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28 April 2015

The New York Times, March 11th (sent in by a US member) had a short piece on DNA studies of the Armenian people of the Transcaucasus region. In Armenian tradition, or rather, according to an Armenian historian, ones Moses Khorenatsi, the Armenians established their homeland as long ago as 2492BC. We don't know how he arrived at that date but modern  genetic studies show he was not that far out.

Geneticists scanned the genome of 173 Armenians and found they are a mixed bunch, like most human groups, and the various strands came together between 3000 and 2000BC. At the end of the Bronze Age, roughly 1200BC according to standard chronology, there was a considerable movement of people around the eastern Mediterranean and its hinterland (including Armenia). This follows the collapse of Hittite empire, based in central and eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey). No significant mixing with other people occurred after that date. In other words, their genes have been effectively isolated, suggested they remained in their mountain fastness (and the fertile valleys) and had the ability to melt away as invading armies passed through their territories. This is a distinct difference to other people located in the Near East, buffeted by the armies of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, and later by Turks and Mongols. This indicates, according to the author, the Armenians are closer to Neolithic farmers who went on to bring agriculture to Europe, than other people living in the Near East today, such as the Arabs.

In the third millennium BC there was a distinctive culture spread across the whole of the Transcaucasus, and their main economic activity appears to have been herding sheep. At different times, in mid third millennium and late third millennium BC there was a shift of people from Armenia into the Levant – presumably refugees from earthquake and global cooling events. These people can be satisfactorily identified with the Hurrians – who after the end of the Bronze Age established the kingdom of Urartu, a bulwark against Assyrian and Babylonian expansion. The Armenians adopted Christianity and resisted various Islamic inroads, suffering defeats on the battlefield on several occasions, but always remaining semi independent. In the early 20th century they were the victims of extremist Islamic attention, and their homeland in Turkey was pretty well cleansed of their presence – but they did not disappear entirely. The Armenian homeland in Russia (across the Turkish border) has remained intact – so they can be said to have survived once again.

The Yazidis on the other hand may well go back to the aryan Mitanni – another Bronze Age people. How these people managed to survive the inroads of Islam, and the constant wars and marching armies, is difficult to grasp – but survive they did. The Kurds on the other hand are a different kettle of fish, as they adopted Islam enthusiastically. Indeed, Kurds have been involved in several extremist pogroms on Christians in Syria and northern Iraq (who themselves managed to survive centuries of Islamic dominanation). At the moment Kurds are the victims of violence from Arabs and their allies – but it was not always so.

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