When Heinrich Schliemann discovered the richly gilded tombs of Mycenae with their famous golden masks more than 100 years ago, he could only speculate about the relationship of the people buried in them. Now, with the help of ancient genome analysis, it is possible for the first time to gain insight into the rules of kinship and marriage in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece. The results have been published in the journal nature and its evolution.
A research team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), together with an international team of partners, analyzed more than 100 genomes of Bronze Age people from the Aegean Sea. “Without the great collaboration with our partners in Greece and around the world, this would not have been possible,” says archaeologist Philip Stockhammer, one of the study’s lead authors.
The first biological family tree of a Mycenaean family
Thanks to recent methodological advances in the production and evaluation of ancient genetic datasets, it is now possible to produce extensive data even in regions with DNA preservation problems due to climatic conditions, such as Greece. For a small 16th-century BC Mycenaean village, it was possible to reconstruct the kinship link between the inhabitants of the house – the first genetically reconstructed family tree to date for the entire ancient Mediterranean region.
Apparently, some of the sons were still living in their parents’ village in their adulthood. At least their children were buried in a grave under the courtyard of the estate. One of the wives who married into the house brought her sister into the family, whose child was also buried in the same grave.
It is customary for one to marry one’s first cousin
However, there was another completely unexpected discovery: on Crete and other Greek islands, as well as on the mainland, it was quite common for one to marry one’s first cousin 4,000 years ago. “More than a thousand ancient genomes have been published from different regions of the world, but such a strict system of inbreeding appears not to have existed anywhere else in the ancient world,” says Irini Scortanioti, lead author of the study. who performed the analyses. This has come as a complete surprise to all of us and raises many questions.
How this marriage rule might be explained, the research team can only speculate. “Maybe this was a way to prevent the inherited farmland from being divided more and more? In any case, it ensured a certain continuity of the family in one place, which is an important prerequisite for the cultivation of olives and wine, for example,” Stockhammer suspects. “What is certain is that analysis of ancient genomes will continue to provide us with new and fascinating insights into ancient family structures well into the future,” adds Scortanioti.