Genetic analysis of remains from ruins in Israel hints at the origins of the Levantine people described in the Hebrew Bible.
For thousands of years, the story of the Philistines has been told through the lens of their enemies, such as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the writers of the Hebrew Bible — who described David’s defeat of Goliath, the mighty Philistine warrior.
While little of the Philistines’ stories about themselves endure, ancient DNA from Bronze and Iron Age skeletons, uncovered in the ruins around the seaport city of Ashkelon in Israel, is providing clues to the mysterious origins of these long gone people.
A team of archaeologists and geneticists who have spent more than 30 years excavating the city retrieved, for the first time, genetic data from ten Ashkelon skeletons, from about 3,600 to 2,800 years old.
Their analysis suggests early Iron Age Philistines shared some genetic heritage with Mesolithic, or Stone Age, hunter-gatherers from Southern Europe. That contributes genetic evidence to the idea that people migrating eastward from the Mediterranean sailed to the shores of the Levant and helped contribute to the beginnings of the Philistines.
Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
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Archaeologists have long wondered about the origins of the Philistines, who are thought to have established themselves in the Levant around the 12th century B.C.E. and lived there until their destruction by the Babylonians in 604 B.C.E. The Hebrew Bible mentions they came from “Caphtor,” which some archaeologists believe might be present-day Crete, while some modern interpretations of ancient Egyptian texts suggest they were the “Peleset,” or maritime invaders associated with a group called the “Sea-Peoples.”
From these texts and other archaeological remains, some scientists and historians have argued the appearance of the Philistines resulted from a mass migration from a particular homeland, such as Cyprus or Anatolia, while others have said they came from multiple places across the Mediterranean. Yet, others have argued the Philistines were always in the Levant, and some have also suggested they were pirates.
“Now we finally have direct evidence for this key idea: Where did the Philistines come from?” said Daniel Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. “They came from outside this region, they came from the West, they came from across the Mediterranean.”
The genetic clue that led Dr. Master and his colleagues to their conclusion was found in DNA collected from the skulls of four early Iron Age infants buried beneath the floors of their late 12th century B.C.E. homes in Ashkelon. Dr. Master said the infants, who were not related, were most likely Philistines born in Ashkelon and not immigrants because of the conditions in which they were buried.
His colleagues performed an ancient DNA analysis and uncovered European-derived genetic material, suggesting the infants’ recent ancestors may have arrived from overseas somewhere in Southern Europe.
The researchers said they could not yet pinpoint specifically whether these people came from Greece, Sardinia, Crete or elsewhere.
“We kind of managed to narrow it down to Southern Europe, but we are very limited at this point by the amount of reference populations that we have because there are a lot of gaps in geography and time,” said Michal Feldman, a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, and lead author on the study.
The team also retrieved DNA from three Bronze Age individuals found in an Ashkelon necropolis, who likely lived there before the Philistines, and were radiocarbon dated to around 1746 to 1542 B.C.E. These individuals did not show the same European-derived genetic signature seen in the infants, offering the team a genetic comparison between Late Bronze Age and Iron Age people of Ashkelon when there was a known cultural change.
In later centuries, population mixture reduced the Southern European genetic signature among the Philistine population, although the group’s identity as Philistines remained clear in ancient texts.
Evidence of this process was found in DNA extracted from three Philistine skeletons in a cemetery of the later Iron Age, or about the 10th and 9th century B.C.E. In these three adults, the researchers did not find the same European genetic markers that they saw in the infants. The burial conditions, however, made it clear that both the early Iron Age infants and the later Iron Age adults were culturally Philistines, according to the team.
“What surprised me the most was to see that 200 years later this European signal almost completely disappeared,” Ms. Feldman said.
She said the finding suggests that after arriving in the Levant, the people who had this European signature intermarried with a local population, which led to the genetic signature getting diluted in the Levantine population.
“It is a drop of migration that had a very short-term genetic effect, but a long term cultural effect.”
Marc Haber, a population geneticist at the University of Birmingham in England who was not involved with the study, said the genetic analysis was “solid” and that the evidence for the population change during the Iron Age was well supported.
The finding fits with an understanding of the Philistines as an “entangled” or “transcultural” group consisting of peoples of various origins, said Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
“While I fully agree that there was a significant component of non-Levantine origins among the Philistines in the early Iron Age,” he said. “These foreign components were not of one origin, and, no less important, they mixed with local Levantine populations from the early Iron Age onward.”
Laura Mazow, an archaeologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., said the paper supported the idea that there was some migration into the site from the west. She added that the findings “support the picture that we see in the archaeological record of a complex, multicultural process that has been resistant to reconstruction by any single historical model.”
Earlier reporting on archaeological discoveries in the Middle East
Nicholas St. Fleur is a science reporter who writes about archaeology, paleontology, space and other topics. He joined The Times in 2015. Before that, he was an assistant editor at The Atlantic. @scifleur • Facebook