Croatian Symbol/Hrvatski Greb: courtesy of Tomislav Mikulic

Croatian Genealogy Newsletter

Issue No. 9, January 2004


Are Croatians European or Iranian?

I recently came across a symposium on the Internet entitled “The old Iranian origins of Croats” (1). The symposium was held in Zagreb on June 24th 1998 and what caught my attention was a section called “Genealogy of Old Croatian tribes”. Naturally, I was intrigued to know how tribes can be compared genealogically. On examining the titles of the speakers who described these Croatian tribes it was obvious that they did not agree on a common ancestor since locations of these Croatian tribes ranged from Afghanistan, to the Carpathians Mountains, to ancient Syria. The titles of these symposium papers did not offer any agreement as to a definitive Croatian origin or genealogy.

The Pre-Slavists

But why would anyone think that Croatians are descendant from Asian tribes? The answer was partly addressed in the premise for the 1998 symposium in Zagreb (1). Sakac and Mikoczy are names that abound when an Asian origin is suggested for Croats. These individuals began the study of Asian origins for Croats in the previous centuries and such studies continue today to be a part of the scientific examination of Croatian origins. Josip Mikoczy-Blumenthal (born in 1734 and died in 1800) wrote a 1797 doctoral dissertation in Zagreb entitled, “Croats of Slavic group originated from Sarmatians descending from Medians”. He determined that the Croats originated during the time of the ancient Greeks from the Sarmatians, a people who lived on the Eurasian steppes which stretch from the Ukraine to the Caspian Sea. Later on, Stjepan Krizin Sakac (born 1890; died 1973) put forward the idea that the Croats had been separate from other Slavic peoples and that they descended from the Harahvati tribe which was Iranian in origin. The premise is that the Croats are originally non-Slavic people with an Iranian heritage, who later adopted the Slavic language. The proponents of this view can be called Pre-Slavists.

They find a Croatian identity stretching from Iran/Afghanistan to present-day Croatia. A major part of this thesis is based on the similarity of ancient Indo-Iranian names with the modern Croatian term for Croats “Hrvati”. One of the summaries from the symposium offers clues to the connections and a rough outline follows. The Huywuhe are recorded in 1375 BC; the Harahvaiti from the Iranian province of Harauvatya existed in the 6th to 4th centuries BC; the Horothaoi are found around the Black Sea in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, while the Aryan Hrwts are mentioned in Crimea in 559 AD. We know from Byzantine texts of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, that the Croats, along with other people, migrated into the Balkans at this late date. The Pre-Slavists, therefore paint a picture of progressive migrations from Iran to the Balkans.

This oriental and somewhat exotic view of Croatian origins is one that appears more and more in modern Croatia post-1991. It appears in scientific literature and it is found in maps and historical accounts of Croatian history suggesting that it is factual and an up-to-date account of the Croatian early beginnings. Its implications for Croatian history and origins, if correct, would be profound. As such, I thought there must be other scientific information that backs up the Pre-Slavist view of Croatian history. The 1998 Zagreb symposium offered a few hints that were based on information other than the use of similar sounding names to Hrvati. M.H. Milekovic and A.Z. Lovric present a paper that states Croatian was an Indo-Iranian language. Since I did not have access to the full text of their paper, I assume that Milekovic and Lovric based their conclusion on linguistic similarity between Croatian and ancient Iranian or Persian languages. The outline of the symposium states that sub-dialects of Croatian, such as Cakavian found along the eastern Adriatic coast, contain remnants of an Old Iranian language. The Istrian peninsula and the islands of Krk and Vis are singled out as depositories of ancient Iranian terminology. A biogenetic explanation is offered by M. Kac and S. Budimir, which claim that third quarters of Croats are different than other Slavs and that Croats are closer to Kurds and Armenians. Not having the full text, made me wonder what biogenetic information they were relying on.

Croatian Genetic Data

If the Pre-Slavist theory was correct, I knew genetic data would corroborate the premise that Croatians are more closely related to Iranians than they are to other Slavs such as Slovenians, Czech, or Poles.

