The Minoans: The Ancestors of Modern Cretans 🧬

Through the use of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis of dental remains, Greek and American researchers have made strides in pinpointing the connection between modern Cretans and the “Cretans” of long ago. While this was discovered in 2013, I only just came across this information. Two years prior to that fated day, when I was in Crete walking around Knossos, I half-jokingly asked my aunt if we can be related to the Minoans. “Όχι βέβαια,” (Of course not) she replied with a chuckle. But as far as I knew, my maternal side was Cretan: my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma, my great-great grandma… you get the point. So, the idea was not too far-fetched, especially now with a scientific backing.

Photo from Minoan Theater

Mitochondria and Maternal Ancestry

Mitochondria are the energetic powerhouses of cells, which are comprised of their own genetic code (DNA). mtDNA in particular is passed down from mothers, not fathers, virtually unchanged to their kids. So, by utilizing this type of analysis, researchers are able to reveal information about maternal ancestry with great accuracy.

The Minoans are Europeans and are also related to present-day Cretans – on the maternal side.

Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington Professor of Medicine and Genome Sciences
A Minoan skull – Image from Open Edition Journals

Understanding Our Past: The Ancient Cretan and Modern Cretan/European Connection

The findings point to Minoans being the descendants of the first people to reach Crete nine millennia ago. In fact, they have an uncanny genetic similarity to the Europeans of today.

Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos, one of the authors of “A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete” (www.nature.com/articles/ncomms2871) expands on this:

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. 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. Our data suggests that the Neolithic population that gave rise to the Minoans also migrated into Europe and gave rise to modern European peoples.

Lasithi Plateau, Crete, Greece location – Screenshot from Google Maps

The Specifics

So, we know the research team deciphered DNA of ancient teeth, but there’s definitely more to it. Along with his research team, Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos conducted sample analyses from 37 different skeletons that were found in a Cretan cave in the Lassithi plateau. They then compared those with mtDNA sequences from 135 modern and ancient populations alike.

The Minoan samples had 21 distinct mitochondrial DNA variations. Six were Minoan-specific whereas 15 were shared with modern and ancient people. None of the Minoans had mitochondrial DNA variations of African populations, so this debunks the once-popular belief that Minoans had completely African origins. However, upon further analysis, the Minoans were still related to Egyptian and Libyan populations, albeit remotely so. The largest percentage of shared mtDNA variations was with European populations.

From low to high (when it comes to shared Minoan mitochondrial DNA variations): North Africa, the Middle East, Mediterranean islands, Southern Europe, mainland Europe, and the Neolithic populations from Southern Europe, especially Crete. To get even more geographically specific: the current Cretans of the Lassithi plateau (Eastern Crete). That really was the most fascinating finding as I read through the research paper and several articles: ancient Minoan maternal mtDNA is still very much present in current residents of the Lassithi plateau!

Sir Arthur Evans’ speculations of the Minoans actually being ancient Egyptian refugees (having non-European origins in general) were clearly just that. The Minoans were, as some say, a “locally-sourced” group of people.

Lasithi Plateau, Crete, Greece view – Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Haloorange

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