Visiting Athens: Part One – A Genetic Odyssey

My desire to write grew out of stories from Greek antiquity that I read as a boy. I’ve always wanted to visit Greece, only something else always seemed to be more important. This year one of my daughters suggested, “Why don’t you just do it?” So we did!

A Greek electrical contractor named Alexander sat beside my wife and I during the last leg of our flight into Athens. He rents a home in London, where he works, but has purchased property in Patras. That’s where Alexander hopes to retire. 

“Get away from Athens and the tourist sites. Go into the country, that’s where you’ll get to see the real Greek people!” he advised us.

We did the opposite. 

I wanted to see to see the Greece of Herodotus, Thucydides and Plato. I wanted to see some ancient digs and museums. We also wanted to explore the many maze-like lanes, alleyways and streets. We wanted to eat food that was actually prepared in Greece. You can do all of this within the heart of Athens, which is where we stayed for 10 days. 

Our trip received an unexpected enhancement a couple of weeks prior to our departure. According to Living DNA, everyone has autosomal chromosomes which contain a record of their ‘recent ancestry’ which can stretch back as far as 1,500 years, but is usually much less. (The norm 8 to 10 generations, or around 250 years ago.) Living DNA found that my recent DNA is 100% from Great Britain and Ireland. They subsequently reported my DNA also has Viking, Neanderthal and Denisovan markers. 

Now Living DNA is offering customers comparisons with 282 samples taken from 83 archaeological sites in the Ancient Roman Empire, Classical Greek World and Ancient Egypt. As my DNA was already on record, they had the results in one day.  

The big surprise was that my DNA was given a score of 25 out of a possible 100, when compared to a small collection of Egyptian samples from 652 BC to 47 BC. This would seem to confirm the theory that humanity’s ancestry is far more interelated than we thought.

It’s all a matter of mathematics. You had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents and the number keeps expanding until, counting back 20 generations, a million of your ancestors could have been living in a single generation. Count back a little further and you have more potential ancestors than there were people on the planet. All of our family trees eventually become duplicate pages, going back to the same people, over and over again through multiple lines of descent.

Yale statistician Joseph Chang calculated that all living Europeans have a common ancestor who lived at the end of the thirteenth century.

He added that if you factor in the possibility that one person crossed the Bering Strait every ten generations, everyone on the planet has a common ancestor who lived 3,600 years ago.

Adam Rutherford explained, “All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children Drogo, Pippin, and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you’re broadly eastern Asian, you’re almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as is often claimed. If you’re a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucius, or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children.”

To put that in a British Columbian context: every First Nations man, woman and child shares ancestors with the ‘settlers’ who now occupy much of this province. Similarly, regardless of their race, everyone in this province has First Nations ancestors.

My Greek ‘score’ is 31.36.

The ’closest sample’ to my DNA was sample 18209 from Ancient Empúries, in the Northeast corner of Spain. From what Rutherford writes, his DNA may resemble mine, but he is not necessarily my closest ancestor in the batch Living DNA studied. About 80% of the people who lived in Ancient Greece are allegedly ancestral to ALL living Europeans. The remaining 20% did not have descendants who survived into modern times.

Someone from Living DNA’s Science Team emailed, “One motto we’ve always had is that “we are all made up of all of us”. Genetically/ biologically speaking, this means that if we trace our ancestry “back enough“ we will all get to the point where we are all connected and have the same ancestors.”

However they could not comment on the extent of my Greek ancestry, “That’s a tricky one. Our current method only states which is the closest sample out of all the Ancient Greek samples in the analysis. We do not provide an answer to ‘do I have more Greek ancestors, and would some of them have come from Mainland Greece’ unfortunately.”

Phocaeans founded the colony of Massalia (Marseilles) about 600 BC and, a generation later some of them moved on to found Empúries.

LIving DNA commented, “I8209 is indeed Greek: AmtDB — Ancient mtDNA Database | Sample I8209 . The sample was first described in this paper The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years. Not 100% sure about Phocaean, but that’s a particular city in Anatolia in ancient Greece, so I don’t think I8209 can be considered Phocaean.”

They provided a link to an index page where it stated 18209 was a male living sometime between 400 and 450 BC.

His maternal DNA is U1a1a. According to J Molto et al, Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequencing of a Burial from a Romano–Christian Cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt: Preliminary Indications, this haplotype found is found in a wide variety of contemporary populations in the Middle East, including Turkey, Armenia, Palestine and Lebanon.

His paternal DNA is R1b1a1a2a1a2. In R King et al, The coming of the Greeks to Provence and Corsica: Y-chromosome models of archaic Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean, it states the ‘dominant haplogroup’ in Phocaea was R1b (M269). This supports, but does not prove, the idea that 18209’s paternal lineage came from Phocaea.

How long had his family been in the Western Mediterranean? Over the generations, did they intermarry with the Indigenous population? Other Greeks? Etruscans? Or even Punic settlers? Living DNA is probably correct in stating I8209 should not be considered ‘Phocaean,’ (just like I am a Canadian, not a Brit) but I suspect some of his ancestors were.

