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mitochondrial DNA, ancient civilisations and early writing

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linear A

linear A

It seems to me we’re living in a world of knowledge revolutions, such as a consciousness revolution, a DNA revolution, a cosmological revolution, a stem-cell revolution, in fact every area of science or technology you care to look at seems to be undergoing revolutionary change, with far more happening than you can ever get your head around, especially if you’re as slow, eternally baffled and wide-eyed as I am. Anyway, I find mucking around in the shallows a lot of fun.

The use of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA to trace the provenance of ancient civilizations is one heady development worth keeping tabs on. One such civilization is the Minoan, which flourished 4000 years ago on the island of Crete. More precisely, it’s believed to have lasted for 12 centuries before coming to a sudden end at around 1500 BCE, probably as a result of a volcanic eruption followed by a tsunami. Arthur Evans, the famed excavator of its palatial remains, named the civilization Minoan after the mythical Minos, king of Crete. He believed it to have been a product of refugees or travellers from Egypt, a view which has divided scholars since. A recent mitochondrial DNA analysis, however, has tended to support the view that the Minoan civilisation was indigenous and independently arrived at. However, mitochondrial DNA, which traces back strictly through the female line, has its limitations, and there are plans for further research using nuclear DNA. It’s unlikely that we’ll completely unravel the web of relations that led to the surge in complexity known as the Cretan bronze age in about 2700 BCE, but DNA analysis is certainly helping to clarify the picture.

When I read about ancient civilizations I’m always interested in how they fit into a wider picture. The Minoans seem to have possessed an open, largely peaceful trading culture, so the links would no doubt have been numerous. There’s plenty of evidence of cultural exchange with Egypt over the period. One of the interesting features of early Minoan civilization is its writing system and how it connects with others, particularly Egyptian writing. The earliest writing forms found on Crete, Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A, are as yet undeciphered. They appear to be related, but have so far have not been traced to any other known language. Linear B, a later Mycenaean-influenced form, was deciphered in the fifties, and this created an expectation that Linear A, which showed superficial similarities to Linear B (both are described as linear because they are more line-based than Cretan hieroglyphs), would soon be cracked, but the logograms or graphemes of Linear A are largely unique. Cretan hieroglyphs bear some relation to Egyptian hieroglyphs but also to various early Mesopotamian writings, so it’s not certain whether it was independently developed. This form of writing, which goes back at least to 3000 BCE, seems to have disappeared by 1700 BCE.

So we seem to have had a relatively sudden evolution of writing around the Mediterranean and the Mesopotamian regions in the late fourth millenium BCE, though various proto-writing forms had existed for millenia beforehand. The big question here is whether the spark that created a more complex and useful type of writing occurred in only one place and was carried to other places by travellers and traders, or was it a matter of similar conditions fostering a set of sparks in the region, kind of coincidentally but not really. Maybe that’s something to explore further but I’m done for now.


Written by stewart henderson

May 18, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Posted in DNA, history, language

Tagged with , , , ,

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