An international team of genetic experts examine the ancient DNA extracted from 93 individuals. All these people died over a period of 1,500 years at five different sites in the Middle East. All of them were part of the Canaanite civilization which thrived for some 4,700 years up until around 1200 B.C. However, what surprises the scientists is the link they can now make between these ancient Biblical people and their modern-day descendants.
The Canaanites lived in the lands that lie between modern Egypt and historic Mesopotamia which stretched in an arc from The Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Mesopotamia covered parts of the modern south-west Asian countries of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait. The Canaanites lived in what today is now Israel as well as in parts of modern Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
In the Bible the Book of Genesis states, “And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.” The descendants of Canaan, according to the biblical account, are the people that came to be called the Canaanites. And in a famous passage the Book of Exodus describes, “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites.”
The results of this study of Canaanite genetics were announced in May 2020 and it’s the largest of its kind undertaken in the Middle East to date. It’s an incredible technical achievement that DNA can now be extracted from such ancient bones. However, what is equally astonishing is what the scientists were able to identify about how Canaanite DNA lives on in a group of people who walk the Earth today.
Before we get into the detail of the connections revealed by the experts between ancient and modern people, let’s learn a little more about the Canaanites. Untangling the precise origins of this ancient people is a tricky business. We are, after all, dealing with events from as long as 5,500 years ago. However, there is a fair amount of written evidence about the Canaanites dating as far back as nearly 4,000 years ago.
The earliest known mention of the Canaanites comes in a letter found written some 3,800 years ago, according to the Live Science website. It was written to an ancient king, Yasmah-Adad and was found in what is today Syria. It makes mention of “thieves and Canaanites” living in the ancient town of Rahisum.
Other fascinating texts concerning the Canaanites originate from the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna, built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. He ruled from around 1353 to 1335 B.C. and a series of letters written before, after and during his reign give some insights into the Canaanites of this period. The correspondence, known as the “Amarna letters,” indicates that there were actually a few kings of separate city states in the Canaanite lands during this time.
Other evidence from ancient Egyptian texts shows that the pharaohs held considerable sway over the Canaanites. It seems that during the period of the Late Bronze Age from around 1550 to 1200 B.C. the ancient Egyptian pharaohs ruled over the Canaanite kings. However, at other periods of Canaanite history, they were independent.
As well as the evidence from historic texts including the Bible, archaeological evidence points to the Canaanites’ history. The city of Jericho, in Palestine’s West Bank, was inhabited during the early Stone Age — or Paleolithic period — as early as 10,000 years ago. This city was located in the lands which were part of the Canaanite sphere.
The Jericho settlement developed over the centuries to become what some experts believe to be the world’s first truly urban community. It seems that other cities also appeared, but then failed, perhaps due to population stresses. Whatever the cause of the collapse of these cities, people abandoned them to return to a rural, agrarian life.
Many centuries passed after the founding of Jericho before the Canaanites established a network of permanent towns and cities. This happened in the later Stone Age — the Neolithic period — which ran for some 3,000 years from about 7000 to 4000 B.C. After that came the era known as the Chalcolithic — or Copper Age — which lasted for about 1,000 years until 3000 B.C.
During the Copper Age, the Canaanites lived in houses built from rough stones and bricks made from dried mud. They had also developed pottery and learnt to work with copper. Canaanite society then took a leap forward with the dawn of the Bronze Age some 5,000 years ago. It was in the middle period of the Bronze Age, about 3,000 years ago, that the texts already referred to began to appear.
The Middle Bronze Age was also a period when new peoples appeared in the lands of Canaan. These included the Amorites, a Semitic people who arrived from the north-east. They became the predominant people of the region’s population during this era. They were followed by further waves of migrants including the Hyksos and the Hurrians from the north as well as the Egyptians.
By the middle of the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of Jericho and other cities in the region had trading links with Egypt. This was a time of prosperity for the Canaanites, one which lasted until around between 1250 and 1150 B.C. Then came an event that historians have dubbed the Bronze Age Collapse.
