DNA Of Phoenician Man Changes Our Understanding Of Human Migration

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The DNA sequencing of a 2,500 year old Phoenician body has shed new light on our understanding of human migration.

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‘Young man of Byrsa’

The Phoenicians were a North African trading community. The body, thought to be of a young Phoenician man, was found in 1994 in a sarcophagus near the ancient city of Carthage (just outside the current capital of Tunisia, Tunis) by accident. Gardeners were working when they uncovered the ancient tomb. The remains have been nicknamed ‘Young Man of Byrsa’ (named after Byrsa, which was a citadel situated above a harbor in ancient Carthage).

When the body was analyzed, scientists were surprised at what they found. The results, which have been published in PLOS One, a scientific journal, state that a very rare and unexpected genome, U5b2c1 was discovered. This indicates he was part of an uncommon European haplogroup, most likely originating from Spain or Portugal. The haplogroup is practically non-existent today, but ancient remains found in the Northern Mediterranean and also Central  Europe have found examples of this genome.

Lisa Matisoo-Smith, Professor of biological anthropology at the university of Otago, New Zealand, who is co-leader of the study, said, when talking to The Independent, “This is first example of an ancient Phoenician genome.”

European Genome in North Africa

Matisoo-Smith called it “very unexpected” to find European lineage in North Africa 2500 years ago, and suggests human mobility at the time was far greater than previously expected. “Some of [the hunter-gatherers’] lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian Peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa [through] Phoenician and Punic trade networks,” said Matisoo-Smith.

The senior and co corresponding author on the article Pierre Zalloua stated,  “The evidence points out that this individual either adopted Punic culture or was born into it.” Punic is another term for the Carthaginian people.

What was expected, and what would have made a lot more sense, would have been to find DNA from North African or the Near East based on the history of Carthage. “This is the earliest European lineage recorded in North Africa, so in a way it not only helps us understand Phoenician history, but also makes people think about the history of human mobility,” said Professor Matisoo-Smith.

A possible explanation for this unexpected genome is the trading links between Carthage and the rest of the Mediterranean. It was not previously thought that people would travel such large distances at that time. Matisoo-Smith continued, “in reconstructions of genetic variation in the Mediterranean, there hasn’t been much consideration of Phoenician trade networks and the likelihood of people moving long distances and spreading those genetic markers widely.”

The Phoenician People

The Phoenicians were a relatively advanced trading civilization, who resided in what is now modern day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Syria between around 1500BC and 300BC. They are probably most famous for their alphabet, which was a precursor to the current Greco-Roman alphabet in use today. They often traded the highly sought after purple dyes. It is understood that they started in the Lebanon but their sphere of influence spread across the Mediterranean all the way to the Iberian Peninsular. Until now, very little was known about them or their likely ancestry, apart from what their conquerors, the Greeks and Romans, recorded.

As this is the first time a Phoenician DNA has been sequenced it is hard to draw too many firm conclusions. Further investigation is planned by the research team all across the Mediterranean to continue the understanding of the Phoenician people.

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