The Origins of the Ancient Greeks

  1. Indo-Europeans and Old Europeans
  2. Mycenaeans and Minoans
  3. Troy
  4. The Bronze Age Collapse
  5. Greek Genetics
  6. The Greek Anthropogenic Myth

The Greeks are perhaps the most famous of ancient Europe’s inhabitants, only rivalled by the almighty Romans, who themselves owed a lot to Greek culture, language, science and philosophy. 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 Greek language is a language isolate within the Indo-European language family without any known living sister languages. Albanian and Armenian have both been suggested to be it’s closed living relatives.

In this article we’re predominantly going to take a look at where the ancient Greeks came from, they’re so called ethnogenesis, although it has to be stated that the ideas in these article are mostly of theoretical nature.

Indo-Europeans and Old Europeans

As an Indo-European population the ancient Greeks derive a significant part of their language, culture and genetic heritage from the Proto-Indo-Europeans who moved down from the western Black Sea region into the Balkan Peninsula. But contrary to the more northernly areas of Europe they didn’t saw themselves confronted with a technologically inferior culture, but with the highly sophisticated civilisation of “Old Europe”, as Marija Gimbutas has coined the term (cf. Haarmann 1999). Much of the vocabulary of the modern and ancient Greek language can’t be traced back to Proto-Indo-European, which is why it is assumed that they were borrowed from the Pre-Indo-European natives.. The Old Europeans are described as “the first advanced civilisation [Hochkultur]” (Haarmann 1999) of Europe, centered around the western Black Sea region and stretching down into the Balkan Peninsula (cf. ibid). On their migration into this area the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have passed through their territory and interacted with them in some way or another. Trade, warfare, diplomacy and marriage are all likely scenarios in which these interactions may have played out. The result, however, was a mixed population of native Old Europeans and perhaps an Indo-European upper class.

Mycenaean settlements and expansion.
By User:Alexikoua, User:Panthera tigris tigris, TL User:Reedside – Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, Εκδοτική Αθηνών, τ. Α’ χάρτες σε σελ. 263-265, σελ. 290, 292-293 (επίσης [1], CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61505445

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. The island was inhabited by he so-called Minoans, named after the mythical King Minos, which one may remember from the Minotaur myth. These people had formed an advanced civilisation of their own as early as the third millennium BC. Whilst scholars are quite certain that they weren’t Greek or Indo-European 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).

Troy

The Greeks, which came to Crete from the mainland consecutively, are called the Myceneans after Agamemnon’s great city of Mycenae on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Agamemnon was the leader of the Greeks in the mythical Trojan War, featuring such esteemed heroes as Achilles and Hector (cf. Stubbings 2008). Even though Homer’s Epic The Illiad, from which we draw most of our knowledge about the Trojan War, is considered a myth it seems to have had a historical core. In 1870 German archaeologist 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, and spoke a language of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European languages, related to Hittite (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_language, 11/04/2020).

Ilios – the city and country of the Trojans – the results of researches and discoveries on the site of Troy and throughout the Troad in the years 1871-72-73-78-79.

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 inhabitants 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 inhabitants of pre-Indo-European Greece spoke only one language or formed anything like a unified culture in any way.

Greek Genetics

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 Steppe, 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 Titans, 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.” (cf. 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 (cf. Cartledge 2009).

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.)


References:

  • 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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