Ancient DNA reveals the origins of the Philistines

These mysterious people may have fled collapsing societies in southern Europe for Israel

Philistine child

FROM THE SEA  DNA obtained from remains of people who inhabited an ancient city on Israel’s coast, including this child, indicate that the Philistines mentioned in the Hebrew Bible descended from seafaring Europeans.

Robert Walch/Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Hard-won genetic clues from the bones of Philistines, a people known from the Old Testament for their battles with Israelites, have taken some of the mystery out of their hazy origins.

DNA extracted from the remains of 10 individuals buried at Ashkelon, an ancient Philistine port city in Israel, displays molecular links to ancient and modern populations in the eastern Mediterranean, archaeogeneticist Michal Feldman and her colleagues report. Ashkelon residents carried that southern European genetic signature between around 3,400 and 3,150 years ago, but it disappeared rapidly as mating increased with locals, the researchers conclude in a paper published online July 3 in Science Advances.

Genetic evidence from Ashkelon fits a scenario in which seafaring populations from southern Europe fled collapsing Bronze Age societies more than 3,000 years ago and settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast, where they were dubbed Philistines. Larger ancient DNA studies may help to identify the Philistines’ precise origins, say Feldman, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and her colleagues.

DNA preserves poorly in hot, dry regions such as the Middle East. The researchers managed to retrieve nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents, from 10 skeletons: three Late Bronze Age individuals buried at Ashkelon around 3,600 years ago; four early Iron Age infants interred beneath Ashkelon houses between around 3,400 and 3,150 years ago; and three later Iron Age individuals buried in a large cemetery next to Ashkelon’s city wall roughly 3,100 years ago. Southern European DNA first appeared in the early Iron Age youngsters around the time archaeological finds indicate that Philistines inhabited Ashkelon, but had largely disappeared by the later Iron Age (SN: 12/24/16, p. 8).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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