Greek Genealogy 101

Who were the first people to live in Greece?

Not a lot is known of the first people who inhabited the Greek islands and the Greek main land first. What we know for sure (more or less) is that the first people to live in Greece were the Mycenaeans and Minoans. It is assumed that the first at some stage (when the two met somewhere in Greece as they both came from different directions) conquered the latter because the Minoans were more interested in art, culture and trade than in fighting, weapons and military. Then came the Dorians who put an end to the Mycenaeans. Historians only really know more about the eras that follow the dark age (which followed after the Dorians).

Greeks all over the world

When the world became a place of trade and colonization, Greeks also started to travel all over the world. Of course, the closer we come to our current era, the easier traveling became. But often Greeks had to travel to other countries to fight in wars. The ease and need of traveling are one of the main reasons why there are quite a few people with Greek blood in their veins – maybe even without knowing so. After all, the Greek civilization is one of the oldest in the world, and the Greek had plenty of time to spread their genes.

Problems with tracing the Greek part of a family tree

People who suspect or know that they have a partially Greek heritage will often run into problems when they try to trace their Greek ancestors. The main problem is that Greek records often do not go back more than two or three generations, that makes it hard to trace back more generations. Another problem is that the documentation is often incomplete, or not correct because names have been changed but not properly documented. Another obstacle, of course, is the language. It is very hard for someone who does not speak Greek to get access to the needed documents AND understand them. This is why most people who would like to trace their Greek genealogy use the help of a third party.

Greek family names

One question many people may have is why Greek family names often end in “s”. Fact is that they don't do that in Greece. Usually only the family names of males end with an “s” as Greek is a gender specific language. However, it was confusing for speakers of other language to have a Mister Papadopoulous and a Misses Papadopoulou. They were assumed to belong to a different family while they actually were husband a wife. To make it easier for strangers, the Greek simply use the male form of the family name when outside Greece – this might also offer a clue for people who are looking for a female relative in Greece but look for a name ending in “s”!

Hints in surnames

Greek surnames can often give you important clues about the origin of the family. Most Greek family name are patronymics, but it is also possible for a name to indicate an occupation (like the English Smith), a certain characteristic of the person or a hint about where the person comes from. If you can understand what the family name means, then the tracing of the history behind that particular family can become a lot easier.

Some examples:
- A name that begins with “Papa” tells you that someone had a priest as an ancestor.
- Names that end in “akis” are usually from Crete or the Aegean Islands.
- Names that end in “as” are connected to Macedonia and Epirus.
- Names that end in “atos” usually stand for an Italian derivation from the Ionian island Cephalonia, which was an island that had strong connection to Venice.
- Names with an ending like “elis” or “ilis” were common in Western Asia Minor, Imbros, Lemnos, and Mytilini.
- A name that ended with “opoulos” was originally mainly used in the Peloponnese and can be translated as “descendant of”. However, the ending is now also common in other parts of Greece.
- Names ending in “ou” generally come from Cyprus.

Some Greek names can also be quite easily understand by modern Greek people as a statement of origin. The name “Voulgaropoulos” for example means “son of a Bulgarian”, which means that the person bearing this surname most likely also has Bulgarian roots.