Canaanites survived biblical ‘slaughter’

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.

The Bronze Age Canaanites lived between 3000 and 4000 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.

Now, in research published yesterday 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 more than 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.

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.

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