The Canaanites lived at the crossroads of the ancient world. They experienced wars, conquests and occupations for millennia, and as a result evolutionary geneticists expected that their DNA would become substantially mixed with incoming populations.
They were wrong.
Astonishingly, today’s Lebanese share 93 percent of their DNA with the ancient Canaanites.
The genetic analysis published in the American Journal of Human Genetics also found that the Bronze Age inhabitants of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state in modern-day Lebanon, have the same genetic profile as people living 300 to 800 years earlier in present-day Jordan.
Later known as Phoenicians, the Canaanites have a murky past. Nearly all of their own records have been destroyed, so their history has been mostly pieced together from archaeological records and the writings of other ancient peoples.
Archaeologists at the Sidon excavation site have been unearthing ancient Canaanite secrets for the past 19 years in the still-inhabited Lebanese port city. The team has uncovered 160 burials from the Canaanite period alone, said Claude Doumet-Serhal, director of the excavation.
Aided by new DNA sampling techniques, a team of evolutionary geneticists including Marc Haber and Chris Tyler-Smith from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute stepped in.
They sequenced the whole genomes of five individuals found in Sidon who lived about 3,700 years ago. The team then compared the genomes of these ancient Canaanites with those of 99 Lebanese people — Druze, Muslim, and Christian — living in the country, along with the previously published genetic information from modern and ancient populations across Europe and Asia.
First, they investigated the genetic ancestry of the Canaanites. They found that these Bronze Age inhabitants of Sidon shared about half their DNA with local Neolithic peoples and the other half with Chalcolithic Iranians. Interestingly, this genetic profile is nearly identical to the one evolutionary geneticist Iosif Lazaridis and his team found last year in Bronze Age villagers near ‘Ain Ghazal in modern-day Jordan.
This suggests that Canaanite-related ancestry was spread across a wide region during the Bronze Age and was shared between urban societies on the coast and farming societies further inland. This evidence supports the idea that different Levantine cultural groups such as the Moabites, Israelites and Phoenicians may have had a common genetic background, the authors said.
As expected, the team found some new additions to the modern Lebanese genome since the Bronze Age. About 7 percent of modern Lebanese DNA originates from eastern Steppe peoples found in what is now Russia, but wasn’t represented in the Bronze Age Canaanites or their ancestors. What surprised the team was what was missing from their genetic data.
“If you look at the history of Lebanon — after the Bronze Age, especially — it had a lot of conquests,” Haber said. He and Tyler-Smith expected to see greater genetic contributions from multiple conquering peoples, and were surprised that as much as 93 percent of the Lebanese genome is shared with their Canaanite predecessors.
The findings have powerful cultural implications, Doumet-Serhal said. In a country struggling with the ramifications of war and a society fiercely divided along political and sectarian lines, religious groups have often looked to an uncertain history for their identities.
“When Lebanon started in 1929,” Doumet-Serhal said, “the Christians said, ‘We are Phoenician.’ The Muslims didn’t accept that and they said, ‘No, we are Arab.’ ”
But from this work comes a message of unity. “We all belong to the same people,” Doumet-Serhal said. “We have always had a difficult past, but we have a shared heritage we have to preserve.”