Dr. Tyler-Smith and an international team of geneticists and archaeologists recovered ancient DNA from bones belonging to five Canaanites retrieved from an excavation site in Sidon, Lebanon, that were 3,650 to 3,750 years old. The team then compared the ancient DNA with the genomes of 99 living people from Lebanon that the group had sequenced. It found that the modern Lebanese people shared about 93 percent of their ancestry with the Bronze Age Sidon samples.
The team published its results in The American Journal of Human Genetics.
“The conclusion is clear,” said Iosif Lazaridis, a geneticist at Harvard who was not involved in the study. “Based on this study it turns out that people who lived in Lebanon almost 4,000 years ago were quite similar to people who lived there today, to the modern Lebanese.”
Marc Haber, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England and lead author on the study, said that compared with other Bronze Age civilizations, not much is known about the Canaanites.
“We know about ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks, but we know very little about the ancient Canaanites because their records didn’t survive,” he said. Their writings may have been kept on papyrus, which did not stand the test of time as clay did. What is known about the Canaanites is that they lived and traded along the eastern coast of the present-day Mediterranean, a region that was known as the Levant.
“What we see is that since the Bronze Age, this ancestry, or the genetics of the people there, didn’t change much,” Dr. Haber said. “It changed a little, but it didn’t change much and that is what surprised me.”
At first the team was not sure if it would be able to retrieve DNA from the ancient skeletons, which were recovered from the hot and humid excavation site within the last 19 years. Dr. Haber had chosen more than two dozen bones from the site that looked promising and had them investigated for genetic material. It turned out that only five contained ancient DNA. All of those came from the petrous part of the temporal bone, which is the tough part of the skull behind the ear, from five different individuals.
After extracting that DNA, the team members compared it with a database that contained genetic information from hundreds of human populations. They then further compared their results with the genomes of the modern-day Lebanese population sample, which revealed what happened to the ancient Canaanite population.
“Genetics has the power to answer questions that historical records or archaeology are not able to answer,” Dr. Haber said.
He said researchers thought that migrations, conquests and the intermixing of Eurasian people — like the Assyrians, Persians or Macedonians — with the Canaanites 3,800 to 2,200 years ago might have contributed to the slight genetic changes seen in modern Lebanese populations. Still, the Lebanese retain most of their ancestral DNA from the Canaanites.
“It confirms the continuity of occupation and rooted tradition we have seen on-site, which was occupied from the 4th millennium B.C. right to the Crusader period,” Claude Doumet-Serhal, an archaeologist and director of the Sidon Excavation who is a co-author on the paper, said in an email.
She said that the archaeologists had found about 160 burials to date at their excavation site, which is in the heart of modern Sidon. They include graves and burials where a person was placed in a large jar, and they date to between 1900 and 1550 B.C. The genetic results further support the archaeological findings.
“We were delighted by the findings,” Dr. Doumet-Serhal said. “We are looking at the Canaanite society through 160 burials and at the same time uncovering a common past for all the people of Lebanon, whatever religion they belong to.”
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