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Phoenician Blood Endures 3,000 Years, DNA Study Shows

Amitabh Avasthi
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2008
 
Ancient maritime traders of the Mediterranean may have left behind a large genetic footprint in the region, where 1 in 17 men still harbors Phoenician DNA, according to a new study.

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 and associate researcher at National Geographic Society's Genographic Project. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"By the time of the Romans they more or less disappeared from history, and little has been known about them since," Tyler-Smith added. "Our motivation was to really identify their genetic traces."

(Related: "Who were the Phoenicians" in National Geographic magazine, October 2004.)

The new research could also help scientists understand the genetic impact of other human migrations, such as military campaigns by the Greeks and the Mongols, Tyler-Smith said.

DNA Markers

Tyler-Smith and colleagues used historic and archeological records, along with information from DNA samples.

The research team analyzed the Y chromosome of 1,330 men from historic Phoenician trading centers in the Mediterranean regions of Syria, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, Cyprus, and Malta.

Unlike mitochondrial DNA—which is passed down from mothers—the Y chromosome, passed down by fathers, is thought to provide more detailed genetic information.

Analyses of the Y chromosomal data revealed the presence of at least seven related genetic lineages from places around the Mediterranean Sea where Phoenicians had lived.

These lineages suggest that the Phoenicians contributed their genes to at least six percent of the modern populations of historic Phoenician trading outposts.

"Our findings suggest that the Phoenicians left behind a genetic legacy that persists till modern times," Tyler-Smith said.

The study appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Conservative Findings?

Colin Groves is a biological anthropologist at Australia National University in Canberra who was not associated with the study.

"I think this is a very neat finding," said Groves, adding that the study provides enough evidence for a clear genetic link between ancient Phoenician traders and persons now living in some of these historic trading towns.

However, he notes that the researchers looked only at Y chromosomes, indicating a line of descent from a male ancestor.

"This means that you will find such genetic traces only if there has been an unbroken male line in that area," Groves explained. "If a man has only daughters, his Y chromosome lineage dies out."

Groves also cautions that one should not interpret the findings as suggesting the Phoenicians were restricted to a certain place.

"It means only that Phoenicians were there, and presumably in sufficient numbers that chance events have not eliminated the Y chromosome traces."
 

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