Living Descendants of Biblical Canaanites Identified Via DNA

Genome sequenced from 3,700-year-old remains is found in today's residents of Lebanon.

By Kristin Romey
Published 8 Nov 2017, 21:08 GMT
Several of the Canaanite individuals sampled in the study had been buried in large clay jars.
Photograph by Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal

More than 90 percent of the genetic ancestry of modern Lebanese people is derived from ancient Canaanites, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Researchers supported by The Wellcome Trust were able to sequence the Canaanite genome from the remains of five individuals buried in the ancient port city of Sidon (modern Saïda, Lebanon) around 3,700 years ago. The results were compared against the DNA of 99 modern-day Lebanese residents.

According to the results, Canaanite ancestry is a mix of indigenous populations who settled the Levant (the region encompassing much of modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories) around 10,000 years ago, and migrants who arrived from the east between 6,600 and 3,550 years ago.

An additional Eurasian element was added to the genetic mix sometime between 1800 and 200 B.C., a tumultuous period that saw the collapse of the Bronze Age and the advent of the Iron Age, the era in which most scholars believe the Bible was recorded.

Biblical Villains or Israelite Ancestors?

Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.

A view of the ancient port city of Sidon (modern Saida) in Lebanon, which was established some 6,000 years ago.
Photograph by Krause, Laif, Redux

Archaeologists, however, identify the Canaanites as a collection of tribes of varying ethnicities that appears in the Levant around the beginning of the second millennia B.C. Over the centuries, they were at various times independent city-states or client states under Egyptian control, and their presence is recorded in letters from Bronze Age rulers in Egypt, Anatolia, Babylon, and elsewhere in the region.

Despite massive cultural and political upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age in the 12th century B.C., Canaanite presence persisted in the region, most notably in powerful port cities along the coast, where they were known to the Greeks as Phoenicians.

No archaeological evidence for the widespread destruction of Canaanite settlements described in the Bible has yet been identified, and many scholars believe that the Israelites, who appear around the beginning of the Iron Age, may have originally been Canaanites.

The "Tip of the Iceberg"

The new study is notable for its sequencing of the Canaanite genome. Obtaining ancient DNA (aDNA) from human remains found in the region is difficult, since heat and humidity are the "biggest enemies" of aDNA preservation, according to Marc Haber of The Wellcome Trust's Sanger Institute and a co-author of the paper. Many of the ancient samples tested came from sand-filled vessels near the sea shore at Sidon, a major Canaanite/Phoenician city-state that was eventually conquered by Alexander the Great in 332.

The research demonstrates that scientists have the ability to do interesting studies on aDNA from Lebanon and surrounding areas, says Sanger Institute co-author Chris Tyler-Smith. "This is only the tip of the iceberg," he adds. "We're looking forward to more samples from different places and different time periods."

While the researchers were surprised at the level of genetic continuity between ancient Canaanites and modern Lebanese after some 4,000 years of war, migration, and conquest in the area, they caution against drawing too many conclusions on ancient history based solely on genetic data. "People can be culturally similar and genetically different, or genetically similar and culturally different," says Tyler-Smith.

Archaeologist Assaf Yasur-Landau, co-director of the Tel Kabri Archaeological Project and author of a forthcoming book on the Canaanites, agrees. "Canaanites are still a huge mystery to us, so every study of the Canaanites—whether it's in genetics, culture, economy, religion, or politics—is something that will tell us tremendously important facts about the makeup of the Biblical world of the first millennium."

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect our correct style usage for the Palestinian territories.

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