Phocaea is one of the 12 ‘Ionian’ cities of Asia Minor (in modern Turkey). While modern scholars are skeptical, in classical times it was widely believed the Ionians were once Athenians. They supposedly derived their name from Ion, a mythical king of Athens who divided the city’s population into four tribes. These four tribes were also found in some ancient Ionian cities. The Attic and Ionian Greek dialects are similar and some linguists believe they grew out of a ‘Proto-Ionic’ dialect, but this is only a theory.

If there is some truth to the myths, it might be found in the Dark Age which followed the end of the Mycenaean era. The city of Phocaea was founded around the 10th century BC.

After defeating the Lydian Empire in 546 BC, the Persians proceeded to conquer Ionia. Most of Phocaea’s population emigrated rather than submit, and Empúries received an influx of refugees.

In 499 BC, Ionia rose in revolt against their Persian masters. Athens sent 20 triremes to assist their supposed kinsmen. They took part in the capture and burning of Sardis, then returned home. Unable to match the Persian army on land, the Ionian’s only hope was at sea. On the eve of the decisive naval battle of Lade, they appointed Dionysus of Phocaea Admiral of the allied fleet. However most of the Greeks deserted. Dionysus captured three enemy ships in the engagement that followed, but was too heavily outnumbered to continue the fight. He turned pirate rather than return home. Dionysus sank a number of Phoenician merchant vessels, then sailed off to Sicily, where he preyed upon Carthaginian and Tyrrhenian shipping.  

Persia invaded Greece in 490 BC. A vastly outnumbered, but better equipped, Athenian army defeated them at Marathon. This delayed the decisive conflict for another decade. During the intervening years, Athens built the fleet of triremes that enabled the allied Greek fleet to shatter Persia’s naval might at Salamis. King Xerxes of Persia returned home with the bulk of his army. The Greeks vanquished the troops he left behind at the battle of Plataea. 

At the height of this struggle, the Persian army put Athens to the torch. The ‘Old Temple of Athena’ and ‘Older Parthenon,’ on the Acropolis, were both destroyed. (Herodotus VIII.53)

Athens emerged from the struggle with Persia at the head of the +300 city Delian League. They cleared the Aegean Sea of enemy ships and freed the Greek cities of Asia Minor. 

Conflict with Sparta was becoming inevitable, and the First Peloponnesian War broke out in 460 BC. This did not stop Athens and her allies from dispatching 200 ships to help Egypt in its rebellion against Persia. Both sides were ready for peace by the time the Egyptian expedition ended in disaster. 

The Delian League’s treasury was moved to the Acropolis ‘for safe keeping. ’The great Athenian statesman Pericles used some of this money to help finance a new Acropolis. Most of the buildings were at least started during his lifetime. 

Pericles skillfully guided Athens through the initial phase of THE Peloponnesian War, but was among the victims of the plague. There was not another Athenian leader of his calibre and the Spartans were finally triumphant in 404 BC.

Athens rose again, but never to its former glory. It continued to be a pampered cultural centre during the Hellenistic era and Roman Empire. 

The Acropolis that has come down to modern times was built during the city’s Golden Age.

Art historians refer to pottery and sculpture from the 200 years before the Persian Wars as ‘Archaic,’ and the artwork after this as ‘Classical.’

The theatre of Dionysus was built during the 6th century BC, but it was during Athens’ Golden Age that the playwrights Aeschylus (lc.525-c.456 BC), Sophocles (lc.496-c.406 B), Euripides (lc.484-407 BC), and Aristophanes (lc.460-c.380 BC) performed there.  

While there have been recorded events for thousands of years, an author from this era was given the title ‘Father of History.’ Herodotus was born in Asia Minor, but is known to have resided in Athens and may have been there when his Histories was published about 425 BC. 

Thucydides was an Athenian citizen and a military magistrate of importance during the Peloponnesian War. The history of that conflict is considered the first political and moral analysis of a nation’s war politics. 

Socrates (470–399 BC), the ‘Father of Western Philosophy’ was another veteran of the Peloponnesian War. He was later executed for ‘impiety’ and corrupting Athens youth. His teachings are only known through the   writings of his pupils Plato (founder of Athens’ Academy) and Xenophon. 

There was a sense in which my experience of Athens began while I was dragging our suitcase along the sidewalk en route to our AirBnB. Our plane had arrived at 4 AM that morning. After a quick breakfast, we caught a bus to Syntagma Square. The Guard was about to change before Athen’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We stopped to watch the slow motion choreography. A few minutes later we saw two columns of the temple of Olympian Zeus rising amidst the trees. My perception of the city immediately shifted. The large number of dilapidated buildings and seemingly endless graffiti, which had initially seemed like blemishes, suddenly enhanced the charm of this truly ancient city. For the next 10 days were were swept in an exploration of Athens’ historical sites, quaint neighbourhoods and sampling some of the Greek cuisine that you can experience on a budget.

That story continues in part two.

Top image Credit: Three cities of Athens: In the foreground, the Tower of the Winds rises up amidst ruins of the Roman Agora, the Anafiotika neighbourhood is behind that and the Acropolis is perched on the heights above – All undesignated photos by Roy L Hales

Footnote: This article was originally published on May 13 and additional materials added after Living DNA’s response arrived on May 14, 2024.

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