Genetic markers from European and Asian populations have been determined. There is genetic data from a variety of sources such as the Y-chromosome, other nuclear DNA, and mitochondrial DNA. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid and forms the basic building block of genetic identity. Geneticists use the small differences between the DNA of one person, compare it to other individuals to determine the number of differences, and this allows them to determine how old the ancestry is between them. The same applies to groups of people, which can be compared to indicate ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA for short) will be used in this discussion, since it has been determined for most populations on a global scale. MtDNA is a short strand of DNA found as multiple copies in each cell of our bodies and located in the mitochondria, small biological factories which produce energy for many of our physical-chemical functions. We inherit our mtDNA from our mothers and it is only inherited on the maternal side. A person and his siblings inherit their mtDNA from their mother, who in turn inherited it from her mother, and so on. A father does not pass on any of his mtDNA to his children which he inherited from his mother. After many generations a single change can occur in the coding of the mitochondrial DNA and it is these changes that geneticists use to construct ancestry between people, or ethnic groups.

In the 1980’s Antonio Torroni and Douglas Wallace began to classify the different mtDNA found in people into groups using the letter of the Roman alphabet. Since the first groups studied were North American native populations the first groups were referred to as A, B, C, or D. The groups turned out to have counter parts in East Asia and help show that American aboriginal people had Asian ancestry. When geneticists later looked at European populations they used group names such as H, I, J, and so on to describe the mtDNA in people of European ancestry. Later Bryan Sykes of Oxford University popularized European mtDNA groups in this book “The seven daughters of Eve” where he gave them names such as Usula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, and Jasmine. Helena was a personalized name for the H group, which is found in about 50 per cent of European populations. Sykes places the origins of these groups between 10,000 to 45,000 years ago. In fact no ethnic group or regional population usually has one mtDNA group, but rather contains a number of different groups. What are important are the groups found and the percentage of each within a population, which can be used to compare any different populations.

Examination of mtDNA of European ethnic groups and regional populations show that there is no significant difference between Croats and other Europeans. Malyarchuk and his researchers found populations in Bosnia and Slovenia show small differences but no major difference from other Slavic groups such as Poles and Russians (2). These small differences suggest two migratory movements of Slavonic speaking people starting in the 5th century. One group migrated into the Balkans from the Carpathians while another crosses into the western Balkans. There is no genetic information that has been found, so far, that distinguishes the later groups of Southern Slavic groups: Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, and Bulgarians. A recent study of Croatian mtDNA by Tolk and other researchers examined only Adriatic Island populations and found the basic mtDNA groups were those of other European populations, with a few minor exceptions. They found a high amount of group F on the island of Hvar of about 8 percent, a very small amount of group A which is under 1 percent on the island of Krk, and a large amount of group K on the island of Brac of almost 10 percent (3).

Craniometric studies of modern day Croatians and Bosnians show a large variety of differences between them (4) which can be attributed to recent population movements in the last few centuries. When craniometric studies have been carried out on medieval Croatian populations there are only minor differences between populations in Dalmatia, on the Adriatic coast and Pannonia, which includes Slavonia and parts of Bosnia (5). Since there appears to have been continuous contact between interior and coastal Slavic communities, no major population differences would be expected. The modern differences between Bosnians and Croatians has been attributed not to environmental or geographic factors, but rather to genetic isolation brought on by culturally imposed separation based on religion (4). Such a separation between Muslims and Christians began in the latter half of the 15th century following the Turkish conquest of Bosnia, and even intermarriage between the differing religious groups in Bosnia during the last half century has not been able to erase the differences that have developed over half a millennium.

The populations of Iran have a high rate of group M, D, A, and B with 5 percent of group M. There is a large difference between western and eastern Iran. The western Iranians are closer to Slavs while the eastern Iranians are closer to populations of northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and central Asia. Both areas contain a high percentage of group H. This data indicates that there is no genetic connection between Afghanistan and Croatian populations. Group M is under two percent in Slavic populations including Bosnians and Slovenians, and is not found in the Croatian populations studied on the Adriatic islands. This makes for a very weak genetic link for Iranians and Croatians. What follows is further background on the people of the Adriatic Islands, particularly Krk, Brac, Vis.

