DNA study supports Bible: Canaanites homogeneous group, lived in Israel

The study analyzed individuals who lived over the course of a significant period of time, over 1,500 years.

Views of Megiddo, the ancient city from where most of the Canaanite DNA samples were taken. (photo credit: MEGIDDO EXPEDITION)
Views of Megiddo, the ancient city from where most of the Canaanite DNA samples were taken.
(photo credit: MEGIDDO EXPEDITION)
A newly published study has shed light on the genomic features of the Canaanites, confirming that the biblical people were indeed a clear and homogeneous group and supporting archaeological findings.
Moreover, the research showed that many present-day populations of the area have ancestries from groups whose ancient proxy can be related to the Middle East.
The beginning of the book of Genesis narrates that God ordered the patriarch Abraham to leave his native land of Haram and embark on a journey to “a land that I will show you.
“When they arrived in the land of Canaan, Abramam passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land,” read verses 5 and 6 in chapter 12.
Archaeologists indeed concur that around the 2nd millennium BCE, or Middle/Late Bronze Age – when according to some interpretations Abraham lived – the Canaanites were the major presence in the land.
“The Bronze Age was a very formative period in the history of Southern Levant, so we were curious to look into them,” Liran Carmel, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the lead authors of the paper published on Thursday in the academic journal Cell, told The Jerusalem Post, explaining why the group of researchers chose to focus on this specific population.  
“Six or seven years ago, the new field of what we can call ‘molecular history,’ emerged, with the idea of using ancient DNA to reveal patterns in more recent human history, the last few thousands of years,” he said. “At the beginning, the research focused on events that happened in Europe and western Eurasia. I thought that I really wanted to bring it here, to study demographic events and populations in this region.”
The study analyzed individuals who lived over the course of a significant period of time, over 1,500 years.
Carmel said that they started to conceive this project five years ago, but collecting the samples was a long process. The group of researchers managed to extract the DNA of 73 individuals whose remains were found in five archaeological sites in the region, including the prominent Tel Megiddo.
Located in northern Israel, Tel Megiddo was once home to one of the most important Canaanite cities and the excavations have uncovered the remains of a palace, a town gate and a sophisticated water system among others.
“We were afraid that it would be very difficult to obtain the DNA, because the climate in Israel is not very hospitable for its preservation, but when we started the project, it was discovered that there is a certain bone in the skull, the petrous bone, which is more likely to provide DNA samples. We decided to focus on that,” the geneticist told the Post. “With this technique we had a success rate of about 50%, which is good.”
In addition to the new DNA samples, the group also employed previously reported data from 20 other specimens from four sites, for a total of 93 specimens.
Even though Canaanites lived in different city-states, archaeological evidence has always suggested that they presented a common material culture. And indeed, as the paper explained, this homogeneity was found mirrored also in their genetic ancestry.
The general findings of the research suggest that among the Canaanites’ ancestors were earlier local Neolithic populations but also populations related to Chalcolithic Iran – and specifically the region of the Zagros Mountains – and/or the Bronze Age Caucasus.
Carmel pointed out that among the more unexpected findings were the genetic profiles of three individuals that at first seemed to have nothing to do with their fellow Canaanites. A more in depth-analysis exposed that they were likely descendants of relatively recent immigrants from the Caucasus.
Finally, the researchers compared the results of their study to the DNA ancestry of 14 present-day populations that bear a historical or geographical connection with Southern Levant. As explained in the paper, both Arabic-speaking and Jewish populations were found compatible with having more than 50% Middle-Eastern-related ancestry.
“In our work we analyzed the genetic makeup of the people who lived here millennia ago. At the same time, we also knew the genetic makeup of those living in the region today. We were interested in exploring whether we could see any major genetic event or if nothing had happened,” the professor explained.
“We found that many present-day populations show a large ancestry component of the combined Zagros-Canaanite element, as well as additional components related to later demographic developments,” he added.
Carmel said that they are now looking into conducting similar studies on other population groups that emerged a little later in the region.
“There were all these kingdoms that were established in the area in the Iron Age: Israel, Judah, Moab, Amon, Edom… We would like to consider them, but it is a big challenge to find samples, so this is what we are working on now,” he concluded.