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Who are you calling Mycenaean?

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The photograph on the front page of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn’s website last week was a collage by the photographer Nelly’s, produced as propaganda for the Metaxas regime and displayed in the Greek Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There’s a ruined temple in the background, and in the foreground the ancient bronze statue known as the Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, next to an elderly modern Greek shepherd who looks remarkably like the classical god. The message of racial continuity between ancient and modern Greeks that the regime was keen to project, alongside its tourism campaign, could not have been more obvious.

The Golden Dawn headline above the picture claims that ‘the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved’. The article is based on a study published in Nature, ‘Genetic origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans’, by Iosif Laziridis et al. It was reported in the international as well as the Greek press, and the emphasis in most headlines was on the genetic continuity between people in the Bronze Age Aegean and contemporary Greeks: ‘Minos, our grandfather’, for example.

The scientific paper takes ‘Minoans’ and ‘Mycenaeans’ as truthful ethnic categories, representing coherent groups of people who identified themselves as such, but they are in fact archeological constructs originating in the late 19th and early 20th century, coined by the likes of Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans and their predecessors. This is the ‘pots equal people’ approach which most archeologists have left behind, aware of the complexities and intricacies of social and cultural identity. (There’s also old-fashioned talk of ‘the rise of civilisation’.)

The researchers say they ‘generated genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals’, classed as ‘Minoan’ or ‘Mycenaean’ depending on their dates and whether they came from Crete or mainland Greece. (Why 19? They don’t say. ‘No statistical methods were used to predetermine sample size.’) Other data were used for the purposes of analysis, including DNA from 30 ‘Modern Greek’ individuals, from mainland Greece, Cyprus and Crete.

One of the questions the researchers set out to answer was: ‘Do the labels “Minoan” and “Mycenaean” correspond to genetically coherent populations or do they obscure a more complex structure of the peoples who inhabited Crete and mainland Greece at this time?’ But they’d already answered it in the affirmative by their choice of categories, by the labels they attached to the sampled skeletons.

‘Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans,’ they conclude, ‘but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry.’ The results of the study ‘support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilisations’. But it’s hardly surprising that a few modern individuals living in the Eastern Mediterranean should share genetic material with a few individuals who lived in the same region in the Bronze Age; it’s a big jump from there to the neo-Nazi fantasy of 4000 years of ‘racial continuity’.

In a press interview following the publication of the study, one of the main authors claimed that ‘there is no doubt that our findings reflect historical events in the Greek lands’: ‘the picture of historical continuity is crystal clear, as is very clear the fact that through the centuries Greeks evolved receiving genetic influences from other populations.’ The category of ‘Greekness’ here appears more or less given and stable, despite the ‘influences’, from the Early Bronze Age to the present. It sounds like a version of the 19th-century national narrative of the power of eternal Hellenism to absorb external influences.

The researchers stray beyond genetics for some shaky supportive evidence. The article mentions ‘the distribution of shared toponyms in Crete, mainland Greece and Anatolia’, supported by a single bibliographic reference dating to 1896. ‘The appearance of the Bronze Age people of the Aegean has been preserved in colourful frescos and pottery,’ the researchers say, ‘depicting people with mostly dark hair and eyes.’ They ‘infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations … suggesting that art of this period reproduced phenotypes naturalistically.’ But there were well-known non-naturalistic artistic conventions in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, such as the depiction of men and women with red and white skin respectively.

The idea that facial features denote ethnic types takes us back to the interwar years, and even to the late 19th century. The choice of photograph on the Golden Dawn website may not have been so inappropriate after all. Whatever its authors’ intentions, this single study, with its small sample, out-dated rationale and circular logic, is being consumed as a rehearsal of 19th and early 20th-century racial discourse, updated with a modern and seemingly authoritative toolkit.

Comments on “Who are you calling Mycenaean?”

  1. Graucho says:

    When one of these characters who argue the case for eugenics and racial superiority is asked to describe what an ideal human being would be like, they invariably describe someone just like themselves. The question they should really ask is “Why has sexual as opposed to asexual reproduction been so successful?” The answer is because is produces variation and lots of it. The survival of a species depends on an interaction between the organism and its environment. When the latter changes to the detriment of a homogeneous species, they are all wiped out. Enough of a highly heterogeneous one will survive for it to continue. When Darwin talks about the survival of the fittest, he uses the word fit as a tailor would, not an athlete, meaning fitted to the world being lived in.

