Sunday, July 28, 2019

Ancient DNA reveals that Jews' biblical rivals were from Greece

Genetic sequencing of bones and teeth from ten Philistines who lived in what is now Israel 3200 years ago suggests a surge of migration from the Aegean at the time

To call someone a philistine today is to brand them uncultured, but to the Hebrew people in the Christian Bible, it meant something worse: the Philistines were a separate group who were often their adversaries.

Now DNA sequencing of ten Philistine skeletons suggests they really were a genetically distinct community. Around 1200 BC, in at least one key Philistine city there was an influx of south European genes, suggesting a surge of Greek immigrants to the region, says Michal Feldman at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

The Bible’s Old Testament makes numerous references to the Philistines; for instance, Goliath, the “giant” who fought David, was a Philistine, as probably was Delilah, said to have betrayed Samson by cutting his hair.

Multiple excavations from sites of ancient Philistine cities, such as Ashkelon, on the coast of what is now Israel, have yielded pottery remains that are Greek in style. One suggestion was that people could simply have adopted Aegean cultural practices via sea trading routes.

To investigate, Feldman’s team tried to extract DNA from 108 skeletal remains excavated from various burial places in Ashkelon that had been dated to either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. Ten produced useful genetic information from their bones or teeth, and this was compared with DNA from other populations all over the world, both ancient and modern.

The remains could be divided into three time periods. The earliest three individuals found in a necropolis came from about 1600 BC, four were infants that had been buried under houses around 1200 BC, and three more individuals were from a cemetery by the city wall and came from about 1100 BC.

The people from the middle period had significant ancestry from southern Europe, with 20 to 60 per cent similarity to DNA from ancient skeletons from Crete and Iberia and that from modern people living in Sardinia, an Italian island.

However, the last group of three bodies had no more detectable Greek ancestry than the first group. “Probably all these immigrants that came in intermarried with the local population until this foreign ancestry was diluted,” says Feldman.

“Putting the genetic data together with the archaeological data strengthens the case that there was migration from the areas that we now call Greece and western Turkey,” says Christoph Bachhuber of the University of Oxford, who wasn’t involved in the work.