The people who lived in the area known as the Southern Levant--which is now recognized as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, and parts of Syria--during the Bronze Age (circa 3500-1150 BCE) are referred to in ancient biblical texts as the Canaanites. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Cell on May 28 have new insight into the Canaanites' history based on a new genome-wide analysis of ancient DNA collected from 73 individuals.
"Populations in the Southern Levant during the Bronze Age were not static," says Liran Carmel of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Rather, we observe evidence for the movement of people over long periods of time from the northeast of the Ancient Near East, including modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, into the Southern Levant region.
"The Canaanites, albeit living in different city-states, were culturally and genetically similar," he adds. "In addition, this region has witnessed many later population movements, with people coming from the northeast, from the south, and from the northwest."
Carmel and colleagues came to these conclusions based on an analysis of 73 new ancient DNA samples representing mainly Middle-to-Late Bronze Age individuals from five archaeological sites across the Southern Levant. To these new data, the researchers added previously reported data from 20 individuals from four sites to generate a dataset of 93 individuals. The genomic analysis showed that the Canaanites do represent a clear group.
"Individuals from all sites are highly genetically similar, albeit with subtle differences, showing that the archaeologically and historically defined 'Canaanites' corresponds to a demographically coherent group," Carmel says.
The data suggest that the Canaanites descended from a mixture of earlier local Neolithic populations and populations related to Chalcolithic Iran and/or the Bronze Age Caucasus. The researchers documented a significant increase in the proportion of Iranian/Caucasus-related ancestry over time, which is supported by three individuals who are descendants of recent arrivals from the Caucasus.
"The strength of the migration from the northeast of the Ancient Near East, and the fact that this migration continued for many centuries, may help to explain why rulers of city-states in Canaan in the Late Bronze Age carry non-Semitic, Hurrian names," says Shai Carmi of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "There were strong and active connections between these regions through movements of people that help to understand the shared elements of culture."
The researchers also studied the relationship of the Canaanites to modern-day populations. While the direct contribution of the Canaanites to modern populations cannot be accurately quantified, the data suggest that a broader Near Eastern component, including populations from the Caucasus and the Zagros Mountains, likely account for more than 50 percent of the ancestry of many Arabic-speaking and Jewish groups living in the region today.
Carmel reports that they are now working to extend their sampling, both geographically and over time. "We wish to analyze Iron Age samples from different areas of the southern Levant," Carmel says. "This may shed light on the composition of the populations in the biblically mentioned kingdoms of the region, among them Israel, Judah, Ammon, and Moab."
Archaeogenomic analysis of Anatolia, Northern Levant and the Southern Caucasus sheds light on population dynamics from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, as peoples transitioned from farming to pastoralist communities and early state-level societies
MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN HISTORY
The exchange of ideas and material culture in Western Asia is well established within archaeological research. Although distinct traditions and systems of social organization emerged across Western Asia, the region from the Southern Caucasus to Anatolia and Mesopotamia had been a hub for the exchange of ideas and material culture for millennia. The extent of these exchanges, however, and the processes that lead farming communities to organize into complex societies, is still poorly understood. Was this process primarily a movement of ideas and materials, or did it also include large-scale movement of populations?
To answer this question, scientists from research institutes and universities in Europe, Asia, and North America*, led by the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI SHH), analyzed genome-wide data from 110 skeletons dated approximately 7500 to 3000 years ago from archaeological sites in Anatolia, Northern Levant, and the Southern Caucasus. Their analysis indicates two influential genetic events, as well as evidence for long-distance individual movement.
A large genetic cline and a sudden genetic shift
During the late Neolithic, approximately 8,500 years ago, populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began to genetically mix, resulting in a distinct admixture that gradually spread across the entire region. This gradual change of genetic profile over a geographic region, known as a cline in genetics, could be seen millennia later in Anatolian populations from Central-North to Eastern Anatolia. Rather than indicating stationary populations, as apparent genetic continuity often does, the authors argue the spread of genetic information from North and Central Anatolia to the Southern Caucasus and the Zagros mountains in today's Northern Iran indicates ongoing human mobility and the development of a regional genetic melting pot in Anatolia.
"This far-reaching vortex of homogenization shows that ancient people within Western Asia biologically mix before their increasing connectedness and emerging sociocultural developments became visible in the archaeological record," says Johannes Krause, director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at MPI SHH, co-director at Max Planck - Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM) and senior author of the study.
In contrast to the gradual changes taking place in Anatolia, the Northern Levant experienced an introduction of new populations. "We found that the genetic makeup of Bronze Age populations from the ancient cities of Alalakh and Ebla in today's southern Turkey and northern Syria differed from preceding populations from the same area," says Eirini Skourtanioti, lead author of the study. "We detected subtle genetic changes that point to influences from external groups."
This observation could contribute to debate on human mobility between the third and second millennium BC, as there are different interpretive constructs centering on either increasing inter-regional connectivity in these periods or migration connected with a mega-drought known as the "4.2k BP event." Regarding the latter, archaeological evidence indicates an abandonment of the Khabur river valley and texts record the migration of groups such as the 'Amorites' and 'Hurrians.' Ancient Mesopotamia was likely the source of the new genetic influence observed at Alalakh and Ebla, according to material evidence and geoarchaeological research currently under study by the Alalakh excavation team; however, to date no ancient genomes have been successfully retrieved from this region.