Some 2,300 years ago, the Canaanite civilization faced an extinction-level event and seemingly collapsed. According to the Bible, this happened when the Israelites invaded and overwhelmed the lands of Canaan. Some modern historians reject this narrative, but it does fit with the story of the Israelites as told in the Old Testament.
As the Old Testament tells it, God promised Canaan, that “land of milk and honey,” to the Israelites after they escaped from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The Israelites, it’s said, then took possession of Canaan and founded two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. In the process, the Israelite army led by Joshua, destroyed the city of Jericho. However, this biblical account does not square with archaeological evidence and the history we know from other accounts.
We’ll come back to the — likely — true chronology of events in Canaan in a moment. However, let’s examine what we know of the culture of the Canaanites first. Their religion consisted of a panoply of gods. Important deities included the goddess Ashera, the god El and a Sumerian deity called Utu-Shamash. It’s also believed that the Canaanites practiced human sacrifice, including the slaying of children.
Apart from human sacrifice, the Canaanites made other offerings to the gods including grain and bread — these often having connections to fertility rites. Women in Canaan enjoyed various rights including land ownership, the ability to seek divorce and the possibility of joining the priesthood. Much of Canaanite religious practice seems to have centered on praying to the gods for healthy fertility and children.
When it came to commerce, the Canaanites were in a strong position thanks to their geographic position. The incense trade between Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere ran through Canaanite lands, creating prosperity. The Canaanites were skilled boat builders and this industry was another key wealth creator. They were also adept mariners which obviously helped them in their trading.
However, perhaps the greatest contribution the Canaanites gave to the world was writing. They invented the first alphabet. Previous to that, scripts — such as the ancient Egyptian texts — had been written in pictogram form. The alphabet system is much more flexible, not to mention much easier to learn. By the 8th century B.C. the Greeks had adopted the alphabet created by the Canaanites, whom they called the Phoenicians.
As we’ve mentioned, the Israelites eventually arrived in Canaan — probably around 1250 B.C. However, the Israelites did not immediately overwhelm the Canaanites who fought to preserve their lands. Indeed, the people of Canaan clung on to some of their most important cities. But other invaders also arrived in Canaan not long after the Israelites, adding to the pressure on the Canaanites.
Notable among these new aggressors were the Philistines. They probably arrived from the Mediterranean island of Crete the century after the Israelites had appeared in Canaan. These Philistines were a threat to Israelite attempts to dominate Canaan. But eventually, the Jews mostly prevailed over the Canaanites and by around 1080 B.C. the nation of Israel was established under the leadership of King Saul.
However, it was left to Saul’s successor, King David and his Israelite army to finally defeat the Philistine interlopers and the remnants of the Canaanites. David’s forces seized Jerusalem and from that time onwards Canaan was no more. From now on it was the Land of the Israelites.
In modern times, researchers have worked to reveal the story of the Canaanites and that brings us back to the groundbreaking study we mentioned at the start of this piece. As you’ll recall, it involved analyzing the DNA recovered from the bones of ancient Canaanites. The researchers examined 73 sets of remains from five Canaanite sites. They also added another 20 individuals from four other sites whose DNA had been analyzed in an earlier study.
This latest study was a cooperative operation between the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Harvard University’s ancient DNA lab led by geneticist David Reich as well as other study centers. It’s a piece of research that has added greatly to our knowledge of the ancient Canaanites. It’s important since unfortunately the Canaanites left little in the way of written evidence or records.
One of the co-authors of the latest study revealed something of its key findings to National Geographic in May 2020. Liran Carmel, a molecular evolutionist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, pointed out that, “Individuals from all sites are highly genetically similar.” These genetic similarities are in themselves a highly significant finding.
The importance of this genetic homogeneity is that it provides strong evidence that the Canaanites were a coherent people. Doubts about this arise from the fact that they never seem to have had a single, unified kingdom, instead existing as a widespread network of small kingdoms based in different cities. However, their genetics strongly imply they were a single people with a common culture and genetic make-up.
