It still is. "It's now become taboo to use 'Phoenician' here officially," Zalloua explains. "Go to the National Museum. You won't see the word anywhere. They label everything simply by its age—early, middle, or late Bronze Age."
Could genetics show that modern Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, share the same Phoenician heritage? That's one question this project, funded by the National Geographic Society, hopes to resolve. Wells and Zalloua have others.
For one, they want to know whether mysterious groups known as the Sea Peoples might have migrated into Lebanon around 1200 b.c. and mixed with the Canaanites to help create Phoenician culture. Although the Sea Peoples, who may have come from the Aegean, marauded and burned most of the major cities along the coast of the Levant, they apparently spared the Canaanite cities. One leading Phoenician scholar, Maria Eugenia Aubet of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, believes the Canaanites made a deal with the Sea Peoples.
"I think they became friends," she says. "Phoenician material culture shows so many elements from the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians learned from them how to build harbors, moorings, docks, and piers. The Sea Peoples, like the Phoenicians, were excellent navigators—and they knew the routes west to the rich sources of metals."
Spencer Wells suspects that the Sea Peoples also introduced their genes into the DNA of the Canaanites.
"Was there a mass migration of Sea Peoples?" Wells asks, as he and Zalloua take turns collecting DNA samples in Byblos. "Did it help create a Phoenician genetic type? We have the tools now to answer those questions."
Wells and Zalloua are seeking markers—mutations that arose in Phoenician times that can still be found in blood today. The markers would be extremely subtle, changes in a few letters out of three billion in our book of genetic instructions. But they would be enough to identify descendants of Phoenicians. Markers can be found at specific places on the Y chromosome, the threadlike package of genes located in the nucleus of almost every cell in males. Two chromosomes, the X and the Y, determine sex. Females have two X's; males have one X and one Y. The Y contains the genes that create maleness.
The Y chromosome, uniquely, is passed from father to son with no input from the mother. Changes in its DNA are preserved generation after generation, so the male descendants of Phoenicians would inherit ancient patterns of mutations indefinitely.
Genetic analysis has traced all modern males back to a common Y-chromosome ancestor, nicknamed Adam, who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago and whose descendants spread throughout the world. Lebanon has also seen many migrations since Phoenician times, notably from the Arabian Peninsula during the rise of Islam and from Europe during the Crusades.
"The genetic inputs from those migrations are very clear," says Zalloua, including those of northern invaders. "There are villages in Lebanon that still have a high percentage of fair-skinned blonds."
Identifying Phoenician markers takes sophisticated comparisons of the DNA from thousands of men like those of Byblos. But Byblos is just one stop on Wells's and Zalloua's sampling campaign—a campaign that will take many months to show results.
Genetic researchers aren't the only ones seeking new clues to the identity of the Phoenicians. Scientists from Lebanon to North Africa to Spain are finding other evidence through traditional archaeology. Lebanese archaeologist Claude Doumet-Serhal, for one, is leading a team systematically exploring for the first time the port of Sidon, another major Phoenician city. The heart of that ancient port lies beneath a thriving modern town, out of archaeology's reach until a 19th-century school was torn down. In 1998 Doumet-Serhal's team, funded by the British Museum and a consortium of sponsors, began boring into the center of the old city.
"We are part of a rebirth of archaeology in Lebanon after 15 years of civil war," she says, descending into the excavation, which stretches for the length of a football field amid a bazaar of old buildings. She moves excitedly through the dig, a series of trenches where clusters of professional and student archaeologists scrape, pick, and chisel back through 5,000 years.
The past three seasons have brought a bonanza of discoveries. She stops where team members are scraping out the bones of a burial from the 20th century b.c. This body, along with more than 30 others, was placed in an enigmatic layer of sand as thick as four feet (1.2 meters). The layer dates from shortly after 2000 b.c. Puzzled by this deposit, Doumet-Serhal had the grains analyzed and found that they came from a nearby dune.