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First-Ever DNA Analysis Of Ancient Phoenician People

Dominating the North African coast and Eastern Mediterranean between 1500 BCE and 300 BCE, the Phoenicians were regarded at the time as extensive traders and sailors by their Roman and Greek contemporaries. However, little more is actually known about them, despite their apparent maritime prowess. Now, researchers have for the first time obtained ancient DNA from the remains of a young Phoenician man who died 2,500 years ago, and sequenced his mitochondrial genome. 

The researchers found that the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup known as U5b2c1, providing the earliest evidence of this genetic group in North Africa. “U5b2c1 is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there,” explains Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, who co-led the study published in PLOS One, in a statement. “It is remarkably rare in modern populations today, found in Europe at levels of less than one percent.”

DNA analysis of other ancient peoples living in Europe have also found this particular genetic group in two hunter-gatherer remains discovered in north-west Spain, and it is thought that it was probably common among all hunter-gatherers who used to live across the entire continent. The reason why it is so uncommon now in Europe is thought to be because of farmers from the Near East who spread through the land and pushed the hunter-gatherers out.

The Phoenicians, who dominated the North African coast and formed a trading hub at Carthage in Tunisia, are thought to have originated in the Near East in what is now modern-day Lebanon. So it is thought that they too lacked U5b2c1. This raises the intriguing question, then, of where this young man got the marker from. Well, it turns out that he may have been more closely related to the original hunter-gatherers who inhabited Europe than those who moved in from the east.

By looking at the young man’s mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line, they were able to conclude that he was probably descended from people originally from the Iberian Peninsula, most likely Portugal. This is fascinatingly close to the same region that the two Spanish hunter-gatherers were also found. The researchers suggest that as the farmers spread across the continent, they pushed the hunter-gatherers back, until just a relic population containing their unique genetic heritage survived in Iberia.

“While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian Peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa via Phoenician and Punic trade networks,” says Professor Matisoo-Smith. The analysis of the man gives a fascinating insight into the Phoenicians, of which very little is actually known, except from biased accounts given by the Romans and Greeks. 

Image in text: A life reconstruction of the Phoenician man, known as “Young Man of Byrsa” or “Ariche.” University of Otago

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