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Planet Earth

Ancient Phoenicians Left Their DNA in the Mediterranean Gene Pool

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandOctober 31, 2008 5:36 PM


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The Phoenician culture vanished from the Mediterranean following the fall of Carthage in 146 BC, when the Romans razed the city and (according to legend) salted the earth, but the Phoenician people didn't fade away. A new genetic analysis shows that 1 in 17 men in the Mediterranean region have Phoenician DNA, and must be descended from those ancient seafarers.

The findings could fill a gap in the history of the Phoenician civilization, which originated two to three thousand years ago in the eastern Mediterranean—in what is now Lebanon and Syria—and included prominent traders, according to Chris Tyler-Smith, lead author.... "By the time of the Romans they more or less disappeared from history, and little has been known about them since" [National Geographic News].

For the study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, researchers used archaeological evidence and written accounts from the Greek and Romans to determine where the Phoenicians settled, and then took DNA samples from 1,330 men living in areas that were once Phoenician trading centers, including Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Cyprus, Malta, and the West Bank.

"When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians. All we had to guide us was history: We knew where they had and hadn't settled. But this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people," Tyler-Smith said [AP].

The researchers examined genes on the men's Y chromosome which is passed down from father to son, and compared them to the genes of other men from areas that had no link to Phoenician settlements.

From the research emerged a distinctive Phoenician genetic signature, in contrast to genetic traces spread by other migrations, like those of late Stone-Age farmers, Greek colonists and the Jewish Diaspora. The scientists thus concluded that, for example, one boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a descendant of Phoenician traders [The New York Times].

Image: flickr / Effervescing Elephant

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