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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 21:20 EDT

Phoenician Legacy Still Alive Near Mediterranean

October 30, 2008

Studies have shown that as many as one in 17 men who currently live near the Mediterranean may be genetically linked to the ancient Phoenicians.

Phoenicians resided in the region now known as Lebanon. Their greatest city, Carthage, was destroyed by the Romans centuries ago. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean between the periods of 1550 BC to 300 BC.

The Phoenicians’ most notable contributions are the alphabet and a love of the color purple.

Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England led a team of researchers in pinpointing a genetic marker for the Phoenicians on the male-only Y chromosome.

The study marks the first application of National Geographic and IBM’s Genographic Project scientific consortium’s new analytical method for detecting the subtle genetic impact of historical population migrations.

“When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians. All we had to guide us was history: We knew where they had and hadn’t settled. But this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people,” said Tyler-Smith.

The researchers compared the genes of residents in those areas to those of people living in other Mediterranean communities which had not been Phoenician settlements.

Their comparison revealed a handful of genetic lineages that are shared among far-flung populations from around the Mediterranean, all united by just one feature: They had been Phoenician colonies

“The results are important because they show that the Phoenician settlement sites are marked by a genetic signature distinct from any that might have been left by other trading and settlement expansions through history, or which may have emerged by chance,” said Daniel Platt, of IBM’s Computational Biology Center at the T. J. Watson Research Center.

“This proves that these settlements, some of which lasted hundreds of years, left a genetic legacy that persists to modern times.”

Pierre Zalloua, Genographic principal investigator, Middle East/North Africa, said: “This study brings to life a magnificent piece of our population heritage that has been buried or forgotten. This new finding is a key fortification against miscomprehension or misconceptions of our history. Only a comprehensive knowledge of our past can help strengthen our modern identity. It is a challenging but a wonderful undertaking to be able to unravel and write your own history.”

The findings are being published online Thursday by the American Journal of Human Genetics. The work was supported by National Geographic and IBM’s Genographic Project, an effort to research the history of human migration.

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