– By NICHOLAS WADE
Movses Khorenatsi, a historian in the fifth century, wrote that his native Armenia had been established in 2492 B.C., a date usually regarded as legendary though he claimed to have traveled to Babylon and consulted ancient records. But either he made a lucky guess or he really did gain access to useful data, because a new genomic analysis suggests that his date is entirely plausible.
Geneticists have scanned the genomes of 173 Armenians from Armenia and Lebanon and compared them with those of 78 other populations from around the world. They found that the Armenians are a mix of ancient populations whose descendants now live in Sardinia, Central Asia and several other regions. This formative mixture occurred from 3000 to 2000 B.C., the geneticists calculated, coincident with Movses Khorenatsi’s date for the founding of Armenia.
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Toward the end of the Bronze Age, when the mixture was in process, there was considerable movement of peoples brought about by increased trade, warfare and population growth. After 1200 B.C., the Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly collapsed, an event that seems to have brought about the isolation of Armenians from other populations. No significant mixing with other peoples after that date can be detected in the genomes of living Armenians, the geneticists said.
The isolation was probably sustained by the many characteristic aspects of Armenian culture. Armenians have a distinctive language and alphabet, and the Armenian Apostolic Church was the first branch of Christianity to become established as a state religion, in A.D. 301, anticipating that by the Roman empire in A.D. 380.
The researchers also see a signal of genetic divergence that developed about 500 years ago between western and eastern Armenians. The date corresponds to the onset of wars between the Ottoman and Safavid dynasties and the division of the Armenian population between the Turkish and Persian empires.
“This DNA study confirms in general outline much of what we know about Armenian history,” said Hovann Simonian, a historian of Armenia affiliated with the University of Southern California.
The geneticists’ team, led by Marc Haber and Chris Tyler-Smith of the Sanger Institute, near Cambridge in England, see long-isolated populations like that of the Armenians as a means of reconstructing population history.
Armenians share 29 percent of their DNA ancestry with Otzi, a man whose 5,300-year-old mummy emerged in 1991 from a melting Alpine glacier. Other genetically isolated populations of the Near East, like Cypriots, Sephardic Jews and Lebanese Christians, also share a lot of ancestry with the Iceman, whereas other Near Easterners, like Turks, Syrians and Palestinians, share less. This indicates that the Armenians and other isolated populations are closer than present-day inhabitants of the Near East to the Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Europe about 8,000 years ago.
The geneticists’ paper was posted last month on bioRxiv, a digital library for publishing scientific articles before they appear in journals. Dr. Tyler-Smith, the senior author of the genetics team, said he could not discuss their results for fear of jeopardizing publication in a journal that he did not name.