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Bronze Age DNA helps unravel true fate of biblical Canaanites

By Andy Coghlan

Whatever became of the Canaanites? Famously, they appeared on the losing side in one of the best known biblical conflicts – over the city of Jericho. They lived on further north, but because their territory was invaded many times in antiquity their ultimate fate has been a mystery – until now. Their DNA has now been found in the population of modern-day Lebanon.

Many archaeologists have been fascinated by the Canaanites. They lived on the Mediterranean’s eastern coastal region several thousand years ago. They are credited with constructing the first alphabet.

But paradoxically, they left few texts behind, which means much of what we know about the Canaanites comes from descriptions of them written by others – mostly their rivals including the Egyptians, Greeks and Israelites.

Impartial account

The new account of the Canaanites comes from an impartial source: the ancient DNA from five skeletons unearthed from a Canaanite burial site in the Lebanese city of Sidon. The two males and three females date from the Bronze Age, 3700 years ago.

Collectively, they yielded enough DNA for analysis even though the remains have been exposed for so long to the region’s forbidding temperatures, which normally destroy DNA.

“We had a large sample of bones and tried the teeth, but got no DNA whatsoever,” says Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK. “The success was from the petrous bone in the skulls, near the ear, which contained well-preserved DNA.”

After comparing the Canaanite DNA with that from 99 living Lebanese volunteers, the team found that almost 90 per cent of present day Lebanese DNA is shared with the Canaanites, suggesting that biblical reports of their annihilation were greatly exaggerated.

“There’s evidence for substantial continuity in the region from the Bronze Age to today,” says Tyler-Smith.

Waves of migration

Much later, distant invaders from the Asian steppes swept into the area. But their DNA accounts for only about 10 per cent of the DNA in the modern inhabitants of Lebanon.

Tyler-Smith says this is surprising, given that the post-Bronze-Age history of the region records repeated conquests. “It seems they only had a small impact on the genetic composition of the people in the area,” he says.

For comparison, similar waves of ancient migration are thought to have occurred in Europe, but they have generally left a much larger genetic imprint. Many modern day Europeans share only about half their DNA with the region’s first farming communities.

Comparison of the ancient DNA with other ancient genetic sequences suggests that the Canaanites originated some 4000 to 6000 years ago, before the Bronze Age. At that time, early farm settlers in the Levant and immigrants from further east in the Mesopotamian region came together. This suggests the appearance of the Canaanites might be linked with the collapse of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, 4200 years ago.

The Canaanites then forged their own empire. They built the temple at Palmyra in Syria, recently damaged by Islamic State. It also seems likely that the Canaanites became known to the Greeks as the Phoenicians later in the Bronze Age. Under that guise, they developed a formidable maritime presence across the Mediterranean.

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