  2. Trevor Watkins says:

    It is indeed disturbing that an article in the journal Nature has provided support for the propaganda of a racist nationalistic political party. The article in Nature got a lot more international publicity than might have been expected. How many journalists would have found a short article based on the analysis of a small number DNA samples, and found it worth writing about the ethnicity of ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans, unless a press release hit their screens, explaining in simple terms the (journalistic) importance of this research. I am becoming very uneasy at the way that certain articles in the major scientific journals are reported all around the world in many, many newspapers and news web-sites. The news-worthiness seems to derive not from the research itself but from the usually controversial inferences that have been drawn from the research itself. I am also noticing that certain authors’ names crop up again and again as the sources of these exciting insights. The lead author of the article on the ethnicity of the Minoans and Mycenaeans is a researcher at a medical school. He is also associated with a number of other recent articles in Nature (not always at the head of the long list of authors). And two or three of those earlier articles have likewise roused heated criticism of the archaeological and historical inferences that have been drawn from a small group of DNA analyses. One article based on the analysis of some European Bronze Age human samples concluded that the origin of the Info-European languages was to be found in the steppes of Central Asia. Another article was based on a number of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age human remains from all around Europe, which concluded that the Beaker invaders who came to Britain seem to have obliterated and replaced the Neolithic population. It strains my confidence in the effectiveness of peer-review. Perhaps all of these articles were peer-reviewed by geneticists who verified that the DNA analysis procedures and statistical analysis of the results were in order. Clearly no archaeologist was involved. And I cannot imagine that any of the claimed archaeologist-contributors to those articles wrote the archaeological sections of those papers. Finally, I am disturbed that the intelligent public that relies on the science journalists who write for their newspaper are being fed fake-science.

    • Aldon says:

      Found the Creationist.

    • John Cowan says:

      The difficulty is that archaeologists, geneticists, and linguists don’t collaborate enough, and when they do, the ideology of one or another group tends to shine through the results. Genetic and archaeological evidence shine only an indirect light on the “origin [point] of the Indo-European languages”, because populations can and do adopt entirely new languages without changing their material culture much, as any country of immigration such as the U.S. can show.

      And linguistics itself, which has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the relatedness and structure of the IE languages, has only rules of thumb for indicating the most likely point of origin: for example, the rule that the point of maximum diversity is typically the point of origin. For English, this works well: the maximum dialect diversity of English is indeed in England, at least pre-20C England (universal education has leveled much of it since). But the point of maximum diversity for the Romance languages happens to be not Latium but Corsica.

  3. Double Helix says:

    Perhaps before you presume to comment on a population genetics paper you could try to educate yourself about population genetics.

    As it is, your critique is of no usefuleness.

  4. Aldon says:

    Keep clinging to your revisionism that Modern Greeks aren’t largely descended from the ancient ones and thus have the strongest claim to their civilization with its feats. What, you think some Kunta Kinte looking migrant has a legitimate to Ancient Greece?

  5. Double Helix says:

    The ancient Canaanites haven’t, in general, gone anywhere, and neither have the ancient Egyptians or, as this paper proves, the ancient Greeks. Have there been genetic changes? Yes, there have, caused by, in the case of the Greeks, the Slavic migrations as well as the movement of the Indo-European peoples from the steppe, but they are not major. The majority of the ancestry has remained the same in some places.

    Also, the majority of the ancestry of the British Isles descends from a Bell Beaker population from the continent in the Bronze Age, despite the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans.

    People who hold themselves out to be educated and informed really have to start reading population genetics studies. Both Nordicism and Afro-centrism have been proven to be incorrect. So have, as well, a lot of the truisms of post World War II archaeology. There’s just no doubt about it, in my opinion.

    European history shows a pattern of population stasis punctuated by folk migrations. The last great one seems to be the Bronze Age. The one before that the Neolithic.

  6. Aldon says:

    You’re talking to Lefties. Lefties spewing Post-Modernism.

    It’s interesting how it’s suddenly a problem to both note and support using actual science a European country’s continuity, with in turn noticing the evidence that determines legitimacy. I suspect the Lefties here wouldn’t complain if genomic studies were used to support Pre-Columbian, Chinese, or otherwise non-Western/non-European claims to territories and civilizations, and in turn the authority to say who has claims to their countries and who doesn’t.

    They might also have New Worlders among them. New Worlders operating under the delusion that the mass population decline, mongrelization, and mass migration that happened to the pre-Columbian civilizations is the norm for conquests of pre-modern agricultural societies as opposed to an abberation.

