Know thine enemy: DNA study solves ancient riddle of origins of the Philistines
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Know thine enemy: DNA study solves ancient riddle of origins of the Philistines

High-tech analysis finds empirical proof that the Kingdom of Israel’s biblical foes came to the Holy Land from southern Europe

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
    Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
  • Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
    Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
  • Sampling petrus bone in the Department of Archaeogenetics ancient DNA laboratory at the Max PIanck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH). (Antje Wissgott)
    Sampling petrus bone in the Department of Archaeogenetics ancient DNA laboratory at the Max PIanck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH). (Antje Wissgott)
  • A skull from a 10th-9th century BC burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. (Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)
    A skull from a 10th-9th century BC burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. (Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)
  • A 10th-9th century BCE burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. (Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)
    A 10th-9th century BCE burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. (Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)
  • Philistine Bichrome Krater, a large bowl for mixing wine from the 11th century BCE (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
    Philistine Bichrome Krater, a large bowl for mixing wine from the 11th century BCE (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

A groundbreaking new study of DNA taken from the bones of ancient residents of the coastal city of Ashkelon has put to rest a centuries-old debate surrounding the origins of the Kingdom of Israel’s most reviled foes, the Philistines. According to a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances, the ancestors of Goliath of Gath emigrated from Southern Europe.

In “Ancient DNA sheds light on the genetic origins of early Iron Age Philistines,” an interdisciplinary team of scholars from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Leon Levy Expedition Ashkelon proves that coinciding with the arrival of the Philistines in Ashkelon in the 12th century BCE, there was an influx of Southern European genetic material in the local population.

DNA analysis was completed on samples from three periods within the Bronze and Iron ages (~3,600-2,800 years ago) from remains of Canaanites and early and late Philistines, which were taken from three sites: a Philistine cemetery discovered in 2016, graves discovered in the 1990s, and infant burials uncovered under Philistine homes.

Through analysis of ten ancient individuals’ DNA, the study suggests that Philistines reached Ashkelon from Europe by the early Iron Age. After two centuries, however, the European genetic markers were dwarfed by the Levantine gene pool, suggesting intensive intermarriage. The Philistine culture and peoplehood remained distinct from other local communities for six centuries.

“With this study we finally have direct evidence that fits and builds upon the hypothesis of Philistine origins from the western Mediterranean,” Daniel M. Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon and head of the archaeological team, told The Times of Israel this week.

The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon excavated the ancient tell between 1985 and 2016, first under the direction of Harvard University Prof. Lawrence E. Stager. Master, an archaeology professor at Wheaton College, became director from 2007 through the final 2016 season.

Intriguingly, in addition to adult relics, scientists analyzed bone samples taken from infants buried under the floors of their homes, a custom in the 12th century BCE. “These infants were not travelers, they are the result of immigration and family building, thereby indicating that their parents did indeed come to the region from overseas in the 12th century BCE,” said Master in a press release.

Photograph of infant burial at Ashkelon
(Robert Walch/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

The senior author of the study, Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said, “This data begins to fill a temporal gap in the genetic map of the southern Levant.” Comparison DNA studies with other ancient peoples and within the Ashkelon results show, he said, that “the unique cultural features in the early Iron Age are mirrored by a distinct genetic composition of the early Iron Age people.”

In conversation, Master said the study provides “a critical missing piece” in the discussions surrounding Philistine origins, which have vacillated between a Southern European origin and a northern Levant origin hypothesis.

The Philistine ancestors, said Master, left their southern Mediterranean homelands during a time of flux: It was the period of the Trojan War and with the collapse of the “heroic empires” in the 13th-12th centuries BCE, these Philistine migrants sought a new life in a new land. They primarily settled in five cities, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron, along or close to the southern coast of modern Israel.

“They are survivors who set up a new life for themselves, which lasts for six centuries,” said Master. Aside from the late-Philistine period Ekron inscription, which may hark to Aegean roots, there are few Philistine inscriptions that attest to their origin story. For generations, biblical stories have impressed upon billions the view that Philistines were savage and uncultured.

Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

“Their bad press, primarily in one book, has gone viral in the most ancient of ways,” laughed Master. “As archaeologists, we’re saying let’s take a step back and understand them, the people themselves and what else we can tell of their story — not just as opponents of the Israelites, but where they came from, how they developed in cultural achievements, [whether they were] marrying in and out, and ultimately how they ended at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians” in 604 BCE.

What we now know about the Philistines

Based on the work of 19th century Egyptologists, many modern scholars think of the Philistines as one of the “Sea Peoples” recorded in ancient Egyptian accounts, which describe hordes arriving on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE. In the reliefs of Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, among the peoples mentioned are the “Peleset,” whom Master said many scholars associate with the Philistines.

Sampling petrus bone in the Department of Archaeogenetics ancient DNA laboratory at the Max PIanck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH). (Antje Wissgott)

Other historical sources including classical Greek texts also made mention of this enigmatic people. But just who this particular “Sea People” was and where it came from remained a matter of debate for the past century and a half. Archaeological finds, including pottery styles and jewelry, indicated a link to the Aegean, said Master. However, other scholars attributed these physical artifacts to trade networks.

With the new DNA study, researchers are getting ever closer to empirically pinpointing the Philistines’ exact origins, but require more ancient DNA samples from the Aegean to provide a precise location.

Cautious not to over-reach from the study’s general impressions, Master said that there are “better matches from Crete,” emphasizing that until there are more samples available, “at the moment we cannot prove the specific location from whence they came.”

Philistine Bichrome Krater, a large bowl for mixing wine from the 11th century BCE (Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Once they arrived in the region that would be named Philistia, the Philistine migrants began intermarrying — or at least “inter-procreating,” quipped Master — with the local population. By 1000 BCE, their genes are almost indistinguishable.

According to Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, one of the corresponding authors of the study, by analyzing later Iron Age individuals from Ashkelon, the researchers found that the European-related component could no longer be traced. “Within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine related gene pool,” said Jeong.

The notion that the Philistine people became genetically almost indistinguishable from other local populations but held on to its particular “peoplehood” for six centuries is thought-provoking.

“Over time, we can show that Philistine culture changed, that their language changed, and now that their genetic profile changed, but, according to their neighbors, they remained Philistines from beginning to end,” said Master.

The Ekron inscription suggests the Philistines still remembered their roots in the Aegean centuries after they sailed east. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
The Ekron inscription suggests the Philistines still remembered their roots in the Aegean centuries after they sailed east. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)

Citing the mysterious Philistine Ekron inscription which mentions a goddess that potentially harks back to centuries-earlier Aegean origins, Master said, “Memories and the way they celebrate group identity are maintained.” A modern example, he said, can be found Irish-Americans’ celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, among many other examples.

“DNA can be a powerful tool to record history and answer historical questions,” said the lead author of the study, archaeogeneticist Michal Feldman. “On the other hand, it reminds us that culture or ethnicity do not necessarily equal the genetic make-up of the same groups.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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