How Ancient DNA Sheds Light On the Origin of the Biblical Canaanite Civilization

The Canaanite civilization was a Semitic-speaking civilization--and region--in the Ancient Near East during the late 2nd millennium BC. 

A refreshed analysis of ancient DNA from the entire genome collected across five archaeological sites from 73 individuals has provided new insight into the history of the Canaanites, a Bronze Age people (around 3500-1150 BC) mentioned in texts from the Bible and who resided in present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Syria.

“Populations in the South Levante during the Bronze Age were not static,” explains Liran Carmel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

We observe evidence of movement of people over long periods of time from the northeast of the Ancient Near East, including modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, to the South Levante region.

The Canaanites, while living in different city-states, were culturally and genetically similar.  This region has witnessed many subsequent demographic movements, with people coming from the northeast, south, and northwest.

Carmel and his Colleagues obtained these results based on an analysis of 73 new ancient DNA samples representing primarily individuals from the Late Bronze Age to the Middle Ages from five archaeological sites throughout the South Levant.

To these new data, the researchers added previously reported data from 20 individuals from four sites to generate a dataset composed of the DNA of 93 individuals in total.

Genomic analysis showed that Canaanites represent a clear group.

“People from all sites are very similar genetically, albeit with subtle differences, demonstrating that the ‘ Canaanites’ defined archeologically and historically, correspond to a demographically coherent group,” explained Carmel.

The study was published in the journal Cell.

The discoveries suggest that the Canaanites descended from a mixture of earlier local Neolithic populations and populations related to Chalcolithic Iran and/or the Bronze Age Caucasus.

The researchers documented a significant increase in the ratio of Iran / Caucasus-related ancestry over time, which is supported by three individuals who are descendants of outsiders from the Caucasus.

“The strength of migration from the Northeast of the Ancient Near East, and the fact that this migration continued for many centuries, may help explain why city-state rulers in Canaan in the Late Bronze Age are named after not Semitic and Hurrites,” revealed researcher Shai Carmi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“There were strong and active connections between these regions through movements of people that help understand the shared elements of culture.”

The new study also sheds light on the relationship of Canaanites to modern populations.

While the direct contribution of Canaanites to modern populations cannot be accurately quantified, the data suggests that a broader component of the Near East, including populations of the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains, probably accounts for more than 50 percent of the ancestry of many Arabic speakers and Jewish groups living in the region today.

The researchers further revealed that they are now working to extend their sampling, both geographically and over time.

“We want to analyze samples from the Iron Age from different areas of southern Levante,” says Carmel.

“This may shed light on the composition of the populations in the biblically mentioned kingdoms of the region, including Israel, Judah, Ammon, and Moab.”

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