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DNA vs the Bible: Israelites did not wipe out the Canaanites


Genetic sequencing shows descendants of Canaanites live on, in Lebanon.


The remains of one of the ancient Canaanites, buried in Sidon, sequenced for the study.
The remains of one of the ancient Canaanites, buried in Sidon, sequenced for the study.
Claude Doumet-Serhal / The Sidon excavation

In any conflict between nations, it is the victors who get to write the history. Thus, to the limited extent that the Old Testament can be considered a historical record, the Middle Eastern people known as the Canaanites were on the wrong side of the war.

The Bible is full of references to the need for the Canaanites to be driven out of Canaan, the land promised to the Israelites, because they “served Baal and the Ashtoreths” (Judges 2:13) and were also generally in the way.

This, and the fact there are no indigenous written records from Canaanite society extant – though an alphabet dating to 1,900 years BCE is attributed to them – means there is precious little evidence to suggest what happened to the Canaanites beyond their ostensible scattering by the Israelites.

Until now.

Genome analysis published in the American Journal of Human Genetics concludes the Canaanites did not die out. Indeed, the community survived remarkably intact and its direct descendants today comprise much of the population of modern-day Lebanon.

To make the findings, a team led by Marc Haber of Britain’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, exhumed five 4,000-year-old corpses from the Lebanese city of Sidon. (“The borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza,” wrote the anonymous author of Genesis.)

The researchers sequenced the genomes of the five, and compared the results to sequences obtained from 99 present-day Lebanese.

Correlation between the two sets was very strong, indicating the ancient Canaanites were direct ancestors.

Both sets of genomes also contained a small proportion of genes of Eurasian origin, the result of ancient influxes of outsiders.

"We found that the Canaanites were a mixture of local people who settled in farming villages during the Neolithic period and eastern migrants who arrived in the region about 5,000 years ago," Haber says.

"The present-day Lebanese are likely to be direct descendants of the Canaanites, but they have in addition a small proportion of Eurasian ancestry that may have arrived via conquests by distant populations such as the Assyrians, Persians or Macedonians."

The finding that the genetic heritage of the Lebanese people has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years chimes with archaeological evidence that also shows a robust continuity.

However, the degree to which the Canaanite lineage is undiluted was still unexpected, says co-author Chris Tyler-Smith: "In light of the enormously complex history of this region in the last few millennia, it was quite surprising that over 90% of the genetic ancestry of present-day Lebanese was derived from the Canaanites."

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Andrew Masterson is an author and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.
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