A new study suggests the biblical account of the annihilation of the ancient Canaanite people at the hands of the invading Israelites was a bit premature, claiming their descendants are still living just up the road, across the Lebanese border.
New genetic research from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute has found that far from being destroyed, the Canaanites morphed into the inhabitants of modern Lebanon.
Scientists in the United Kingdom-based genetic research center sequenced the genomes of five 4,000-year-old Canaanite individuals and compared them to other ancient and present-day populations, including a sample of 99 modern Lebanese.
The results, published July 27 in the American Journal of Human Genetics, show that 93 percent of the ancestry of modern Lebanese ancestry comes from the Canaanites.
Had they been destroyed by the Israelites, who were commanded by God to annihilate them, it would have been a form of patricide. According to the study, the Canaanites were the common ancestor for several ancient peoples who inhabited the Levant during the Bronze Age, such as the Ammonites, Moabites, and Israelites.
“Each achieved their own cultural identities but all shared a common genetic and ethnic root with Canaanites,” according to the authors of the new study.
“For the first time we have genetic evidence for substantial continuity in the region, from the Bronze Age Canaanite population through to the present day. These results agree with the continuity seen by archaeologists,” said Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal, co-author and director of the Sidon excavation site in Lebanon.
The Canaanites, like the Israelites a Semitic-speaking people, were at the center of Bronze Age civilization and “inhabited an area bounded by Anatolia to the north, Mesopotamia to the east, and Egypt to the south, with access to Cyprus and the Aegean through the Mediterranean,” according to the study.
Mystery surrounds the fate of the Canaanites, who later came to be known as the Phoenicians, as they appear in scant historical records. Although they introduced several innovations into society, including the first alphabet, other than in the Hebrew Bible — where their annihilation is clearly detailed — there are a few mentions in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts.
As reported in Science, Greek legend has it that the Canaanites originally came from the East.
According to the study, the Canaanite-related ancestry “derived from mixture between local Neolithic populations and eastern migrants genetically related to Chalcolithic Iranians.” The scientists estimate, “using linkage-disequilibrium decay patterns,” that the genetic mixture took place between 6,600–3,550 years ago, “coinciding with recorded massive population movements in Mesopotamia.”
Further, the Eurasian ancestry in the modern Lebanese genetic samples was not present in Bronze Age Canaanites or earlier Levantines. “We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations,” write the scientists.
Did a Canaanite genocide occur?
In Deuteronomy 20:16, the ancient Israelites are commanded by God to completely wipe out the several Canaanite peoples after the death of the Hebrew leader Joshua.
“But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.”
However, according to the report, archaeological evidence does not support widespread destruction of Canaanite cities between the Bronze and Iron Ages. For example, coastal cities such as Sidon and Tyre “show continuity of occupation until the present day.”
The analysis of the DNA from five Canaanite skeletons found in Sidon who lived 4,000 years ago, and comparison with modern day Lebanese, paint a picture much different than the annihilation recorded in the Bible.
“It was a pleasant surprise to be able to extract and analyze DNA from 4,000-year-old human remains found in a hot environment, which is not known for preserving DNA well,” said Dr. Marc Haber, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Haber said the team overcame the climate’s challenge by taking samples from the petrous bone in the skull, which is a very tough bone with a high density of ancient DNA.
“Genetic studies using ancient DNA can expand our understanding of history, and answer questions about the likely origins and descendants of enigmatic populations like the Canaanites, who left few written records themselves,” said Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
“The overlap between the Bronze Age and present-day Levantines suggests a degree of genetic continuity in the region,” according to the study.