History Files


Prehistoric Europe

Dorians & Mycenaeans

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 10 September 2022

The group of migratory Indo-Europeans which formed the proto-Mycenaeans followed the heavily-used westwards migratory trail from the Pontic steppe, crossing the River Prut to enter Romania on the eastern side of the Carpathian Mountains.

They did so fairly late, however, well after the main Indo-European flow had worn itself down to a comparative trickle.

The still-strong relationship between Mycenaeans and steppe nomad culture shows that these two branches divided fairly late, sometime between 2500-2000 BC. Therefore it is likely that proto-Mycenaeans were amongst the last to arrive in Romania as the Yamnaya horizon had already faded out by that time.

Seemingly they did not stop long in established territory (or their steppe nomad influences would have been watered down). Instead they carried on into Greece to found Mycenaean civilisation there by about 1600 BC.

Their civilisation was, though, brief in terms of existence. By 1100 BC it had already gone, with much of Greece falling under the control of the Dorians.

Was that it then? A quick rise and fall and then no more?

Dorians: invaders or brothers?

As ever, the story is more complicated than that.

Recent DNA tests on Mycenaean bodies which have been found during well over a century of archaeological digs have been compared with findings from modern Greeks. Those findings were startling - there was no appreciable difference.

The Mycenaeans were as Greek as today's population. The Dorians were not mentioned, but it is accepted fact that they took over much of Mycenaean Greece (all bar Athens, plus various areas which were still dominated by the earlier Pelasgians).

Given that fact, even if they only provided a superficial layer of nobility to control the general Mycenaean population, then the Dorians should still show up in the results.

With the Mycenaeans unable to preserve their dominance of Greece in the face of the Dorian advance in the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries BC, the Dorian numbers must have been higher than a layer of added ruling nobility, thereby providing an even greater influence on modern DNA results.

But that influence was seemingly missing from the results.

Map of Indo-Europeans c.3000 BC
Map 3: The Indo-Europeans of the Pontic-Caspian steppe began to migrate out of their core territory around 3000 BC, while those who remained behind - the East IEs - eventually integrated themselves into the Oxus Civilisation and probably then supplied the Aryans of India and Iran (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Mask of Agamemnon

The 'Mask of Agamemnon' was so named by Heinrich Schliemann, perhaps optimistically, but this is a prime example of Mycenaean work - descendants of South-West IEs

The only answer is that there was no difference between the Dorians and Mycenaeans (and also the later Minoans) - both had the same DNA or were highly similar. The Dorians were essentially Mycenaeans, but with a different name and with a less advanced culture (the later Greeks saw the Macedonians in the same light).

Mycenaean language has also been shown to have provided the basis for modern Greek, so it is also more likely that the Dorian language was very similar, if not the same - after all the two groups had only been separated for a little over half a millennium. They may not have been separated at all if trading and low-level migration links had been maintained between the Mycenaean Greeks and their Indo-European cousins in the Balkans.

The Dorians found it easy to take over Greece because they were essentially the same people as the Mycenaeans.


Main Sources

Kristian Kristiansen - Europe Before History

Homer - The Iliad (translated by E V Rieu, Penguin, 1950)

Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, and Anthony A Barrett - The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius

William Smith (Ed) - A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Norman J G Pounds - An Historical Geography of Europe (abridged)

David W Anthony - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

James Cowles Prichard - Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (Vol 3, Issue 1)

Ahmad Hasan Dani, Jean-Pierre Mohen, J L Lorenzo, & V M Masson  - History of Humanity - Scientific and Cultural Development: From the Third Millennium to the Seventh Century BC (Vol II, Unesco 1996)

Online Sources

Nature - The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe

Nature - Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe

BBC News - DNA clue to origins of early Greek civilization

Science - The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.