The people of Krk

The early settlers of Krk were the Liburni, who were an Indo-European people related to the Latin speaking and Germanic peoples of Europe, and probably related to the Venetic people of north-eastern Italy and not related to the Illyrians of southern Dalmatia and the interior of Bosnia (6). The Romans arrived later and contributed in a small way to the Liburni population. The northern part of the island of Krk was first settled by Slavic families in the Slavic settlements of Dobrinj, Omislj, Vrbnik, and Jurandvor at some point prior to 1000 AD (8). The linguistic similarity of the first three settlements indicates they were settled first. A variant found on the Y chromosome is found on the northern end of the island of Krk, which is found in its highest amounts in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian populations (7). A different Y chromosome variant is distributed on the southern end of the island of Krk and may represent the earlier Roman-Liburni population. A north and south split on Krk occurs in the settlement names, where Roman names are most frequent around the town of Krk and the southern end of the island, while the northern end of the island contains place names of Slavic origin.

The Frankopan dukes who ruled the island of Krk after 1100 A.D., while paying tribute to Venice settled certain Vlachs populations, some of Romanian origin, on to the Krk settlements of Brasci, Skripcici, Bajcici, Poljica, and Suzan during the period from the 15th to 17th centuries. Other Croatian settlers were also brought to the island to increase the island’s population which was affected by malaria infestations (8). There was a steady population growth from 1850 to 1910, and population decline, due to out migration from 1910 to 1970. Since 1990 the population decline has reversed itself. The Cakavian dialect originally spoken on the island shows the population has its language in common with other Cakavian speakers to the east on the Croatian mainland and to the south-east in Dalmatia. Analysis of the subdialects on Krk indicates that the towns of Omisalj, Vrbnik, and Dobrinj are closest linguistically, which complements the genetic, historic, and place names that indicate an initial Slavic settlement on the north-eastern part of the island of Krk.

By the time of Austrian administration in the 19th century and earlier a genealogical trend is apparent where numerous surnames that first appear associated with the island of Krk are found on the neighboring south-western islands of Cres, Losinj (9), Unije, Susak, and Illovik. My own surname Karcic/Carcich appears in documents on the island of Krk in the 15th and 16th centuries, while in the 17th century it is found on Cres, and from the 18th century onward on the islands of Losinj and Unije. Cancer rates on Krk(10) and other neighboring islands of Cres, Losinj, Rab and Pag show an excessive occurrence of prostate, stomach, and pancreatic cancers in males, and ovarian, breast, stomach, bowel, and brain cancer in females, higher than cancer rates on the Croatian mainland. Historic migration between the islands of Krk, Cres, Losinj, Rab, and Pag would explain why cancer types and rates are similar on the northern Adriatic islands.

The People of Brac

South of the Neretva River in Dalmatia and down into Albania lived the Illyrians. The Delmatae, from which derives the name Dalmatia, inhabited the area between the Illyrians and the Liburni who lived in the northern eastern end of the Adriatic (6). The islands in Middle Dalmatia are claimed to have been settled by Illyrians who were definitely on the islands before the coming of the Greeks and Romans in the later half of the first millennium. In fact the earliest traces of prehistoric people with agriculture are found in the island of Hvar by the 6th millennium BC, with a trace of another group at around 2,500 BC (11), but the archaeological evidence cannot yet show whether the earliest agriculturalists in Middle Dalmatia were related to the later Illyrians.

Brac experienced plagues in the 15th century which reduced its population by half (12). Large scale migration from the mainland from the region between Makarska and Split helped repopulate the island started after 1463 when the Turks began their conquest of the mainland and caused massive population movements to the west and north of present day Bosnia. Major colonization of Brac occurred in 1571-1573 and again between 1645 -1669. The population of Brac reached its maximum in 1910 and has been declining ever since.