  7. XopherO says:

    I think the real point here is what scientific journals are prepared to publish on slim research – however much all the markers are supposedly met (or, sadly, not). The goal of most researchers is citations as a measure of standing and eminence in a field – as one wit once said ‘Expand your research – spread it over several papers’ – he was describing rather than recommending! But even more, the point is how science journalism often distorts the ‘meaning’ – in search of readers. One is reminded of how Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision was reported sensationally in the press which led to wild attacks from a scientific community that had largely not even read the book, just the Harper’s article, and the sacking of a respected head of an observatory who dared to utter some supportive comments. And modern science is even more distorted by such intolerant camps (global warming anyone? and it would seem, genetics in pre-history).

    Nor do I see how silly comments like Creationist, Lefty or post-modernist contribute.

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      First, a data-set of 19 measurements is not “slim”, especially if the right statistical tests are used to characterize the confidence-level appropriate to the kind of data collected and the size of the set.

      Second, the goals of researchers are usually explanation or a step in that direction; the professional deformity of publish or perish does exist, but within any given field results that are sought solely on the basis of career advancement tend to cancel each other out or lose their significance when more robust studies are done.

      Third, to introduce the Velikovsky affair as indicative of anything other than the sheer ridiculousness of his book is silly along the lines of Creationist or Lefty. I read Worlds in Collision 40 years ago and laughed all the way through, re-read it about two years ago and laughed even more heartily (feeling sorry for poor old V who dedicated his talents to such comical “theories”, or, frankly, sensationalist pseudoscience).

      • XopherO says:

        My point was not about whether the book was good or bad (but it is a fun read, and could have been responded to sensibly) but the reaction to it from the scientific community – damning it on the basis of a magazine article. I seem to remember that Macmillans USA had to pass up the book because of a threat to boycott their science textbooks if they published it. So my point was about how vicious scientific debate can be, and how referees and journals can (but not always) act like thought police. Indeed, your response shows you did not make an effort to understand the point being made. To call the comment I made ‘silly’ is typical of how debate easily descends into ad hominem abuse, and this blog rather shows it.

        • Timothy Rogers says:

          XopherO seems very sensitive, but in an inconsistent way. There’s no no denying V’s book was a “fun read” – just as there’s no denying that it is entirely laughable pseudoscience. I guess the appellation “silly” when applied to a Creationist, Lefty, or post-modernist is not ad hominem, but my use of it apparently was when used to characterize an attempt (irrelevant to the topic of this blog) to rescue V from his academic tormenters; as I said, a sillier example couldn’t have been picked. The justifiable criticism of the scientific community – Oh, those nasty bullies! – of V’s book did not prevent it from being a cheap paperback best-seller, thereby doing the V family a greater service than if Macmillans had published it as . . . what? To have called it science would have righlty rebounded against them.

  8. Timothy Barnes says:

    Dear editors,

    This letter is in regards to a blog post on your website by Yannis Hamilakis (“Who are you calling Mycenaean?” Yannis Hamilakis 10 August 2017). Normally a few short paragraphs on a website would not be worth worrying about. But Hamilakis’ piece is so mendacious that I find it impossible not to register my dismay publicly.

    First, I find it completely beyond the pale and indeed bordering on libellous that Hamilakis tars the authors of this study with Neo-Nazism solely because members of the Golden Dawn interpreted the findings to fit their own agenda. Completely beyond the pale and utterly disgraceful.

    The primary purpose of the paper was not to connect Greeks of the current day with ‘Myceneans’, but to assess the genetic basis of the archaeological constructs ‘Mycenean’ and ‘Minoan’. I would think that an archaeologist would welcome the chance to scientifically debunk what he calls “archeological constructs originating in the late 19th and early 20th century, coined by the likes of Heinrich Schliemann, Arthur Evans and their predecessors”. (“The likes of”! How I wish that I could be rewarded for denigrating the inventors and popularisers of my own field.) The DNA evidence could have gone any number of ways. But as it turned out, it supported grouping the mainland and Cretan samples into two distinct but related groups, call them what you will. More interestingly, the authors’ best interpretation of what distinguished the two populations was that the mainland (‘Mycenean’) group had some admixture, on top of a base corresponding to the Cretan group, from the steppes, consistent with a migration between 4000 and 2000 BCE. This, of course, agrees with the completely independent linguistic evidence: Indo-European on the mainland, non-Indo-European languages in Crete, although I am sure Professor Hamilakis is ready to write a blog post about how Indo-European linguistics is also a 19th c. construct.

