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.
Astonishingly, new genetic analysis shows that scientists were wrong. According to a new study in the American Journal of Human Genetics, today’s Lebanese share a whopping 93% of their DNA with the ancient Canaanites.
The study 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 over the centuries, 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 last 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. They have found people of all ages in these Canaanite burials, she said — children were buried in jars and adults were placed in sand.
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 currently 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 themselves. 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.
The researchers were also able to determine that the genetic mixing of the Levantine and Iranian peoples happened between 6,600 and 3,550 years ago, a range they would be able to narrow down with more ancient DNA samples from the region.
Next, the team wanted to compare the Canaanite genome with the genetic makeup of the people who currently inhabit the ancient Canaanite cities. To do this, they collected DNA from 99 Lebanese people — Druze, Muslim, and Christian alike.
As expected, they found some new additions to the modern Lebanese genome since the Bronze Age. About 7% 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% of the Lebanese genome is shared with their Canaanite predecessors.
Though a 7% genetic influx from the Steppe seems very small, that number might be covering some hidden complexities, said Lazaridis, who worked on the Bronze Age Jordanian samples but was not involved in the new study.
Not much is known about the migrations of these eastern Steppe populations, he said. If the genomes of the incoming people were only half Steppe, for example, 14% of the Lebanese genome could have come from the new migrants.
Haber and Tyler-Smith said they want to explore this complexity further. “Who were those eastern migrants? Where did they come from? And why did they migrate toward the Levant region?” Haber asked. Analyzing more samples from different locations and periods could lead to an answer.
The team also wanted to know if the individuals from Sidon are more similar to modern-day Lebanese than to other modern Eurasian populations.
Despite small genetic variations between the three religious groups caused by preferential mating over time, the Lebanese genome is not widely varied. As a whole, the Lebanese people have more genetic overlap with the Canaanites from Sidon than do other modern Middle Eastern populations such as Jordanians, Syrians or Palestinians.
The difference is small, but it’s possible that the Lebanese population has remained more isolated over time from an influx of African DNA than other Levantine peoples, Lazaridis suggested.