Where the Canaan­ites’ DNA went

Le­banese share 93% of their ge­netic pro­file with the an­cient peo­ple, a study shows.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - MIRA ABED mira.abed@la­times.com

The Canaan­ites lived at the cross­roads of the an­cient world.

In a ter­ri­tory that would later be known as the Mid­dle East, they ex­pe­ri­enced wars, con­quests and oc­cu­pa­tions over thou­sands of years. As a re­sult, evo­lu­tion­ary ge­neti­cists ex­pected their DNA to re­flect sub­stan­tial mix­ing with in­com­ing pop­u­la­tions.

A new ge­netic anal­y­sis shows that sci­en­tists were wrong. Ac­cord­ing to a study in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Hu­man Ge­net­ics, to­day’s Le­banese share a whop­ping 93% of their DNA with an­cient Canaan­ites who lived nearly 4,000 years ago.

The study also found that the Bronze Age in­hab­i­tants of Si­don, a ma­jor Canaan­ite city-state in mod­ern-day Le­banon, had the same ge­netic pro­file as peo­ple who lived 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. They have un­cov­ered 160 buri­als from the Canaan­ite pe­riod alone, in­clud­ing chil­dren buried in jars and adults placed in sand, said Claude Doumet-Ser­hal, direc­tor of the ex­ca­va­tion.

Evo­lu­tion­ary ge­neti­cists are tak­ing the work a step fur­ther.

Aided by new DNA sam­pling tech­niques, they se­quenced the whole genomes of five in­di­vid­u­als found in Si­don who lived about 3,700 years ago.

The team com­pared the genomes of th­ese an­cient Canaan­ites with those of 99 Le­banese peo­ple cur­rently liv­ing in the coun­try, as well as with pre­vi­ously pub­lished ge­netic data 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 Canaan­ites were spread across a wide re­gion dur­ing the Bronze Age, from ur­ban so­ci­eties on the coast to farm­ing so­ci­eties fur­ther in­land. It also sup­ports the idea that dif­fer­ent Le­van­tine cul­tural groups — such as the Moabites, Is­raelites and Phoeni­cians — had a com­mon ge­netic back­ground, the study authors said.

By com­par­ing the lengths of sim­i­lar strands of DNA, the re­searchers de­ter­mined that the ge­netic mix­ing of the Le­van­tine and Ira­nian peo­ples hap­pened be­tween 6,600 and 3,550 years ago. If they had more an­cient DNA sam­ples from the re­gion, they could come up with a more pre­cise es­ti­mate, they added.

Next, the team com­pared the Canaan­ite genome with the ge­netic makeup of peo­ple who cur­rently in­habit the an­cient Canaan­ite cities. So they col­lected DNA from 99 mod­ern Le­banese peo­ple — Druze, Mus­lim and Chris­tian alike.

As ex­pected, they found some new ad­di­tions to the Le­banese genome since the Bronze Age. About 7% of mod­ern Le­banese DNA orig­i­nates from east­ern Steppe peo­ples found in what is now Rus­sia — an an­ces­try not seen in the Bronze Age Canaan­ites or their an­ces­tors.

But what re­ally sur­prised the team was what was miss­ing from the DNA of to­day’s Le­banese.

“If you look at the his­tory of Le­banon — af­ter the Bronze Age, es­pe­cially — it had a lot of con­quests,” said Marc Haber, a study leader from the Well­come Trust Sanger In­sti­tute in Hinx­ton, Eng­land. He and his col­league Chris Tyler-Smith ex­pected to see greater ge­netic con­tri­bu­tions from mul­ti­ple con­quer­ing peo­ples, and they 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 wanted 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 said. An­a­lyz­ing more sam­ples from dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions and time pe­ri­ods could lead to an an­swer.

The team also wanted to know whether the in­di­vid­u­als from Si­don were 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.

The find­ings have pow­er­ful cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions, said Doumet-Ser­hal, who worked on the new study. In a so­ci­ety strug­gling with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of war and 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 this work car­ries a mes­sage of unity.

“We all be­long to the same peo­ple,” she said. “We have al­ways had a dif­fi­cult past … but we have a shared her­itage we have to pre­serve.”

Claude Doumet-Ser­hal Si­don Ex­ca­va­tion

FOR THE LAST 19 years, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have been un­earthing se­crets at Si­don, a ma­jor Canaan­ite city-state in mod­ern-day Le­banon.

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