When the pharaohs ruled Egypt and the ancient Greeks built their first cities, a mysterious people called the Canaanites dominated the Near East. Around 4000 years ago, they built cities across the Levant, which includes present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and part of Syria. Yet the Canaanites left no surviving written records, leaving researchers to piece together their history from secondhand sources.
One of those sources is the Bible’s Old Testament, which suggests a grisly end for many Canaanites: After the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, God ordered them to destroy Canaan and its people (though other passages suggest that some Canaanites may have survived). But did that really happen? Archaeological data suggests that Canaanite cities were never destroyed or abandoned. Now, ancient DNA recovered from five Canaanite skeletons suggests that these people survived to contribute their genes to millions of people living today.
The new samples come from Sidon, a coastal city in Lebanon. Marc Haber, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K., extracted enough DNA from the ancient skeletons to sequence the whole genomes of five Canaanite individuals, all around 3700 years old.
Haber’s first mission was to figure out who the Canaanites were, genetically speaking. Ancient Greek sources suggested they had migrated to the Levant from the East. To test that, Haber and colleagues compared the Canaanite genomes to those of other ancient populations in Eurasia. It turned out the Greeks were half right: About 50% of the Canaanites’ genes came from local farmers who settled the Levant about 10,000 years ago. But the other half was linked to…