Why would Italians as a whole be similar to Mycenaeans just because Greeks colonized some limited southern coastal areas"

In the PCA in the study, Sicilians and Southerners are the only Italians who almost overlap with the Mycenaeans, so I think Greek colonization did play a role. But it's true that pre/non-Greek peoples in the South were probably of the same stock as Mycenaeans anyway (Neolithic + CHG-rich IE). Either way, the point is that Modern (Southern) Italians are almost identical to Bronze Age Southern Europeans.

Lucian said...

Dear Sirs, I am Romanian and very much interested in the discussions on this blog.

The conclusions of the article do not surprise me at all, although I would give the plausible explanations in a different order.

First, I also think the common origin in Neolithic farmers and Indo-Europeans is the most important (and the most distant in time) indeed. This already existing similarity makes it difficult to measure how much later Italian-Greek interactions contributed to the common genetic stock. We must, in addition, make use of our historical knowledge, not just genetics.

I would not consider Greek colonization in South Italy and Sicily so important, although it did play a role. Here is why:

First, this colonization was more than compensated by later Italic and Roman colonization into Sicily, prior to and after the annexation of Sicily to the Roman state: initially, bands of Campanian mercenaries (like the Mamertines), and later, many Roman and Italic colonists settled here in the next centuries. It's true that many Sicilian cities are descended from Greek colonies, but there were later Roman colonies founded alongside them as well. What I mean is that the original Greek element was significantly diluted in Roman times.

But how large was the original Greek element in Sicily? I don't remember his name now, but one author gave the estimate of 1/3 of the island as Greek at the time of maximum Greek expansion. This figure must have included many Hellenized Sicels, Elymians etc., who founded or shared many cities with the Greek settlers. For example, I don't think Diodorus Siculus was of pure Greek descent; his birthplace was an old Hellenized Sicel settlement.

There were also many Italian settlers from various part of the peninsula brought in by the Norman rulers in Medieval times.

In a larger context, there is an obsession with assigning Oriental origins to everything Western. Another such hypothesis (pure legend, as it proves to be in the end), also related to ancient Sicilian population, is the Anatolian origin of the Elymians (ancient Western Sicilians), i.e. the same "refugees from Troy" story, good to explain everything, even in spite of common sense. Actually, strong evidence points to their old Italic (specifically Ligurian) origin, especially based on identical toponyms (see Laura Biondi, Guido Libertini etc.).

As a conclusion, I would not estimate the Greek element in Sicily today at more then 15-20%.

Now, let's look at the opposite direction, Italy --> Greece, usually overlooked.

There were Roman colonies in Greece itself (especially Macedonia) and Asia Minor as well, let's not ignore this fact. Their descendants, usually called Aromanians/Vlachs etc. have been partly assimilated, but many others migrated north of Danube, to Romania, my own country (one such example is Simona Halep, the recent Roland Garros winner). If you ask Aromanians about their origin, most of them would not consider themselves Greek, although coming from Greece 3-4 generations ago.

In Medieval times, there were many Venetian and Genoese settlements in the Byzantine Empire and in Western Greece.

My main point is however this: a much stronger explanation of the Greek-Italian genetic similarity is the migrations of the Sea Peoples, which were, if not 100%, at least partially, Italic. These migrations took place on a very large scale, consisting of whole families: men, women, children, not just military men (according to Egyptian descriptions) and reached their maximum height around 1200 BC.

Here is one scholarly source pointing to this:

In this particular paper, it is stated that Osco-Umbrians were a part of these Sea Peoples that settled in Crete and left linguistic traces there up to Classical times (i.e. Osco-Umbrian dialect written in Greek script). Other important groups of Sea Peoples were Shardana, Tursha and Shekelesh, who also reached Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt.


Lucian said...


Regarding Etruscan origins, let's be reasonable: the Anatolian (Lydian) origin is legend, nothing more. The most reasonable explanation is Central Europe (supported by the Raetian link). Greece and Anatolia were the destination, rather than the origin of this people. The Etruscans (or proto-Etruscans, if you prefer) were known in the Aegean long before the Greek colonization in Sicily (see Alberto Palmucci on this topic: They were part of those Sea Peoples, more exactly the Tursha (or Tyrseni/Tyrrheni etc.). There were still Etruscan-speaking communities in the Greek islands of Lemnos, Imbros etc. in classical times, following centuries of assimilation within the Greek population.

Overall, there were more Italy-to-Greece migrations along millennia then the other way around.