When genealogies were collected on the islands of Brac and Hvar, differences showed up between island populations and the continental regions Sinjska Krajina and Srijem (13). There is considerable genetic variation on the island of Brac due to isolated populations and local marriage patterns (14). Much of the difference on the Middle Dalmatian islands can be seen in the distribution of the Croatian dialects of Cakavian and Stokavian (15). Originally, the language of the native Illyrians was supplanted with Latin and it evolved into a local Dalmatian language, which was spoken when the Slavs arrived on the islands. The first Slavs on the island spoke Cakavian, but later following the Turkish occupation of Bosnia many Stokavian speakers migrated to the islands. When language differences are examined in detail three clusters of settlements are found in Middle Dalmatia (15). The first cluster covers the western and central parts of Brac and Hvar; the second the central part of Brac and western Korcula, and the third the western part of the Peljesac peninsula and eastern Korcula. On Brac, forty families from the Poljica region founded the villages of Drcevica and Novo Selo in 1574. Sutivan was found by 1579, while Sumartin was also founded by immigrants from the mainland in 1645 (12). Sumartin is a Stokavian speaking village, while Sutivan is a Cakavian speaking town. Other Stokavian speaking villages include Sucuraj on Hvar, and Racisce on Korcula (15).

The mtDNA group F was found on the neighboring island of Hvar (16) in over 8 percent of the population, but similar research on the islands of Brac, Korcula and Krk failed to turn up any evidence of group F, although it was found to occur rarely on the mainland. This difference is probably due to founder’s effect, where a rare form that is found mainly in Southeast Asia also developed on Hvar because of migration and isolation. A rare variant of the Y chromosome is found on the island of Hvar. Isolation on the Adriatic islands has contributed to some rare diseases as found on the islands of Mljet, Krk, and Susak and contribute the cancers found on the islands of Brac, Hvar, Korcula, Vis, and Lastovo (14, 17). When examined by blood groups and enzymes show that the Middle Dalmatian islands and the Peljesac peninsula show differences due to migration, and that the island of Korcula, in particular, has maintained its distinctiveness (18). Genetic differences between the eastern and western ends of the island of Hvar have been reported (19).

When cancer rates for the people on Brac, Hvar, Korcula, Vis, and Lastovo were compared for the period from 1971 to 1990 with those for coastal Dalmatia, the island populations had a greater incidence of cancer which shows a linear correlation with geographic distance from the mainland (20). The cancers identified as prevalent on these islands are bladder cancer in men, and breast, ovarian, brain, and large bowel cancer in women. Some cancers, such as gastric and pancreatic cancers however, have a low incidence on the islands of Brac, Hvar, Korcula, Vis and Lastovo when compared with the mainland (21). In summary the people of Brac, Hvar, Korcula, and the Peljesac Peninsula show a difference genetically from other Croatian populations, and the greatest differences stem from kinship differences (22).

The people of Vis

Vis differs from Krk in that its first settlements were that of the Illyrians as opposed to the Liburni on Krk. The Greeks had a strong influence on Vis, comparable to the Roman influence on Krk. Vis was mainly settled by Illyrians based on skull type of prehistoric populations. The Illyrians brought sheep and goat herding to the island by the 2nd millennium BC (23). There is evidence of earlier people from ceramics dating to the 6th millennium BC, but it was the Greeks from Syracuse, Italy, that brought vineyards and olive groves to the island and colonized the island in the 4th century BC. Although the Greeks created a settlement on Vis, others on the island of Korcula and on the mainland, they did not assimilate with the native Illyrians on the island of Vis, Hvar, Brac, and Korcula which constituted the majority of the native population. A slow Roman colonization began in the 3rd century BC when the inhabitants of Vis allied themselves with the expanding Roman Republic, however, the basic ancestral stock remained Illyrian.

