01 November 2008

The Phoenician Footprint and more

There's a fascinating New York Times story today about the genetic mark left by the Phoenicians.

While the entire story is very interesting, I was most intrigued by Dr. Spencer Well's comments at the end of the story, which holds promise for Jewish researchers. He suggested that perhaps similar future projects might investigate the multi-cultural traffic on the Silk Road, used by many Jewish traders and merchants through the centuries.

Another possible project, said Wells, might investigate Alexander the Great's Asian marches through the Near East.

When we lived in Teheran, I distinctly remember an article in either the English Kayhan or Teheran Times (perhaps published in 1976 or 1977) which reported on anthropologists' finds of isolated villages near Shiraz (I believe) that still spoke a Greek dialect. Speculation at the time was that these villagers were descendants of Alexander's soldiers who remained in the area. I have never been able to find more information on this, so if any readers have heard this story or seen an article published in a journal, please let me know.

The Phoenicians are also interesting as historians believe that Jewish traders traveled with them and were the source for some communities around the Mediterranean.

The New York Times story indicated that as many as 1 in 17 men living today in North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician male ancestor, according to DNA research. The mysterious Phoenicians traveled the eastern Mediterranean and were the dominant seafaring commercial power until Rome defeated them in the second century BCE.

Among their achievements, they founded Carthage which rivaled Rome; introduced the alphabet, exported Lebanon cedars for shipbuilding and marketed the murex shell purple dye. The meaning of Phoenicia, their home base in current Lebanon and south Syria, is "land of purple."

According to the scientists, this was "the first application of a new analytic method for detecting especially subtle genetic influences of historical population migrations."

Directing the project were the Genographic Project, a partnership of the National Geographic Society and IBM Corporation, with additional support from the Waitt Family Foundation. The findings are in the current American Journal of Human Genetics.
“When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians,” Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, said in an announcement. “All we had to guide us was history: we knew where they had and hadn’t settled.”

It proved to be enough, Dr. Tyler-Smith and Spencer Wells, a geneticist who directs the Genographic Project, said in telephone interviews.

Samples of the male Y-chromosome were collected from 1,330 men now living at six sites known to have been settled in antiquity as colonies and trading outposts of the Phoenicians. The sites were in Cyprus, Malta, Morocco, the West Bank, Syria and Tunisia.

Each participant, whose inner cheek was swabbed for the samples, had at least three generations of indigenous ancestry at the site. To this was added data already available from Lebanon and previously published chromosome findings from nearly 6,000 men at 56 sites throughout the Mediterranean region. The data were then compared with similar research from neighboring communities having no link to Phoenician settlers.

From the research emerged a distinctive Phoenician genetic signature, in contrast to genetic traces spread by other migrations, like those of late Stone-Age farmers, Greek colonists and the Jewish Diaspora. The scientists thus concluded that, for example, one boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a descendant of Phoenician traders.

Further research, according to scientists, may demonstrate where the Phoenicians expanded through time and where they established colonies.

Read the complete story at the link above.


  1. great article!
    there also are small villages in southern italy that spoke a greek dialect as recently as about 50 years ago - thought to be remnants of classical greek colonies (as well as later byzantine rule) in south italy.

  2. There are some questions as to why the authors of this article identify Phoenician Y-DNA using STR's (short tandem repeats) rather than SNP's (single nucleotide polymorphisms), and why they use old and confusing terminology when ISOGG, Family Tree DNA and others in the field have adopted newer, less confusing terminology for the human phylogenetic tree.

    I consulted some of the Y-DNA haplogroup J experts and have been advised by them NOT to assume a Phoenician ancestry for males in haplogroup J2 with the particular values of the 7 identified STR's in the study. Seven STR values are not enough on which to base such as conclusion. There are clusters of Jews in the J2a2 (J2a1b on the ISOGG tree) subclade who match the Phoenician signature. It is likely that some may have Phoenician ancestry, since the Jews and Phoenicians traveled the same routes with each other, but it cannot be determined that these Jewish J2a2 matches have Phoenician roots based on so few STR markers.

    Judy Simon