Although the Carthaginians ruled the western Mediterranean for centuries, ultimately they could not resist the power of Rome. Their final hours were gruesome.
"Fire spread and carried everything down," wrote Appian, describing how Roman soldiers finally breached the walls in 146 b.c. and torched the city, pulling down its buildings on top of the residents hiding within.
Archaeologist Docter has found chilling evidence of that conflagration. He points down at the mosaic floor of a house the team uncovered. A layer of black char covers it.
"That's from the fires of 146 b.c." says Docter.
When Carthage fell, the people were enslaved and they disappeared, explains Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg. "This doesn't mean the culture disappeared. It had become so rooted in North Africa that it was centuries before people abandoned the language. By a.d. 193 Rome had an emperor from North Africa, Septimius Severus, and he spoke with a strong Phoenician accent. That was the revenge of Carthage."
The Phoenicians also persisted genetically. Early this year, as Wells and Zalloua complete their DNA sampling, they shift their search from collecting samples to analyzing the thousands of plastic vials of DNA they have assembled at Zalloua's lab at the American University of Beirut.
"All this is concentrated DNA," says Zalloua, holding a box of vials from Tunisia. He lifts out a vial labeled DN44. "We'll put a little of this on a glass plate with appropriate enzymes to isolate a specific region of the Y-chromosome DNA we want to analyze. We have lots of data to digest."
He prints a chart of their Lebanese data and runs his finger down a list of analyzed samples. Most, but not all, samples indicate Middle Eastern or African origins.
"Ah, there's a Spencer—a European," says Zalloua, pointing to an M173. "That man might be descended from a crusader."
Over the next few months, the analysis of both Lebanese and Tunisian samples proceeds. By the end of the summer, Wells and Zalloua have come to some conclusions.
Who were the Phoenicians? The answer deciphered from their vials of DNA both pleases and frustrates the scientists. Perhaps most significantly, their data show that modern Lebanese people share a genetic identity going back thousands of years.
"The Phoenicians were the Canaanites—and the ancestors of today's Lebanese," says Wells.
That result extinguishes Wells' theory that the migrating Sea Peoples interbred with the Canaanites to create the Phoenician culture.
"The Sea Peoples apparently had no significant genetic impact on populations in the Levant," he explains. "The people living today along the coast where the Sea Peoples would have interbred have very similar Y-chromosome patterns to those living inland. They are basically all one people."
That result delights Zalloua; it supports his belief that both Muslim and Christian Lebanese populations share an ancient genetic heritage.
"Maybe now we can finally put some of our internal struggles to rest," he says.
The data from Tunisia also help redefine the legacy of the Phoenicians.
"They left only a small impact in North Africa," Wells says. "No more than 20 percent of the men we sampled had Y chromosomes that originated in the Middle East. Most carried the aboriginal North African M96 pattern."
That influx from the Middle East could have come in three waves: the arrival of farming in North Africa 10,000 years ago, the Phoenicians, and the Islamic expansion 1,300 years ago. Microsatellites will let the researchers estimate when people bearing those markers arrived. Even if they all turned out to be of Phoenician age, the impact on local people was relatively small.
"Apparently, they didn't interbreed much," Wells says. "They seem to have stuck mostly to themselves." Since they left so few markers, Wells must modify his plan to track Phoenician migrations around the Mediterranean—and perhaps even farther.
"They were a slippery people," he says. "They came. They traded. They left. I guess that only adds to their mystery."
And so—for the time being, at least—the Phoenicians remain glorious ghosts.