Ripples in the Mediterranean: Tracing the Genetic Origins of the Phoenicians
October 30, 2008
American Journal of Human Genetics.Traditionally when scientists want to understand the genetic history of an area, they collect DNA samples from the entire region of interest. But in this case the authors of the AJHG paper collected samples from specific towns and cities that are believed to be built on or near ancient Phoenician archaeological sites, including Carthage, Cyprus, and Sicily. They reasoned that if descendants of the Phoenicians do indeed exist, they would more likely be found near these sites.Armed with this newly collected data, the authors focused on the Y-chromosome to trace the Phoenicians’ genetic history. According to Chris Tyler-Smith, one of the study’s authors, “We chose the Y-chromosome because its male-specificity means that it would have been carried by the predominantly male Phoenician traders.” They then used a newly devised analytical method of distinguishing any Phoenician migration from other geographically similar migrations. Their results are surprisingly informative.The authors found a weak – but significant – genetic signature among their samples that could not be explained by chance. Many of the samples belonged to a very specific branch of haplogroup J2, which the authors believe points back to distinct migrations by Phoenician traders from the Middle East into Europe and North Africa more than 3,000 years ago.The applications of the authors’ new approach to studies of population history are incredibly far-reaching. Perhaps similar analyses could be used to trace the genetic footprints of Alexander the Great and his army into Persia during the 4th century BC, or migrations along the Silk Road from China during the Middle Ages. The authors even propose that their technique could be used within populations, to discover historical migrations that we never even knew existed.Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.