DNA From Mysterious Ancient Civilization Shows They Were Explorers, Not Conquerors

Sampling from the Tomb 351 Monte Sirai. Michele Guirguis

DNA recovered from the remains of ancient Phoenicians supports the idea that they were lovers more than fighters. The seafaring Mediterranean civilization was an inclusive, multicultural society focused on exploration, according to a new paper published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Led by researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand and the Lebanese American University in Beirut, the team focused on mitochondrial genomes, or mtDNA, in pursuit of a genetic marker of Phoenician ancestry. By comparing certain gene sequences from Phoenician and pre-Phoenician Lebanon and Sardinia with modern Lebanese DNA, the researchers found genetic evidence suggesting that ancient Phoenicians had fraternized and integrated with ancient indigenous Sardinians.

"What is fascinating about our finding is the very fact that it was revealed to us by mitochondrial DNA," corresponding author Pierre Zalloua told Newsweek via email. "The findings tell us a lot about the Phoenician culture: when these sailors brought their women to settle with them, they intended to integrate rather than to conquer."

The Phoenician civilization began to take shape around 1800 B.C. in the northern Levant, the historical region that roughly corresponds here to the Mediterranean coast along Syria and Lebanon. Over the course of the next 1,000 years, their influence spread out over Asia, Europe and Africa. Yet, as Zalloua explained, most of the historical record about the Phoenicians came from ancient Greeks and Romans—the Phoenician's arch-enemies.

"Most of what the Phoenicians wrote about themselves was either destroyed," Zalloua told Newsweek, "or has not been discovered yet. From all of what has been written about the Phoenicians...there is no evidence that they invested heavily in an army suitable enough for land conquest."

Ancient Phoenician travel routes. Wikimedia Commons

The primary reason Phoenicians ever left the safety of their own shores was to gather tin, as well as silver and other metals, to pay to the ancient Assyrians as taxes, Zalloua told Newsweek. The researchers' work also helps trace the movement of Phoenician women. Mitochondrial genomes are inherited through the mother's side, so in order for it to appear in a population's genetic code, women had to have given birth to daughters there, corresponding author Lisa Matisoo-Smith explained to Newsweek.

"Often, what is written or recorded in history is a male-dominated perspective," Matisoo-Smith told Newsweek via email. "What is nice about mtDNA is that, not only is it more likely to be preserved in ancient samples due to the greater number of mitochondria (and thus mtDNA) in each cell compared to copies of nuclear DNA, but it also tells us about maternal history, and thus, the history of the women in a population."