New DNA Study Finds Modern-Day Lebanese Are Descendants of the Canaanites

Canaanite figurines representing the Phoenician Period, 1200-586 B.C., from the city of Akko. Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

In the Hebrew Bible, the Canaanites are a group of people who once inhabited the Southern Levant and are credited with constructing the first alphabet before eventually being largely destroyed by the Israelites. According to the Bible, the Israelites spared some of the Canaanites, who went on to live in the Lebanese city of Sidon. And a new DNA study finds that the surviving Canaanites' descendants live in present-day Lebanon, reports New Scientist.

Researchers were able to find intact DNA samples from five skeletons unearthed from a Canaanite burial site in Sidon, then compared the Canaanite DNA with that from 99 living Lebanese volunteers. Surprisingly, almost 90 percent of present day Lebanese DNA turned out to be shared with the Canaanites.

“There’s evidence for substantial continuity in the region from the Bronze Age to today,” said Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K.

That continuity is even more acute considering the region has experienced repeated invasions over the millennia since the Bronze Age. For instance, massive invasions from people in the Asian steppes left only about 10 percent of their DNA in the modern inhabitants of Lebanon, according to the analysis. It shows the resilience of the Canaanite lineage.

Researchers were also able to establish a timeline for the distinct Canaanite lineage, showing that they likely originated some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, before the Bronze Age. The timeline supports theories that suggest the appearance of the Canaanites is linked with the collapse of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, some 4,200 years ago.

Though few texts have survived from the Canaanites' own perspective, they were once one of the great empires of the Eastern Mediterranean. They built the temple at Palmyra in Syria, for instance, and eventually developed a formidable maritime presence across the region.

It's a bit of welcome news for such a war-ravaged region that this group lives on, at least from a genetic perspective.