A Slavic population movement to the island was underway by the 10th century AD when Slavic place names are found on Vis, such as Velo Selo, Poje, Pospilje, Polhumje, Okljucina, Dragodid, and Knezrot. The surname Petric is still found on Vis and is associated with the town of Komiza in documents from 1367. From the 16th to the first half of the 18th centuries the islands of Vis, Brac, Korcula, and Hvar received refugees from the mainland, primarily from Makarsko Primorje, Poljice, and Dalmatinska Zagora. These new immigrants maintained genealogical isolation with the native population of Vis, which there were required by law to not marry. Records from 1569 indicate seven new settlers arrived on Vis, including Peter Lukin from Dubrovnik, and Pavros Ivanov fromm Brassa (24). In 1587 immigrants to Vis came from Dubrovnik and the surrounding areas of Split and Omis.

In the 16th century surnames on Vis include: Vitaljic, Foteic, Radic, Vokijarevic, Ilic, Pribicic, Bozanic, Jurkovic, Nikolic, Gridasic, Radovanovic, Cvitic, Petrasic, Korculanin, Sfiro, Borcic, Mardesic, Bodanovic, Bogdanic, Orujic, Radojevic, de Magri, Pavsic, Mardic, Castalol, Priscic, Catalano, Polutiinovic, Jaksic, Sokolic, Martulosov, Prmotic, and Bakulic (24). During the period from 1646 to 1672 forty families settled on Vis. The Dorotic family came in 1662 from Makarsko Primorje, while the Martinis family came in 1679. In 1673 the various artisan families immigrated to Vis from Korcula, Blato, Dubrovnik, Solta, and Rogoznica (24). The smaller islands to the west and south of Vis were also colonized, so that by 1607 Ivan Bogdan and his family settled on Palagruza, and in the second half of the 18th century Antun Felanda and Vicko Zanki settled on Svetac (24).


The genetic evidence based on mitochondria DNA provides no support for a specific ancient Iranian origin for modern day Croatians. However, the lack of evidence does not necessary rule out such a connection. What is more certain is that the Croats have been in on the Croatian mainland, in Bosnia and on the Adriatic coast from the 7th century AD. They were a part of a larger, probably gradual migration that infiltrated the Balkans and included other southern Slavic populations: the Slovenes, Serbs, Macedonians, and Bulgars. Early on, more northern Slavic peoples, such as the Slovaks and Czech together with the southern Slavs, formed loose but contiguous population that spoke a commonly understood language stretching from Bohemia to Macedonia.

The Slavic populations on the northern Adriatic islands probably began before 1000 AD with a migration to the northern part of the island of Krk, followed over the centuries by their spread to the neighboring islands of Cres and Losinj. In the southern Adriatic islands isolated Cakavian speaking populations were followed by Stokavian speakers from Dalmatia following the Turkish conquests of 1463.

Present day southern Slavic populations show little distinction between Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, at least on the genetic level. Probably more mixing of Illyrian-Roman populations with the incoming Slavs occurred on the mainland and on the eastern Adriatic islands; where, over the millennium, there has been also partial mixing of the original Liburni and Slavic immigrants. Even in the last 500 years, there have been isolated pockets of Slavic peoples that remained on the Adriatic Islands and did not mix with incoming Slavic families from the mainland. Therefore, some of the people on the Adriatic Islands have maintained partial genetic isolation dating back to prehistoric times as attested by a high percentage of some rare European mitochondrial DNA groups. The high cancer rates among most of the Adriatic islands population, indicate that this isolation has been detrimental to their health.


1. Symposium proceedings, Zagreb (1998) The old-Iranian origin of Croats.

2. Malyarchuk BA, Grzybowski T, Derenko MV, Czarny J, Drobnic K, Miscicka-Sliwka D. (2003) Ann Hum Genet.67(Pt 5):412-25. Mitochondrial DNA variability in Bosnians and Slovenians.

3. Tolk HV, Pericic M, Barac L, Klaric IM, Janicijevic B, Rudan I, Parik J, Villems R, Rudan P. (2003) Coll Antropol. 24(2):267-80. MtDNA haplogroups in the populations of Croatian Adriatic Islands.

4. Ross AH. (2003) American J Physical Anthropol. (Published Online: 20 Aug 2003). Regional isolation in the Balkan region: An analysis of craniofacial variation.

