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First cousins were encouraged to marry in Ancient Greece: study

It’s just another way of “keeping it in the family.”

A new DNA study revealed Monday that several parts of Ancient Greece encouraged its citizens to marry their first cousins, according to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The Germany-based institute analyzed 102 different human genomes from Greece’s Bronze Age, and learned that Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece were among the top practitioners of marriage between cousins.

The team said that the discovery gave them “exciting insights” into the social structure of Ancient Greece.

Using genetic material from people who were buried nearby one another, the team was able to reconstruct a rough outline of a family tree.

According to their research, over half the occupants of ancient Crete married their cousins, while only a third of the villagers on the mainland followed suit. Study co-authors Philipp Stockhammer and Eirini Skourtanioti believe the familiar unions were economically driven.

Using the DNA of people who were buried in a tomb on an island in Mycenaean Greece, the team was able to reconstruct a rough outline of a family tree.
Using the DNA of people who were buried in a tomb on an island in Mycenaean Greece, the team was able to reconstruct a rough outline of a family tree.
Eva Skourtanioti/Max Planck Inst

“Maybe this was a way to prevent the inherited farmland from being divided up more and more? In any case, it guaranteed a certain continuity of the family in one place, which is an important prerequisite for the cultivation of olives and wine, for example,” Stockhammer, a professor of archaeology, said in a statement.

“More than a thousand ancient genomes from different regions of the world have now been published, but it seems that such a strict system of kin marriage did not exist anywhere else in the ancient world,” added Skourtanioti, who conducted the analyses. “This came as a complete surprise to all of us and raises many questions.”

According to the Germany-based institute -- which analyzed over 100 different genomes from Greeces' Bronze Age -- Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece were among the top practitioners.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology say the study reveals even more about the unique social structures of Ancient Greek commoners.
De Agostini via Getty Images

In contrast to Europe’s Bronze Age, where women would often travel hundreds of miles to wed, Stockhammer noted that there is very little room in Greece to move or grow things. Common crops of the region, such as grapes and olive oil, can take decades to successfully cultivate — thus marriage between family members would ensure the land is kept with future descendants.

Stockhammer told CNN the new data will force historians to “rethink the social organizations in this period and societies.”

“It’s a society where we have written records about palace administrations, but we are now able to say something about the normal people,” declared Stockhammer.

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