israeli wild boar from europe
November 5, 2013

Genetic Study Show Israel’s Wild Boars Have European Origins

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Whether in Israel or elsewhere, wild boars look pretty much the same: stocky and hairy with large heads, long snouts, and beady eyes. Because of this, scientists had no reason to think that wild boars in Israel were any different than their other Middle Eastern counterparts, from Egypt to Iran.

A new study published in Scientific Reports, however, reveals that unlike the Near Eastern wild boars in surrounding countries, Israel's wild boars originated in Europe. The research team performed both genetic and archaeological analyses, which suggested the wild boars living in Israel are descendants of domesticated pigs brought to Israel starting almost 3,000 years ago by the Philistines and other seafaring raiders.

"Our DNA analysis proves that the wild boars living in Israel today are the descendants of European pigs brought here starting in the Iron Age, around 900 BCE," says Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near East Civilizations . "Given the concentration of pig bones found at Philistine archaeological sites, the European pigs likely came over in the Philistines' boats."

Philistine archaeological sites along Israel's southern coastal plain have provided pig bones dating from the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1150 to 950 BCE. In other parts of the country, however, pig bones are absent at Iron Age sites, including in the central hills, where Ancient Israel is thought to have emerged.

The research team wanted to determine whether the Philistines and other Sea Peoples — groups of seafaring invaders from around the Aegean Sea — made use of local pig breeds or brought new ones with them from their native lands. The team had to use DNA testing to identify the origins of the animals because there is not much difference in the size and the shape of European and Near Eastern pigs.

Globally, genetic researchers divide pigs into three main groups: European, Far Eastern, and Near Eastern. The research team was surprised to find that each of the 25 modern-day boars from Israel share a European genetic signature. Boars from nearby countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran, have a Near Eastern genetic signature. This led the team to conclude that European pigs arrived in Israel at some point and overtook the local pig population.

Pig bones were collected and analyzed from archaeological sites across Israel - ranging from the Neolithic period to medieval times, about 9500 BCE to 1200 CE. This is the most comprehensive study to date of ancient DNA carried out in Israel in terms of both number of samples and time span. Pigs from the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age display the genetic signature of the Near East, while the European genetic signature appears in the early Iron Age around 900 BCE. The European signature has been dominant ever since.

The researchers believe that domestic European pig breeds may have been introduced by groups of "Sea Peoples" — including the Philistines, mentioned in the Bible — who migrated to the coast of the Levant starting in the 12th century BCE and settled in places like Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod.

During the Roman-Byzantine period and the Crusades, additional European pigs could have been brought to the Levant. The European pigs eventually overtook the Near East pigs, and their descendants are the only wild boars living in Israel today. The researchers are performing further DNA analysis to determine if the domestic European pigs could have driven the local pigs to extinction, or mated with them. The team finds the latter scenario more likely.

"If the European pigs mated with the local pigs, as we suspect, today's modern wild boars should have some Near Eastern DNA," says Dr. Meirav Meiri, an expert in ancient DNA who conducted the laboratory work for the study in a special, highly sterile lab in TAU's Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology. "If the European pigs just out-competed the locals, we'd expect the wild boars to have purely European DNA." Dr. Meiri tested over 177 ancient samples, including 34 that were well preserved enough to determine their genetic origin.

This is part of a larger study that makes use of modern methods to study the Iron Age, directed by Professor Finkelstein and Professor Steve Weiner, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science. They are examining the large migrations, trade, climate changes and other forces that shaped and changed the Levant in antiquity. Finkelstein told the New York Times that understanding human and animal movement is crucial to that process. “We archaeologists know that pigs and pork consumption are two very good markers of ethnicity and identity,” he said, given the pig taboo in ancient Israel.

“Here, there’s an island of pigs with European ancestry,” said Steve Weiner. “We don’t know if Napoleon brought pigs, or the Crusaders, or if they all did.”

“Archaeologists,” he concluded, “take pigs very seriously.”