Biblical Philistines descended from people who migrated from West Europe, ancient DNA reveals

The new study, a culmination of over 30 years of archaeological work and genetic research, could finally resolve the centuries-old debate on the origins of the arch-enemies of the Israelites


                            Biblical Philistines descended from people who migrated from West Europe, ancient DNA reveals

People generally use the term ‘Philistine’ to describe someone who is uncultured, but in the Hebrew Bible, the Philistines appear as the great enemies of Israelites. But where did they come from? A groundbreaking new study of ancient DNA retrieved from the bones of ancient residents of the coastal city of Ashkelon in Israel - one of the core Philistine cities during the Iron Age - could be a critical step toward understanding and resolving the long-disputed origins of the Philistines.

The genetic results, according to the researchers, is the first direct evidence that the Philistines migrated from the West, from Southern Europe. 

The international research team, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Leon Levy Expedition, detected that a substantial proportion of the Philistines’ ancestry was derived from a European population.

This implies that the Philistines descended from people who migrated across the Mediterranean and reached Ashkelon or the shores of the southern Levant, sometime during the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron age, says the study. However, in the later Iron age, after two centuries or 200 years later, this genetic sequence seems to disappear, says the findings, adding that this could be attributed to inter-marriages with Levantine groups around them.

Within the history of the Eastern Mediterranean, the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age were marked by exceptional cultural disarray that followed the collapse of prosperous economies and cultures in Greece, Egypt, the Levant, and Anatolia. During the 12th century BCE, coincident with these events, substantive cultural changes appeared in the archeological record of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron, three of the five core cities mentioned as Philistine in the Hebrew Bible.  

“The ancient Mediterranean port city of Ashkelon, identified as ‘Philistine’ during the Iron Age, underwent a marked cultural change between the Late Bronze and the early Iron Age. It has been long debated whether this change was driven by a substantial movement of people, possibly linked to a larger migration. Here, we report genome-wide data of 10 Bronze and Iron Age individuals from Ashkelon,” says the paper.

The Philistines are famous for their appearance in the Hebrew Bible as the arch-enemies of the Israelites. In the biblical Book of Samuel, for example, Goliath is described as a Philistine giant, who was defeated by the young David. However, the ancient texts say little about the Philistine origins other than a later memory that the Philistines came from ‘Caphtor.’ 

“More than a century ago, Egyptologists proposed that a group called the Peleset in texts of the late twelfth century BCE were the same as the Biblical Philistines. The Egyptians claimed that the Peleset traveled from the “the islands,” attacking what is today Cyprus and the Turkish and Syrian coasts, finally attempting to invade Egypt. These hieroglyphic inscriptions were the first indication that the search for the origins of the Philistines should be focused in the late second millennium BCE,” says the paper. 

From 1985-2016, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, a project of the Harvard Semitic Museum, took up the search for the origin of the Philistines at Ashkelon. Led by its founder, the late Lawrence E. Stager, and then by Daniel M. Master, an author of the study and director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, the team found substantial changes in ways of life during the 12th century BCE, which they connected to the arrival of the Philistines. Many scholars, however, argued that these cultural changes were merely the result of trade or a local imitation of foreign styles and not the result of a substantial movement of people.

The new study - which concludes that the arrival of the Philistines in the southern Levant involved a movement of people from the West during the Bronze to Iron Age transition - represents the culmination of more than 30 years of archaeological work and genetic research. It is an excellent example of how DNA can be a powerful tool to record history and answer historical questions.

On the other hand, say the researchers, it reminds scientists and historians that culture and ethnicity do not necessarily equal the genetic makeup of the same groups. “In the 12th and 13th centuries, empires collapsed, and much of civilizations collapsed. When people woke up 100 years later, the world was very different. One of the groups that people noticed were the Philistines. Their DNA reveal their origins in a way that was not possible before,” say the researchers in their findings.

Photograph of infant burial at the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon. (Ilan Sztulman. Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

 

The research team retrieved and analyzed, for the first time, genome-wide data from people who lived during the Bronze and Iron Age (~3,600-2,800 years ago) in the ancient port city of Ashkelon.

The researchers successfully recovered genomic data from the remains of 10 individuals who lived in Ashkelon during the Bronze and Iron Age. The earliest three individuals were excavated from a Bronze Age cemetery; four early Iron Age infants were recovered from burials beneath late 12th century Iron Age houses; and three later Iron Age individuals were recovered from a cemetery adjacent to the city wall of ancient Ashkelon, estimated to have been used between the 10th and the 9th century BCE.

This data allowed the team to compare the DNA of the Bronze and Iron Age people of Ashkelon to determine how they were related.

“We find that all three Ashkelon populations derive most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool. However, individuals who lived in the early Iron Age Ashkelon had a European derived ancestral component that was not present in their Bronze Age predecessors. This timing is in accord with estimates of the Philistines arrival to the coast of the Levant, based on archeological and textual records. Of the available contemporaneous populations, we model the southern European gene pool as the best proxy for this incoming gene flow. We find that, within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and was subsequently diluted by the local Levantine gene pool over the succeeding centuries, suggesting intensive admixture between local and foreign populations,” says the paper.

According to the findings, the study begins to fill a “temporal gap” in the genetic map of the southern Levant. The researchers say while their modeling suggests a southern European gene pool as a credible source, future sampling could identify more precisely the populations that introduced the European-related component to Ashkelon.

The study was published on July 4 in the journal Science Advances. 

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