It’s All Greek To Me: The Origins of the Greeks

byron comes to greece

“The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi“, by Theodoros Vryzakis, 1861 / National Gallery of Greece. Byron treated the modern Greeks as the descendants of the ancient Greeks.

In the eighteenth century, when many classically educated Englishmen and Germans made the long journey to Greece and Anatolia, they were struck by what they found to be a major disjunction between the glories of ancient Greece and the Greek-speaking peoples they encountered. Were these people, simple peasants and the occasional clever merchant, really the descendants of Herodotus and Sappho, Euripedes and Themistocles? The modern day Greeks seemed unaware of their classical heritage and all too submissive to the Eastern Orthodox church. Where was the martial spirit of Sparta and Athens? Where was the skeptical questioning of Socrates? Given that Western Civilization was thought to have started in Greece, could these people really be their heirs?  They seemed to have more in common, they thought, with other subject peoples, like the southern Slavs in the Balkans. In particular, Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer believed that

The race of the Hellenes has been wiped out in Europe. Physical beauty, intellectual brilliance, innate harmony and simplicity, art, competition, city, village, the splendour of column and temple — indeed, even the name has disappeared from the surface of the Greek continent…. Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece.

While this was an unpopular thesis with the Greeks and the supporters of their new nation, just recently freed from Turkish domination in a revolution, Fallmerayer’s prejudice carried on well into the the Twentieth century.

And they were wrong, of course. Studies have been made comparing the recovered genetic material from the bones and teeth of ancient peoples in various parts of Greece with that of modern Greeks. On the Peloponnese genetic studies demonstrate that there is very little relation between the current inhabitants and the peoples of the Slavic countries to the north. They show that, for the most part, the population in what we now know as Greece has actually remained fairly stable for the past 10,000 years.  According to one study, about 3/4 of the ancestry of modern Greeks can be traced back to neolithic farmers in Anatolia and the lands around the Aegean Sea (i.e. stone-age peoples living there 12,000 – 6500 years before the present).

Sir Arthur Evans of Knossos fame believed that the ancient Minoans did not originate in Europe but came from Egypt around 3000 BCE, as refugees from a southern invasion. This echo of the Aeneid, retro-projected into the 4th millennium BCE, was predicated on the prejudice that the Minoans could not have developed their buildings, writing, and economics on their own. Always controversial, Evans’s belief has also been definitively  disproved by genetic analysis; the Minoans were descendants of the people that had settled the island millennia before, and originally came from Europe.

ag_nik_map

What does becomes clear from the genetic evidence is that the non-Greek speaking Minoans and the Greek-speaking Myceneans were somewhat different populations. The Myceneans and the Minoans represented different waves of settlers from the north. In time they merged into one population, the ancestors of modern Greeks on Crete and the Aegean islands; the one exception is a group of people on the relatively inaccessible Lasithi plateau, who appear to be the descendants of Minoans who fled to the hills to escape the Myceneans and all subsequent colonizers.

We do not know what language the ancient Minoans spoke. We do not even know what they called themselves, or if they called the site “Knossos”. We do know much about their pottery and architecture and that they recorded things in Linear A, and based on the use of the same signs by Linear B for Mycenean Greek we can guess at what some of the words sounded like – but the corpus of Linear A is too small and complex to allow for a decipherment. It seems clear that after the Minoan civilization was weakened, perhaps  by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, that the Mycenean Greeks entered Crete and began to rule the land. Contrary to what Evans thought, most scholars in the field now believe that the Minoans were no more and no less warlike than the Myceneans.

Greek tradition held that during the Greek Dark Age (approximately 1100 BCE – 800 BCE) the Greek-speaking Dorians displaced the Greek-speaking Ionians who were living in the Peloponnese. At some point the Dorians also made it to Crete, as that was the dialect on the island during classical times. How the Dorian migration relates to the fall of late Mycenaean civilization around 1100 BCE is not at all clear, but there does seem to be some remembrance of movements of peoples who spoke different dialects of the same language. The genetic studies suggests that that this remembrance was just of the most recent waves of these related peoples – the Greek-speaking Mycenaeans were already subsumed into legends.

Is any of this important? Well, yes, because it demonstrates “continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations”, as the authors of one of the genetic studies suggests. The Greek population now living in the nation of Greece are the descendants of the population that has been here for some ten-thousand years. They are the heirs of Knossos and Mycenae, Sparta and Athens, Macedon and the Hellenistic Empires. We cannot let those of us from western European let our prejudices get in the way of respecting them.

Sig short

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Crete, Greece and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s All Greek To Me: The Origins of the Greeks

  1. Fascinating stuff. You do fall in the line of academic clergy loving knowledge for its own sake. I look forward to more of your research.

    • Bruce Bryant-Scott says:

      Thanks! I was like this before I was ordained – it’s my fly-paper brain that takes in all kinds of information.

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