Hussein Malla/AP
Byblos: the Phoenician port city

Researchers Uncover Genetic Legacy of Lost Phoenician Civilization

November 04, 2008 07:25 AM
by Isabel Cowles
Researchers have discovered that one in seventeen men living in the Mediterranean has genetic ties to the Phoenicians, the lost people of Carthage.

Carthage destroyed, but Phoenicians live on

Recent genetic research has indicated that one in seventeen men living around the Mediterranean can trace his genetic heritage to the ancient Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians founded the city of Carthage, which was located in modern-day Lebanon. In the first millennium B.C.E. they prospered as sailors and traders, spreading their genes through colonization and migrations that went as far as Spain and North Africa.

Phoenicians have been called the first “global capitalists,” as they dominated trade across the Mediterranean basin for nearly a millennium before the Romans conquered Carthage. 

Until recently, the genetic history of the Phoenicians had not been traced, although historians had some sense of their movement and migrations. “We knew where they had and hadn’t settled,” explained head researcher Chris Tyler-Smith to the BBC, “But this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people.”

The research used came from the Genographic Project, a multi-million dollar initiative sponsored by National Geographic that uses highly specialized data and technology to trace genetic history across the world.

Smith and his team researched the genetic influence of the Phoenicians by examining Y chromosomes, which are passed down with little variation from male to male. Researchers traced Biblical descriptions of where the Phoenicians lived and compared the genetic makeup of residents in those places to the DNA of people living in Mediterranean communities that had not been described as Phoenician settlements.
Daniel Platt of IBM’s Computational Biology Center told the Associated Press: “The results are important because they show that the Phoenician settlement sites are marked by a genetic signature distinct from any that might have been left by other trading and settlement expansions through history, or which may have emerged by chance.”

Because so many groups of people have migrated to and from the Mediterranean, it has previously been quite challenging to associate specific genes with specific communities in the region. However, the process used in this study could pave the way for tracking other migrations that have had a similarly subtle genetic impact on an area.

Reference: Official study by The American Journal of Human Genetics


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