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Who were the Canaanites? Ancient human DNA evidence yields answers

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IMAGE: This photograph shows a large jar burial containing the remains of one of the individuals sequenced in the study. view more 

Credit: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal - The Sidon excavation

Thousands of years ago, the Canaanite people lived in a part of the world we now recognize as Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, establishing a culture that became influential in the Middle East and beyond. The Canaanites created the first alphabet, established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, and were mentioned many times in the Bible. But who were they and what ultimately happened to them? Were they annihilated like the Bible says?

Now, researchers who've sequenced the first ancient Canaanite genomes along with genomes representing people from modern-day Lebanon have new information to help answer those questions. DNA evidence reported in the American Journal of Human Genetics on July 27 shows that the Canaanites did not just disappear. Instead, they survived and are the ancestors of the people now living in modern-day Lebanon.

"We found that the Canaanites were a mixture of local people who settled in farming villages during the Neolithic period and eastern migrants who arrived in the region about 5,000 years ago," said Marc Haber (@MarcHaber) of The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. "The present-day Lebanese are likely to be direct descendants of the Canaanites, but they have in addition a small proportion of Eurasian ancestry that may have arrived via conquests by distant populations such as the Assyrians, Persians, or Macedonians."

Marc Haber, Chris Tyler-Smith, and colleagues came to that conclusion after sequencing the complete genomes of five Canaanite individuals who lived almost 4,000 years ago in what's now the modern-day Lebanese city of Sidon. They also sequenced the genomes of 99 present-day Lebanese. Those sequences enabled the researchers to analyze the Canaanites' ancestry and assess their relationship to the people living in Lebanon today.

The researchers estimate that new Eurasian people mixed with the Canaanite population about 3,800 to 2,200 years ago at a time when there were many conquests of the region from outside. Despite all that moving around, the Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, they report, suggesting that there's been substantial genetic continuity in the region since at least the Bronze Age--a conclusion that agrees with the archaeological record.

"In light of the enormously complex history of this region in the last few millennia, it was quite surprising that over 90 percent of the genetic ancestry of present-day Lebanese was derived from the Canaanites," Tyler-Smith said.

The findings highlight the utility of genetic studies for elucidating the history of people like the Canaanites, who left few written records themselves. The researchers say they would now like to understand the earlier and later genetic history of Lebanon and how it relates to the surrounding regions.

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The researchers were supported by The Wellcome Trust.

American Journal of Human Genetics, Haber et al.: "Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences" http://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(17)30276-8

The American Journal of Human Genetics (@AJHGNews), published by Cell Press for the American Society of Human Genetics, is a monthly journal that provides a record of research and review relating to heredity in humans and to the application of genetic principles in medicine and public policy, as well as in related areas of molecular and cell biology. Visit: http://www.cell.com/ajhg. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world's leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. http://www.sanger.ac.uk

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