The idea is fascinating. Who among us hasn't considered our heritage and wondered if we might be descended from ancient royalty or some prominent historical figure? Led by a long-standing interest in the impact of ancient empires on the modern gene pool, geneticist and National Geographic emerging explorer Spencer Wells, with colleague Pierre Zalloua of the American University of Beirut, expanded on that question two years ago as they embarked on a genetic study of the Phoenicians, a first millennium B.C. sea empire thatover several hundred yearsspread across the Mediterranean from the Levant, a coastal region in what is now Lebanon.
The Romans conquered the Phoenicians during the Punic Wars, destroying much of their culture. "In many ways, they've been quite enigmatic," says Wells. "We know they existed, but we know very little about them. Why did they suddenly arise and start to spread around 1200 B.C.? And what impact did they have on other peoples in the Mediterranean? We've tried to use DNA, the genetic material we all carry in our bodies, to answer those questions."
Supported by a grant from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration, the scientists collected blood samples from men living in the Middle East, North Africa, southern Spain, and Malta, places the Phoenicians are known to have settled and traded. Starting with between 500 and 1,000 well-typed samples, they began looking at the Y chromosome, the piece of DNA that traces a purely male line of descent. The goal was to answer two questions: What was the impact of a group the ancient Egyptians referred to as the Sea Peoples, who apparently arrived in the Levant region about 1200 B.C. just before the Phoenician culture began to flower and expand? And can we use genetics to trace the expansion of the Phoenician empire? What the study has revealed so far, detailed in "Who Were the Phoenicians?" in the October issue of National Geographic, is compelling.
"We're not seeing a significant genetic influence from elsewhere on the coastal population in what was the Levant region," says Wells. "The people are very similar to the groups we see inland in Syria and Jordan, for example, suggesting that there wasn't a huge influx of Sea Peoples or others from outside the area. A cultural shift occurred but not a genetic one. Today's Lebanese, the Phoenicians, and the Canaanites before them are all the same people."
Wells and Zalloua are finding similar results among samples taken in Tunisia, site of ancient Carthage and the largest of the Phoenician colonies. "Less than 20 percent of the genetic lineages found could have come out of the Middle East," Wells continues. "They're showing the markers of aboriginal North Africans. That means the Phoenicians moved into this area and, like the Sea Peoples, had more of a cultural impact than a genetic one."
As DNA samples continue to be analyzed, more revelations are surfacing. "We've just received data that more than half of the Y chromosome lineages that we see in today's Maltese population could have come in with the Phoenicians," Wells says. "That's a significant genetic impact. But why?" At this point he can only speculate. "Perhaps the population on Malta wasn't as dense. Perhaps when the Phoenicians settled, they killed off the existing population, and their own descendants became today's Maltese. Maybe the islands never had that many people, and shiploads of Phoenicians literally moved in and swamped the local population. We don't know for sure, but the results are consistent with a settlement of people from the Levant within the past 2,000 years, and that points to the Phoenicians."
During the next few years, Wells and Zalloua plan to expand the sample size in the Middle East, southern Spain, and northern Africa. "I'm particularly interested in the Phoenician impact on Africa," Wells says. "We know that Phoeniciansto a certain extentcontrolled the trans-Saharan trade routes from their center of Carthage. They also navigated through the Strait of Gibraltar and moved around western Africa. But how far south did they get? And did they leave a genetic trail?" The search continues.