Ancient Phoenician life was mixed and multicultural


Mitochondrial DNA suggests classical civilisation was more interested in trading than fighting. Andrew Masterson reports.


A Phoenician mask, discovered on the island of Sardinia.
A Phoenician mask, discovered on the island of Sardinia.
David Lees / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

The ancient Phoenician civilisation that spread around much of the Mediterranean basin during the first millennium BCE was inclusive, multicultural and featured significant female mobility, according to a new study of mitochondrial DNA.

The Phoenicians – the name derives from a description of them by the Greeks – arose in the eastern Mediterranean and inhabited what are now the coastlines of Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Syria and southwest Turkey, before spreading along the northern coast of Africa as far as the Atlantic, notably founding Carthage in the process. They also settled in southern Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia.

A sophisticated people, they developed a distinctive alphabet derived from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which in turn was adapted and assimilated into the written forms of many other cultures, notably Greek. Despite their literacy, however, most of what is known about them comes from Greek and Egyptian descriptions.

Although the name “Phoenicians” is ultimately a Greek derivation of the Egyptian word for “Syrians”, it had an apt double-meaning, acknowledged at the time. “Phoenician” is almost a homophone for another Greek word meaning “purple” – appropriate because the Phoenicians pretty much controlled the trade in valuable purple dye throughout the classical world.

Indeed, the civilisation was recognised primarily to be made up of traders and settlers, with such settlement arguably driven by business opportunities. The Phoenicians were not seen as warlike – and the latest research, led by E. Matisoo-Smith New Zealand’s University of Otago, and Pierre Zalloua from the Lebanese American University in Beirut seems to bear this out.

The scientists focussed their attention on Phoenician settlements in Sardinia in order to investigate how they integrated with the communities already living there when they arrived.

To do this they first sourced mitochondrial genome sequences from 14 ancient islanders – come dating before the arrival of the Phoenicians around 1800 BCE, and others during the settlement period of between 700 and 400 BCE.

They then compared these with two existing databases – the first comprising 87 complete mitogenomes from modern Lebanese, and the other made up of 21 recently published sequences from pre-Phoenician Sardinia.

The results indicated that some pre-Phoenician lineages continued after settlement, indicating that indigenous Sardinians integrated into the new social structure peacefully and permanently.

New unique mitochondrial lineages were also discovered, which the researchers interpret as evidence of the movement of women from the Near East and North Africa into Sardinia. They may also indicate the movement of European women into Lebanon.

“This DNA evidence reflects the inclusive and multicultural nature of Phoenician society,” says Zalloua. “They were never conquerors, they were explorers and traders.”

The research is published in the journal PLOS.

  1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190169
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