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The genetic history of the Greeks

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As Greeks living in the place where our ancestors lived and speaking the same language for more than 3,000 years, some questions are almost self-evident, such as:

  • Who are my ancestors? What is my biological origin?

  • Who are we Greeks? Where do we really come from?

  • What was the relationship of the Mycenaeans and the Minoans to each other and to us?

  • Are they our ancient Greek ancestors and since when can we distinguish population continuity or discontinuity?

These questions have been interesting for centuries, of course, but for a long time they were answered by myths and writings and later by the sciences from various fields such as history, archeology, linguistics, anthropology, and paleontology. But in the 1970s we saw an explosive breakthrough in DNA technologies and their application in studies of the origins of many species, as well as humans.

So I began to study the evolutionary history of the Greeks written in our genetic material, DNA. DNA amplification is of extraordinary fidelity. For this simple reason, the DNA of modern humans can be a reliable witness to events in the genetic history of the human race that occurred tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Indeed, the study of DNA from archeological sites and anthropological finds and its comparative comparison with the DNA of present-day inhabitants can shed light on the question of the continuity of a population. On the basis of this possibility, I began a systematic study of the genetic and population composition of the inhabitants of Greece in 1980. The book contains decades of scientific research by me and my collaborators, but it is also the result of a major global scientific effort that has begun to bear fruit.

In the book, I start with the genetic composition and diversity of the Greek population, relying on genetic studies on populations of specific geographical areas, some of which actually show geographical isolation (Sfakia, Anogia) and thus an increased possibility of historical continuity. In addition, I present the results of studies on sub-populations of the Greek area, such as Greeks from Asia Minor, Greeks from Georgia, Sarakatsani and Vlachs, Pomaks, as well as Roma of Indian origin, so that the general public can be validly informed by international literature, away from simplifications and ideological distortions.

This is followed by a thorough comparison with the inhabitants of other Mediterranean and European countries. In this way, the mapping of the genetic stratification of individual European populations and the historical/genetic relationship of the Greeks with the wider geographical and historical context is achieved. For the Greeks, the data show that contemporary Greeks have a greater genetic relationship with Italians than with inhabitants of other Mediterranean countries. Moreover, new facts are being uncovered. Even today, the genetic signature of the Greeks can be traced in populations now settled where there were Greek colonies in ancient times: Southern Italy, Sicily, Southern France, and perhaps very dimly at Silk Road. The data for Southern Italy and Eastern Sicily in particular show that Greater Greece was not only linguistically and culturally Greek, but to a large extent genetically too. Thus, the folk wisdom for the two peoples is scientifically confirmed: Una razza una faccia.

Based on the genetic data of modern populations, the book goes to the heart of the genetic history of the Greek population in a structured way, supported by linguistic, archeological and historical elements.

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But where does the DNA of the Greeks, but also of the whole earth, come from?

Paleontological, anthropological, archeological and genetic data suggest that the ancestors of modern humans appeared in Africa about 320,000 years ago and arrived in Greece at least 59,000 years ago. However, the astonishing discovery of a human skull (Homo sapiens) in Mani, recently dated to about 210,000 years ago, shows that Homo sapiens lived in Greece at least 210,000 years ago and even coexisted with Neanderthals.

It goes on to examine the genetic composition of the population in Greece during the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age and later historical periods up to the Hellenistic Period. Thus, the book clearly describes the key role that the region of Greece played in the spread of human populations throughout the rest of Europe.

In recent years, findings from the analysis of ancient DNA, i.e. genetic material from archeological sites, have given an important impetus to the reconstruction of the biological and genetic history of the Greeks. This analysis concerns, on the one hand, Neolithic anthropological remains, as well as bones of members of the Minoan population of Crete and the Mycenaean population of Greece. Through this research it is shown that: The Minoans and the Mycenaeans were homogeneous Mediterranean populations. The two populations had a great genetic affinity with each other, having at least 3/4 of their biological origin from the first Neolithic farmers of Western Anatolia and the Aegean islands, who spread to Europe/Greece from the 7th millennium BC. Today's populations of the same areas are closely related to the ancient inhabitants of Crete and the Peloponnese.

Map showing locations of collection of biological material from areas where we know the existence of Neolithic settlements in Greece. Possible ways for the movement of Neolithic populations of farmers from the Near East to the geographical area of Greece.

Map showing locations of collection of biological material from areas where we know the existence of Neolithic settlements in Greece. Possible ways for the movement of Neolithic populations of farmers from the Near East to the geographical area of Greece.

Thus, genetics comes to test theories such as that of Falmerayer, who argued that the Greeks were not descended from the ancient Greeks, but from the Slavs and Albanians who came after their attack on the Byzantine Empire in 589 AD. Although the question has been answered on many levels, Falmerayer's view "... has a biological background and therefore the physical (genetic) continuity of the inhabitants of Greece is better studied with biological data...". The results of the research are impressive to say the least, because "... the genetic data reject Falmerayer's theory as false". They confirm that: "Genetic findings reflect the historical events of Greece" and that "the picture of the historical / genetic continuity of the Greeks is clear, as well as the fact that the Greeks evolved over the centuries under the influence of the genetics of other populations, but the genetic heritage of the peoples of the Aegean never disappeared, before and after the era of the early Bronze Age civilizations".

Excerpt from the book, p. 444-445

In the end, the genetic data support the accounts of ancient writers on the aboriginality of the Greeks, such as Isocrates (436 BC - 338 BC), who said in his 4th Panegyricus speech (verses 23-24, 380 BC), addressed to the Athenians:

"Our city is acknowledged to be the oldest, the greatest, and the most famous in the world. Since, therefore, the beginning of its history is so glorious, we must be more honored for its continuation. For we who live in this city have not driven other people from here, nor have we found it deserted, nor have we been mixed here by different peoples. Our origin is so beautiful and genuine that the land in which we were born, and we live without any interruption because we are natives (birth and breeding) of this place. So we can call it by the same names that you give to your close relatives."

A similar view supporting the descent of the Greeks from indigenous peoples was recently expressed by the eminent archeologist Sir Colin Renfrew:

"Greek culture, Greek customs and traditions, and perhaps the Greek language developed in the geographical area we now know as Greece, and that in this sense the Greeks were/are indigenous and in a constant process of formation."

A recent study analyzing the whole genome of ancient relics, including Minoans from Crete and Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, has further supported this view. According to the archaeogenetic study, the modern Greek population has deep biological roots in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, who lived in the area. Moreover, the modern Greeks are similar to the Mycenaeans, but with an additional dilution of the early Neolithic, due to their mixing with different populations. In other words, the genetic data supports the idea of the continuity of the Greeks, from the time of the first farmers until today.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis mentioned in his last book entitled "The Garden of Illusions" (1995):

"And the funniest thing is that it never occurred to them that after 3,000 years, the same people, in the same country, still speak the same language, in the sense that even the least educated, especially he, the greengrocer and the baker, still says sky as Uranus and sea as Thalassa..."

Costas Triantafyllidis

Costas Triantafyllidis

The study by Professor Konstantinos Triantaphyllides entitled The Genetic History of the Greeks - The DNA of the Greeks is published by Kyriakidis Publications