Biblical Philistines and the 'Sea Peoples': Ancient Dna Is Starting to Reveal Who These Mystery People Were

The ancient remains of 10 Biblical Philistines uncovered at an Iron Age cemetery are helping scientists understand who these people were and where they came from. The results potentially link them to the so-called 'Sea Peoples'—a group thought to have migrated across the Mediterranean and caused a major cultural shift in the region over 3,000 years ago.

From around the 12th century B.C., civilizations across the Eastern Mediterranean started to collapse. Cities were destroyed and the region was plunged into disarray. At this point, it is believed that a mystery group of seafaring people swept through the region, attacking places like Canaan, Syria and Egypt.

Until now, it was unclear whether the cultural upheaval was driven by internal issues, or from the movement of people into new territories. Limited archaeological evidence meant determining the true identity of the Sea Peoples was extremely challenging.

However, researchers recently excavated the remains of 10 individuals that lived in the ancient port city of Ashkelon 3,000 to 3,500 years ago. In the Hebrew bible, Ashkelon was a core Philistine city. Understanding the genetic origins of these people—and how they changed over time—allows scientists to understand the cultural exchanges that were taking place at the time.

Philistine Cemetery
Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon. Melissa Aja, Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Their findings, published in Science Advances, show that individuals dating back 3,500 years were distinct from those who lived later, having a genetic component from Southern Europe.

This supports the idea that there was a large migration into Ashkelon at the start of the Iron Age—and this fits with the estimated time of the Philistines' arrival.

"Some interpretations of ancient texts have suggested that the Philistines were one of the groups that comprised the Sea Peoples," study leader Michal Feldman, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Newsweek.

"Our genetic results could fit with this hypothesis since we detect a movement of people that crossed the Mediterranean and reached Ashkelon in the relevant time period—around the 12th century B.C. However, from the genetics we cannot determine whether these ancestors of the Philistines that migrated to Ashkelon were indeed part of the Sea Peoples or not."

Philistine infant burial
Philistine infant burial. Robert Walch, Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

He continued: "There is not much known from the Biblical accounts regarding the origins of the Philistines except an interpretation that has been made regarding the Biblical mention of Caftor that was connected to ancient Crete. This theory again is in line with our findings that point to a southern European source."

The researchers found that the genetic changes—where individuals had a mix of southern European and Philistine genes—did not last. After two centuries, these changes were no longer detectable, suggesting that the genes of the foreigners were diluted by the local population over time.

Feldman said that because DNA degrades, they are limited in terms of the material available. Finding and sequencing more individuals from this time period would help them get a better understanding of the changes taking place in the region—and could help pinpoint the source population of the Philistines.

"With more data, we also hope to learn more about the Philistines in terms of social structure and about the process in which the 'European' genetic signature was diluted into the local Levantine population within no more than 200 years," he said.

philistine skeleton
One of the skeletons being excavated. Melissa Aja, Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon