The ancient Canaanites, who according to the Bible were commanded to be exterminated, did not die out, but lived on to become modern-day Lebanese, according to the first study to analyse their DNA.
Canaanites key points
- DNA reveals that modern Lebanese are direct descendants of ancient Canaanites
- Despite tumultuous history, there has been substantial genetic continuity in the Near East across the past 3,000 to 4,000 years
- European additions to Lebanese ancestry occurred around 3,750-2,170 years ago
- Study also provides clues about ancient Phoenicians
The Bronze Age Canaanites lived between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago in the region now encompassed by Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Despite being the first group known to use an alphabet, and appearing many times in the Bible, the Canaanites left few written records.
The ancient Canaanites were buried in what is now Sidon in Lebanon
Supplied: Dr Claude Doumet-Serhal
Now, in research published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics, an international team of geneticists has mapped the mass migrations that occurred in this tumultuous region by “reading” the DNA of the region’s ancient and modern inhabitants.
“What is exciting was that we can see the genetic continuity between the Bronze Age population and the present-day populations,” said Dr Marc Haber of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK.
The study found that over 90 per cent of the ancestry of modern-day people from Lebanon was derived from the Canaanites.
“We know from history that after the Bronze Age, the region was under a lot of expansions and conquests, and you would expect that those would have brought new gene flow, but in the DNA we see that the present-day population did not change too much from the Bronze Age population.”
Analysis of genetic traits found the ancient Canaanites would have looked very similar to today’s Lebanese population, except perhaps a little darker in skin tone.
Extracting DNA from ancient skulls
To track the changes over time, Dr Haber and his colleagues compared five whole genomes recovered from human remains found in the area of the ancient Lebanese city of Sidon, with the genomes of 99 Lebanese living in the region today.
“One of the most exciting parts of the research was to get DNA out of the specimens,” Dr Haber’s colleague Chris Tyler-Smith said.
Depending on the environment, the DNA in bones decays at different rates and the Lebanese coast is both warm and moist, which isn’t good for preservation.
To extract enough DNA for the study, the researchers targeted bone found at the base of the human skull, which is extra dense and was very recently identified as a good source of DNA long after it has decayed elsewhere in the skeleton.
Skeleton of an adult whose DNA was sampled for the study
Supplied: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal
DNA may help solve Phoenician mystery
Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA said the study was hard evidence that God’s biblical command, as described in the Book of Deuteronomy, to “totally destroy” the Canaanites, was not carried out.
“Clearly the Bible’s wrong in the sense of the Canaanites being smited, they were clearly not smit too well,” Professor Cooper, who was not involved in the research, said.
Professor Cooper said the new study provides valuable insight into when shifts in the population occurred in the Near East in ancient times.
Genomic changes occurred between 6,600 and 3,550 years ago — with input from migrants from the east genetically related to Copper Age Iranians — and again between 3,750 and 2,170 years ago with the introduction of Eurasian ancestry.
Professor Cooper said the genetic continuity Dr Haber and his colleagues found also helps to solve the mystery of the Phoenicians.
“They were all over the Mediterranean but we couldn’t find any skeletons to gather their DNA from, and there didn’t seem to be any natural cultural descendants.
“Therefore, to find that the area in which they were located, which is Lebanon and the surrounding Levant, actually has the same genetics today, shows that while the culture’s transmogrified, the people stayed much more statically in place than the cultures would have suggested.”