Clues about Phoenician movements uncovered

The excavation area at Monte Sirai in Sardinia, Italy. Photo: supplied
The excavation area at Monte Sirai in Sardinia, Italy. Photo: supplied
Important new clues about ancient population movements in the Mediterranean have been uncovered by an international team of researchers, co-led by a University of Otago academic.

Professors Lisa Matisoo-Smith, of the university’s Department of Anatomy, and Pierre Zalloua, of the Lebanese American University, led a team studying DNA from four ancient Phoenician and Punic burial sites in Lebanon and Sardinia from  2015 to 2017.

Phoenicia was an ancient Semitic civilisation that originated in the Mediterranean.

It included the coastline of what is now Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and southwest Turkey, though some of its colonies later reached the Western Mediterranean (most notably Carthage) and even the Atlantic Ocean.

Lisa Matisoo-Smith
Lisa Matisoo-Smith
The civilisation spread across the Mediterranean from 1500 BC to 300 BC.

The researchers looked at mitochondrial genomes, which are maternally inherited, in a search for markers of Phoenician ancestry.

Their results, just published in the journal PLoS ONE, indicate that Phoenician trade networks and settlement strategies included both indigenous and foreign women, not only from other Phoenician settlements, but possibly from farther afield.

There was evidence in Sardinia of integration between cultures.

"We also found mitochondrial DNA that was likely from North Africa or the Near East and even a lineage that is from northwestern Europe, which today is found at high frequency in southern Ireland  — a location linked to Phoenician traders in search of tin," Prof Matisoo-Smith said.

One individual buried in a Phoenician tomb in Beirut was even found to have Western European DNA lineage.

Prof Zalloua said the DNA evidence reflected the inclusive and multicultural nature of Phoenician society.

"They were never conquerors; they were explorers and traders."

Prof Matisoo-Smith believed the research revealed a lot about Phoenician societies across the Mediterranean.

"They were inclusive and integrative of the indigenous peoples and there was much mobility, often over great distances, around the Phoenician networks. It is also likely that mobility included women as well as men, despite the fact that Phoenician trade was male-dominated.

"It also shows us that identity is a cultural phenomenon; most of the samples that we have are culturally Phoenician [Punic] [they were buried as Phoenicians], but genetically, they are diverse."



One of the great ancient civilisations.

• Emerged from the coastal city states in what is now Lebanon and southern Syria around 1800 BC.

• By 900 BC Phoenicians had spread across the Mediterranean, establishing settlements on the islands and coasts of North Africa, Spain, Italy (e.g. Sardinia and Sicily), Malta and Cyprus.

• From about 750 BC, pressured to provide silver and other metals to the Assyrian Empire, the Phoenicians looked to the west and dominated trade on the Mediterranean Sea for centuries.

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