New evidence has revealed that the ancient people most known for their biblical conflict with the Israelites were immigrants to the region in the 12th century BCE.
“For 30 years, we excavated at Ashkelon, uncovering Canaanites, early Philistines and later Philistines – and now we can begin to understand the story that these bones tell,” said Daniel M. Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, who headed the excavations.
The team used state-of-the-art DNA technologies on ancient bone samples unearthed during the excavation from 1985-2016. Analyzing for the first time genome-wide data retrieved from people who lived in Ashkelon during the Bronze and Iron ages (around 3,600 to 2,800 years ago), the team found that a substantial proportion of their ancestry was derived from a European population. This European-derived ancestry was introduced into Ashkelon around the time of the Philistines’ estimated arrival in the 12th century BCE.
The findings of the study were published Wednesday in Science Advances.
According to the Book of Joshua, the land of the Philistines was in the southwestern Levant comprising the five city-states of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath, from Wadi Gaza in the south to the Yarkon River in the north. It was from this designation that the whole of the country was later called Palestine by the Greeks.
The Israelites’ conflict with the Philistines is well attested to in the Bible. Samson slays 1,000 Philistines in Judges 15, and David battles Philistine Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, among other examples.
Dr. Adam A. Aja, assistant curator of collections at the Harvard Semitic Museum and one of the Ashkelon Philistine cemetery archaeologists, said that people today often want to know, “who are we, where did we come from?
“When we found the infants – infants that were too young to travel... these infants couldn’t march or sail to get to the land around Ashkelon, so they were born on site. And their DNA revealed [that] their parents’ heritage was not from the local population,” Aja explained, referring to the new genetic input from the direction of Southern Europe that was found in bone samples taken from infants buried under the floors of Philistine homes, as was the custom during that period.
“All the work of previous scholarship was pointing in that direction,” said Aja. “The DNA answered that definitively for us… The DNA gave us the opportunity to let these people speak for themselves.”
MICHAEL FELDMAN of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, leading author of the study, explained that the genetic distinction is due to European-related gene flow that is known to have been introduced in Ashkelon during either the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age.
“This timing is in accord with estimates of the Philistines’ arrival to the coast of the Levant, based on archaeological and textual records,” he said.
“Not only do we have radio-carbon dating that demonstrates the antiquity of the samples, but we also have stratigraphic evidence,” Masters said. “These samples come from carefully-excavated contexts, connected to artifacts that can be precisely dated.”
archaeologists uncovered the first Philistine cemetery. From those graves, researchers successfully recovered genomic data from the remains of 10 individuals who lived in Ashkelon during the Bronze and Iron ages. This data allowed the team to compare the DNA of the Bronze and Iron Age people of Ashkelon to determine how they were related. The researchers found that individuals across all time periods derived most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool, but that individuals who lived in early Iron Age Ashkelon had a European-derived ancestral component that was not present in their Bronze Age predecessors.
The researchers also found that the European-related component could no longer be traced in later Iron Age individuals from Ashkelon.
In other words, within two centuries or less, the genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by the local Levantine gene pool, which researchers say suggests intensive admixture between local and foreign populations. Yet, there was continuity in their ethnicity.
“The Philistines stayed Philistines,” explained Masters. “Later people who called themselves Philistines looked very much like the people around them. Their ethnicity did not change even though, as we look at their genome, we see a lot [more] of Levantine influence than we did before.
“It is an interesting way of looking at how genetics and ethnicity operate in different ways under different principles,” Masters concluded.
Aja said that additional work still needs to be done.
“We need more genetic samples from this region to pinpoint more precisely where this population is from,” he said.
However, he noted that the latest findings help complete the picture more than ever before.
Aja said that archaeology is almost akin to having a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and the picture itself missing – “and we are trying to make the joins that work. When we found the cemetery and could get DNA evidence from this, it was as if someone handed us a picture.
“And now, we can see that the puzzle we are putting together actually matches what we thought it was going to be,” he said.
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