DNA Samples Show Biblical Canaanites Escaped Extermination

(CN) — DNA samples have shed light on the Canaanites, a mysterious and diverse group that created the first alphabet and who escaped extermination though God ordered it in the Old Testament.

It turns out that the Canaanites avoided annihilation, and are the main ancestors of people now living in Lebanon, according to a study published Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Researchers sequenced the complete genomes of five Canaanites who lived nearly 4,000 years ago in the modern-day city of Sidon, Lebanon, and compared them to DNA samples of 99 living Lebanese people.

It revealed a strong connection between modern Lebanese people and the Canaanites.

“The present-day Lebanese are likely to be direct descendants of the Canaanites, but they have in addition a small proportion of Eurasian ancestry that may have arrived via conquests by distant populations such as the Assyrians, Persians, or Macedonians,” said Marc Haber, a postdoctoral scholar at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom and lead author of the report.

While the Canaanites established a culture that became influential in the Middle East and beyond, they left few written records. This has forced researchers to rely on accounts of the Canaanites from other civilizations, such as the Greeks and Egyptians, and the authors of the Old Testament.

The new DNA samples provided a genetic background that allowed the team to retrace the history of the Canaanites.

“We found that the Canaanites were a mixture of local people who settled in farming villages during the Neolithic period and eastern migrants who arrived in the region about 5,000 years ago,” Haber said.

The team estimates that Eurasian people intermixed with the Canaanites 3,800 to 2,200 years ago, when migration and conquests by outsiders were common. Despite the migrations, the researchers identified significant genetic continuity in the region since at least the Bronze Age — 3,300 to 1,200 years ago for the Canaanites — which is supported by the archaeological record.

“In light of the enormously complex history of this region in the last few millennia, it was quite surprising that over 90 percent of the genetic ancestry of present-day Lebanese was derived from the Canaanites,” said co-author Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

Now the researchers plan to study the earlier and later genetic history of Lebanon and how it connects to surrounding regions.

(Photos of the Sidon excavation by Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal.)

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