5. Kopp DV. (2003) American J Physical Anthropol.: Abstracts. Craniometric variation among medieval Croatian populations.

6. Wilkes, J (1992) The Illyrians. Oxford: Blackwell.

7. Barac L, Pericic M, Klaric IM, Rootsi S, Janicijevic B, Kivisild T, Parik J, Rudan I, Villems R, Rudan P. (2003) Eur J Hum Genet. 11(7):535-42. Y chromosomal heritage of Croatian population and its island isolates.

8. Sujoldzic A, Markovic A, Chaventre A. (1992). Coll Antropol. 16: 413-425. The population structure of the island of Krk – geomorphology, ethnohistory, demography, and linguistics.

9. Matejcic F (1970). Krcki Zbornik 1: 463-474. Prezimena na otoku Krku.

10. Rudan I, Campbell H, Ranzani GN, Strnad M, Vorko-Jovic A, John V, Kern J, Ivankovic D, Stevanovic R, Vuckov S, Vuletic S, Rudan P. (1999) Coll Antropol. 23(2):547-56. Cancer incidence in eastern Adriatic isolates, Croatia: examples from the islands of Krk, Cres, Losinj, Rab and Pag.

11. Forenbaher S. (2002) Coll Antropol. 26(1):361-78. Prehistoric populations of the island of Hvar--an overview of archaeological evidence.

12. Zegura SL, Janicijevic B, Sujolodzic A, Roberts DF, Rudan P. (1991 American J Hum Biol. 3:155-168. Genetics, ethnohistory, and linguistics of Brac, Yugoslavia.

13. Kujundzic Tiljak M, Kern J, Ivankovic D, Tiljak H, Vuletic S. (2001) Coll Antropol. 25(1):127-40. Genealogical structuring of a population.

14. Roberts DF, Noor ZM, Papiha SS, Rudan P. (1992) Ann Hum Biol. 19(6):539-57. Genetic variation in Brac, Croatia.

15. Sujoldzic A, (1991). Coll. Antropol. 15: 309-320. The population study of Middle Dalmatia: linguistic history and current regional differentiation of Croatian dialects.

16. Tolk HV, Barac L, Pericic M, Klaric IM, Janicijevic B, Campbell H, Rudan I, Kivisild T, Villems R, Rudan P. (2001) Eur J Hum Genet. 9(9):717-23. The evidence of mtDNA haplogroup F in a European population and its ethnohistoric implications.

17. Rudan I, Campbell H, Rudan P. (1999) Coll Antropol. 23(2):531-46. Genetic epidemiological studies of eastern Adriatic Island isolates, Croatia: objective and strategies.

18. Janicijevic B, Bakran M, Papiha SS, Chaventre A, Roberts DF. (1994) Hum Biol. 66(6):991-1003. Serogenetic analysis in the study of the population structure of the eastern Adriatic (Croatia).

19. Martinovic I, Mastana S, Janicijevic B, Jovanovic V, Paphia SS, Roberts DF, Rudan P. (1998) Ann Hum Biol. 25(5):489-99. VNTR DNA variation in the population of the island of Hvar, Croatia.

20. Rudan I. (1991) Hum Biol. 71(2):173-87. Inbreeding and cancer incidence in human isolates.

21. Rudan I, Vadla D, Strnad M, Biloglav Z, Vorko-Jovic A. (2003) Lijec Vjesn. 125(3-4):60-7. The Mediterranean diet and occurrence of malignant tumors of the digestive system in the Croatian islands.

22. Waddle DM, Sokal RR, Rudan P. (1998) Hum Biol. 70(5):845-64. Factors affecting population variation in eastern Adriatic isolates (Croatia).

23. Skreblin I, Simicic L, Sujoldzic A. (2002) Coll. Antropol. 1: 333-350 Ethnohistoric processes, demographic structure and linguistic determinants of the Island of Vis.

24. Felando D. (1998) Fountain Valley, Calif.: TADMS, Inc., Komiza: land of my forefathers.

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