- Indo-Europeans and Old Europeans
- Mycenaeans and Minoans
- The Bronze Age Collapse
- Greek Genetics
- The Greek Anthropogenic Myth
Out of all ancient European peoples perhaps the Greeks are the most famous. Regarded as the origin of western civilisation and democracy they have been the subject of extensive research and debate for centuries if not millennia. Interestingly the Greeks, or Hellenes, as they call themselves, are a language isolate within the Indo-European language family without any known living sister languages.
In this article we’re predominantly going to take a look at where the ancient Greeks came from and will focus on other parts of their history and culture, such as language and mythology, in seperate articles.
Indo-Europeans and Old Europeans
As an Indo-European people the ancient Greeks derive a large part of their language, culture and genetic heritage from the Proto-Indo-Europeans that moved down from the western Black Sea region into the Balkan Peninsula. But other than in the more northernly areas in Europe they didn’t find a technologically inferior culture, but the highly sophisticated civilisation of “Old Europe”, as Marija Gimbutas has coined the term (cf. Haarmann 1999). It seems like many of the words in the modern and ancient Greek language derive from the language of this ancient civilisation. The Old Europeans are discribed as “the first advanced civilastion [Hochkultur in the original]” (Haarmann 1999) with their epicenter around the western Black Sea region, stretching down into the Balkan Peninsula (cf. ibid). On their way down into Greece the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have come through their territory.
Mycenaeans and Minoans
Even though the Indo-European ancestors of the Greeks entered what is now Greece from the north, the earliest written texts in Greek aren’t found on the mainland, but on the island of Crete, in the middle of the mediterranean sea. But just as was the case with mainland Greece, the Greeks weren’t the first to come to Crete. The so-called Minoans, named after the mythical King Minos had given rise to one of the oldest advanced civilisations in Europe as early as the 3rd millennium BC. Whilst we’re quite sure that they weren’t Greek their actual ethnic identity remains a mystery, as the only texts they’ve left us with are still undeciphered. One possibility is that they are written in an unknown Semitic language (cf. Cartledge 2009).
The Greeks, which came to Crete from the mainland consecutively, are called the Myceneans after Agamemnon’s great city of Mycenae on the Peleponesian Peninsula. Agamemnon was the leader of the Greeks in the mythical Trojan War, featuring such heroes as Achilles and Hector (cf. Stubbings 2008). Even though Homer’s Epic “Illiad”, from which we draw most of or knowledge about the Trojan War, is considered a myth it seems to have had a historical core. In 1870 German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the remains of the ancient city in what is now western Turkey (cf. Cartledge 2009). Interestingly the Trojan’s themselves do not seem to have been Greek but potentially Luwian, a language of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European languages, related to Hittite (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_language, 11/04/2020).
The Bronze Age Collapse
Apart from the archeological evidence Greek writers after the Dark Ages, that is the textless period of time after the Bronze Age Collapse, report of the Pelasgians, a people that apparently lived in Greece before the Greeks came from the north. These people might be identical with the aforementioned Old Europeans. Apart from the fact that they were the native inhabitans of at least parts of Greece and that they did not speak Greek we do not know much else about them (cf. Smith 1854). It can’t even be assumed that all of the original inhabitans of pre-Indo-European Greece spoke only one language or formed anything like a unified culture in any way.
Genetic testing of modern and ancient Greek populations revealed that, just like the rest of Europe, the Greek derive parts of their DNA from three previous migrations to the continent from the steppes, the near east and an initial migration of Hunter-gatherers out of Africa. Modern Greeks seem to be most similar to the ancient Mycenaeans, the first recorded Greek speakers, albeit with a lesser degree of steppe (Indo-European) ancestry. It seems like the Indo-European migrants intermixed with the indigenous population, themselves a mix of Neolithic farmers from Anatolia and indigenous hunter-gatherers. Interestingly, modern Greeks display some of Europe’s oldest Haplogroups and carry comparatively large amounts of Near Eastern ancestry, probably due to the proximity of Greece to Anatolia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeks, 09/04/2020).
The Greek Anthropogenic Myth
This seemingly corresponds with a Greek myth about the different ages of men: After Zeus had (with the help of other mythological creatures, such as Prometheus) created mankind twice already, once in the Golden, and once in the Silver Age, he created men for a third time in the mythical Bronze Age. The first two times Zeus was displeased with his creations, so the third time “he created a brazen race of strong and warlike mortals. They were obsessed with weapons which they made of Bronze; they built their homes of bronze as well – hence the Bronze Age of man.” (Hourly History: Greek Mythology). This might refer to the Mycenaeans which introduced bronze weapons on a large scale to what would become Greece and built walls so big that successive generations believed they were the works of giants (2009 Cartledge).
In conclusion, the story of the origin of the Greeks is just as complicated as the origins of other peoples around the world, but we do find similar elements as in other European cultures. Looking at the deep ancestry of modern and ancient Greek populations we can observe “the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5565772/, 12/04/2020.)
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5565772/, 12/04/2020.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeks, 09/04/2020.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_language, 11/04/2020.
- Cartledge, Paul: Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford 2009.
- Caskey, John L.: GREECE AND THE AEGEAN ISLANDS IN THE MIDDLE BRONZE AGE. In: I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, E. Sollberger (Editors): The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press 2008.
- Haarmann, Harald: Das Rätsel der Donauzivilisation: Die Entdeckung der ältesten Hochkultur Europas. Beck Paperback 1999.
- Hourly History: Greek Mythology.
- Smith, William: A Smaller history of Greece From the earliest times to the Roman conquest. London 1854.
- Stubbings, Frank H.: THE RISE OF MYCENAEAN CIVILIZATION. In: I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, N. G. L. Hammond, E. Sollberger (Editors): The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press 2008.
- Wright, James Clinton: Early Mycenaean Greece In: Shelmerdine, Cyntia W. (Editor): The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press 2010.
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