    Given the brevity of the piece, it is almost incredible how many times Hamilakis misrepresents the position of the authors. On the basis of a media interview in which one of the authors said “the picture of historical continuity is crystal clear, as is very clear the fact that through the centuries Greeks evolved receiving genetic influences from other populations”, Hamilakis issues his indictment: “The category of ‘Greekness’ here appears more or less given and stable, despite the ‘influences’, from the Early Bronze Age to the present.” But what they say at the end of the paper is much more nuanced, even if an anachronistic ‘Greekness’ is still lurking in the background: “the discovery of at least two migration events into the Aegean in addition to the first farming dispersal before the Bronze Age, and of additional population change since that time, supports the view that the Greeks did not emerge fully formed from the depths of prehistory, but were, indeed, a people ‘ever in the process of becoming’”. Substitute ‘the population of Greece’ for ‘the Greeks’ in this formulation, and you have a problem-free statement of some very interesting findings of recent years. What is more important: policing the language of scientists, or evaluating their findings?

    Hamilakis complains that the authors refer to Kretschmer’s 1896 discussion of Aegean toponomastics, but surely he knows that it is standard to refer to Kretschmer in any discussion of the non-Greek languages of the Aegean. Literally everyone does it. Then there is this:

    ‘The appearance of the Bronze Age people of the Aegean has been preserved in colourful frescos and pottery,’ the researchers say, ‘depicting people with mostly dark hair and eyes.’ They ‘infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations … suggesting that art of this period reproduced phenotypes naturalistically.’ But there were well-known non-naturalistic artistic conventions in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, such as the depiction of men and women with red and white skin respectively.

    I’ll be the first to admit that this argument was entirely gratuitous and added nothing to the paper. But it is interesting (and, to be more honest, a tell for a bullshitter) that Hamilakis elides the basis for their inference. What they actually say is “We used the HIrisPlex tool (Supplementary Information section 4) to infer that the appearance of our ancient samples matched the visual representations”. In other words, they used the tool to suggest a phenotype, and then compared it to the frescoes. Strictly speaking, all one could say about this is that the results of the HIrisPlex analysis are compatible with observation of the frescoes. What is the problem here? One gets the feeling that anything that smacks of common sense is impermissible in Hamilakis’ world. After all, if it were all only a matter of common sense, what is the Joukowsky family paying for, exactly?

    Timothy Barnes

  9. gwat1946 says:

    I 100% agree with Timothy Barnes. This review shows gross ignorance of the scientific field he is criticising, and consistently misunderstands or misrepresents the letter to Nature.

    The whole point of the letter is to determine whether there is genetic evidence of an ethnic (in the physical sense) identity that corresponds to the archeological constructs “Mycenean” and “Minoan”. Hamilakis seems to think that just posing the question is discgraceful and racist.

    From a stats point of view I don’t think anyone has yet called out the ridiculous comment about lack of a “predetermine[d] sample size”.

    Also Hamilakis does call the authors of the study Neo-Nazis. His statement “the neo-Nazi fantasy of 4000 years of ‘racial continuity’” is a direct comment on the authors’ statement that their results ‘support the idea of continuity’.

    Geoffrey Watson

    • ledmatt says:

      No, it’s a direct comment on “The Golden Dawn headline above the picture claims that ‘the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved’.”

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      Mr. Watson is correct about Hamilakis’s silly remarks on statistical sample sizes. A data set constructed from 19 samples is not unusual – it depends on the kind of data to be analyzed and its availability (just how many good skeletons yielding un-degraded DNA from 3500-4500 years ago are out there ? – I suspect not all that many). If you are running a big “multi-center” bio-medical study of the effects of one drug, you might very well have a large predetermined sample size in order to wash out the many sources of variability in such studies – but this is is only one of several methodological “gold standards” of research.

      And there are several statistical tests specifically designed so that “small-N studies” can be treated rigorously enough to yield one of the standard confidence levels (a common one being 0.05). The question of just how much “ancestral DNA” in a specific region of the world has been passed down to a current population living in the same area is an eminently scientific one that is not inherently tinged with racism. A bone, of course, can not be “genetically Mycenaean”, since the latter refers to a culture (or cultural complex, depending how fussy you are about these things), but to infer from evidence that a specific ethnic group (with some interlopers mixed in) was the “carrier” of a specific set of cultural practices is hardly controversial, nor should it be. Settling that question does not require that the ancestral group “conceived of themselves as Mycanaean”, a Hamilakis red-herring relying on currently fashionable ideas about identity-construction (and a pretty boring subject too, considering just how interesting ancient political and social history is)

  10. pgoldsmith says:

    I suppose the resort to pots was by someone who failed to notice the markedly eastern features, visible particularly in the eyes seen in profile, which may not fit the desired ethnic stretch given that portrayal of a modern Greek would in general be inccrrect to show this feature.

  11. Alysheba says:

    Racial continuity? I suppose so. We are all members of the Human race. Neanderthal died out approximately 10,000 years ago.

    Why all these ideas of race relations, or pure German or Greek when the Human genome was established in the 1990? DNA in the 1950?

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