And the results of this genetic research have also provided an answer to a puzzle that has perplexed researchers for some time. Archaeological investigations have uncovered ceramics at various Canaanite sites of a red-and-black style normally associated with the Caucasus Mountains. Yet this rugged terrain lies some 750 miles to the north-west of the Canaanite lands. Today the region straddles four modern nations, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
This discovery of red-and-black pottery raised the intriguing question of how ceramic items usually found in the Caucasus found their way to Canaan. And Canaanite names add extra intrigue to the mystery. More than a few Canaanite names apparently derive from the Hurrian language rather than the Semitic language. Like those enigmatic ceramics, Hurrian originates from the Caucasus Mountains.
Scientists had wondered if these Caucasus imports were the result of either far-flung trading or migration. But this latest genetic research has provided a conclusive answer. The genetic evidence from the ancient human remains shows that people were migrating from the Caucasus from sometime around the dawn of the Bronze Age.
The Canaanite bones included genetic material that combined DNA from local people who had been present in Canaanite lands since Neolithic times. But there was also material which clearly came from peoples who had originated from the Caucasus region. This genetic evidence provides an explanation for both the Caucasus style pottery and the names.
Liran Carmel told National Geographic that this pattern of population movement “could have involved multiple waves throughout the Bronze Age.” Specific examples of this migratory behavior included the case of two siblings, a brother and a sister, whose remains were studied in the research.
These two family members lived some 3,500 years ago in the city of Megiddo — referred to as “Armageddon” in the Old Testament’s Book of Revelation. This city, an important trading hub, was located in Canaanite lands in what is now northern Israel. Genetic evidence shows that the siblings’ family had recently migrated from the north-east.
Other examples from the study included analysis of sets of human remains from two sites on the Mediterranean coast. These were the Canaanite cities of Ashkelon and Sidon. The former site is in modern Israel while the latter is further north in Lebanon. Interestingly, the remains from those cities showed heightened genetic diversity compared to individuals from the interior of Canaan perhaps because of trading across the Mediterranean.
An earlier genetic study in 2017 revealed startling information about people alive today in the Middle Eastern region. Geneticist Marc Haber of the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust led one part of this research project centered on five individuals who had lived in the city of Sidon. This work showed that a startling 90 percent of the genetic material that modern Lebanese people have is derived from the ancient Canaanites.
And the later study which we’re dealing with here also reached a momentous conclusion about modern inhabitants of Middle Eastern countries. This concerns their genetic links to the ancient Canaanite people. Glenn Schwartz, a John Hopkins University archaeologist who wasn’t part of the latest study, remarked on the most recent findings in National Geographic.
Schwartz explained that, “The present-day inhabitants of the region are, to a large extent, descended from its ancient residents.” So that means many of the modern Jews and Arabs who live in the region today actually have a shared ancestry. However, Carmel pointed out that the research does indicate the possibility of demographic changes in a later time frame.
Another expert fascinated by the results is Mary Ellen Buck. She’s an archaeologist and author of the 2019 book The Canaanites, Their History and Culture from Texts and Artifacts. She told National Geographic, “One could analyze ‘Canaanite’ as opposed to ‘Israelite’ individuals. The Bible claims that these are distinct and mutually antagonistic groups, yet there’s reason to believe that they were very closely related.”
Carmel has ambitions to continue genetic research into the ancient peoples of the Middle East. He hopes to extract DNA from the remains of other peoples who are mentioned in ancient texts as well as in the Bible. These include groups such as Ammonites, Moabites and Judeans. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this research is no easy task.
The Wellcome Trust geneticist Marc Haber noted that extracting DNA from those ancient bones is a real challenge. The hot climate in the region means that genetic material is prone to rapid deterioration. Nevertheless, scientists will continue their painstaking work in the quest to unravel the complex genetic heritage of the peoples of the Middle East and how it echoes down the centuries.