Europe's First Advanced Civilization was Minoan -- And It Wasn't Egyptian

First Posted: May 15, 2013 08:49 AM EDT

The Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete during the Bronze Age. In fact, it was Europe's first advanced civilization. Now, new research has revealed the ancient origins of the Minoans, and seems to prove that they were, in fact, European.

In the past, researchers believed that it was possible that the Minoans actually originated from Egypt--not Europe. The civilization is perhaps best known for the palace at Knossos, which archaeologist Arthur Evans associated with the ancient Greek myth of the labyrinth and King Minos. In the myth, Minos kept the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature, within an intricate maze within his city. There, he fed the monster youths to satisfy its appetite.

The civilization itself actually lasted until about 1,420 B.C. until it eventually toppled. Some believe that the civilization eventually fell due to a massive eruption from the Volcano Thera on the island of Santorini. Others believe that invading Mycenaeans eventually overthrew and destroyed the once-great civilization.

Whatever the case, the origins of the Minoan civilization have largely remained a mystery--until now. Researchers examined DNA from 4,000-year-old Minoan skeletons that were sealed in a cave in Crete's Lassithi Plateau. They then compared these skeletons with genetic material from people living throughout Europe and Africa in the past and today.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the Minoan DNA most closely resembled modern-day Europeans--and was especially close to modern-day Cretans, particular those from the Lassithi Plateau. The Minoans were also genetically similar to Neolithic Europeans. However, they were distinct from both Egyptian and Libyan populations, which meant that the Minoan civilization was not, in fact, Egyptian.

"We now know that the founders of the first advanced European civilization were European," said study co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos in an interview with Discovery News. "They were very similar to Neolithic Europeans and very similar to present-day Cretans."

Yet the research doesn't only tell scientists about the origins of the ancient Minoans. It also may tell them a bit about their language. It's very possible that the Minoan people were descended from a branch of agriculturalists in Anatolia, which is now modern-day Turkey and Iraq. Because of this, Minoans may have spoken a proto-Indo-European language that was derived from the one spoken by Anatolian farmers, according to Discovery News.

The findings could have important implications for understanding the history of this region. In addition, the research could allow scientists to eventually learn a bit more about Anatolian migration to the island.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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