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Found: The DNA of Ancient Canaanites

What really happened to this Biblical people?

One of the skeletons whose DNA contributed to the study.
One of the skeletons whose DNA contributed to the study. The Sidon Excavation

About 4,000 years ago, the land that we call Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria was known as Canaan. Much of what’s known today about the Canaanites comes from sources such as the Bible: As Science reports, these people didn’t leave behind many traces for historians and archaeologists to interpret.

The Bible tells a story about the Canaanites—after the Israelites famously fled Egypt, they conquered these lands and destroyed many of the communities living there (though some appear to have been spared). DNA evidence is beginning to tell a story about what happened next.

Geneticists were able to extract DNA from five Canaanite skeletons from 3,700 years ago. These skeletons were discovered as part of an extensive, years-long excavation of an ancient city, the Los Angeles Times reports. The archaeological team has found 160 burials in all, but it’s rare in these conditions for DNA to be preserved. These samples came from particularly resilient pelvis bone DNA.

The researchers found that these people shared about half their DNA with farmers from the Levant, who had been living in the area from thousands of years, but that half of their DNA comes from an earlier Iranian population. That stacks up with Greek sources that report the Canaanites came from farther east, Science reports.

According to the study, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, the genes of people living in Lebanon today overlap significantly with these ancient Canaanites—they share about 90 percent of the genes. But that doesn’t necessarily means that the Biblical story—that many Canaanites were wiped out—isn’t true. Canaanites and Israelites may have been indistinguishable genetically—after all, Abraham settled in Canaan and had Canaanite children. As one geneticist told Science, “You can have genetically similar or indistinguishable populations that are culturally very different and don’t get on with one another at all.”

August 1, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the fate of the Canaanites in the Bible.