Curious burial taps a wellspring of questions
In addition to long-term transitions at the scale of entire populations, the team also found evidence of long-distance movements at the individual level. At the Alalakh site in southern Turkey, the team found an individual whose genetic profile is most similar to Bronze Age populations in Central Asia. In addition to being a genetic outlier, the individual, who was identified as female, was unearthed at the bottom of a well which was in use at the time of her consignment.
"I was fascinated by our results for the 'lady in the well,'" says Philipp Stockhammer, co-director of MHAAM and another senior author of the study. "She provides a unique insight into individual female mobility over large distances. We know from literary sources that women travelled in this time throughout Western Asia - very often as marriage partners. However, the story of this woman of Central Asian origin will remain an enigma."
The context of this finding raises many questions, many of whose answers are beyond the resolution of modern analytical tools. How did this woman and/or her recent ancestors move from Central Asia to Northern Levant? Was she forced to leave her homeland? What was her role in the society, and was this an accident or a murder? Despite these questions, this woman demonstrates the long distances humans travelled in the past and points to the existence of migrant communities in a globalized ancient world.
The Near East was a crossroad for the ancient world's greatest civilizations, and invasions over centuries caused enormous changes in cultures, religions and languages. However, a new study of the DNA of ancient skeletons spanning 4,000 years has revealed that most of these changes had no lasting effect on the genetics of the local population of Beirut.
Whilst the invasions and conquests may have been revolutionary for the elite rulers, researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, University of Birmingham, French Institute of the Near East in Lebanon and their collaborators found only three time periods that had any impact on the long-term genetics of the ordinary people. These were the beginning of the Iron Age, the arrival of Alexander the Great, and the domination of the Ottoman Empire.
Reported today (28 May) in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the study shows the value of using genetics alongside archaeology to help understand what could be happening in the lives of ordinary people throughout history.
Over the centuries, the Levant has had many different rulers, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Arabs, and Ottomans. Most of these had permanent cultural effects on the local population, including changes to religion and even languages, as shown by the historical records and archaeological findings.
However, despite this, previous research showed that present-day local people in Lebanon were mainly descended from local people in the Bronze Age (2100-1500 BCE)*, with 90 per cent of their genetic make-up coming from around 4,000 years ago, and very few lasting traces of even the Crusaders invasion around the 11th-13th Century**.
To understand this potential contradiction and build a picture of the genetic history of ordinary people in the region, the researchers studied the DNA of ancient skeletons through 4,000 years. The team sequenced the genomes of 19 ancient people who lived in Lebanon between 800BCE and 200CE, and by combining with previous ancient and modern data, created an 8-point time line across the millennia.
Scientists detected lasting genetic changes in the local people from just three time periods - during the beginning of the Iron Age (about 1,000 BCE), the arrival of Alexander the Great (beginning 330 BCE), and the domination of the Ottoman Empire (1516 CE) - but not from the other times.
Dr Marc Haber, first author from the University of Birmingham and previously from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "We revealed a genetic history of the area across 4,000 years, with a time-point approximately every 500 years. This showed us that despite the huge cultural changes that were occurring during this period, there were only a few times that the genetics of the general population changed enough to affect the ordinary people."
The study revealed that some people did mix and form families with people from other cultures. One burial site was found to contain the remains of an Egyptian mother, and her son whose father had Egyptian and Lebanese ancestry. However, this cosmopolitan mixing did not seem to be widespread.
Historical evidence is based on archaeological findings and written records, but these are biased towards the elite rulers and people with money and influence, as they have far more resources and write the history. It can be difficult to understand the lives of the ordinary people.
Dr Joyce Nassar, an author on the paper and archaeologist from the French Institute of the Near East, Lebanon, said: "This study is really exciting, as the genetic evidence is helping us to interpret what we find. Some people might think that when a land was invaded, that the population would change. But this study shows it isn't that simple, and reveals there was only limited biological mixing, despite the cultural and political influence of the invasions."
The skeletons came from four archaeological excavation sites in Beirut, which were discovered during building projects in the Lebanese capital city and rescued by the Directorate General of Antiquities***. The archaeologists and researchers then worked together to transfer the bones to a laboratory in Estonia dedicated to ancient DNA, where the surviving ancient DNA was extracted from the temporal bone in the skulls. The DNA was then sequenced and analysed at the Sanger Institute. Recent advances in DNA extraction and sequencing technology made studying the ancient and damaged DNA possible.
Dr Chris Tyler Smith, senior author on the paper and previously from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "We see that people like the Egyptians and the Crusaders came to Lebanon, lived, raised families and died there. Their DNA sequences reveal this, but a little while later, there may be no trace of their genetics in the local population. Our study shows the power of ancient DNA to give new information about the human past, that complements the available historical records, and reveals the benefits of archaeologists and geneticists working together to understand historical events."
New research on one history's most important trading hubs provides some of the earliest genetic glimpses at the movement and interactions of populations that lived in parts of Western Asia between two major events in human history: the origins of agriculture and the rise of some of the world's first cities.
The work reveals how a high level of human movement in the region not only led to the spread of ideas and material culture but to a more genetically connected society well before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought.
The researchers, made up of an international team of scientists including Harvard anthropology professor Christina Warinner, looked at DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia dated 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The remains came from archaeological sites in the Anatolia (present-day Turkey), the Northern Levant which includes countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Israel and Jordan, and countries in the Southern Caucasus which include present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Based on their analysis, the scientists describe two genomic events that occurred around 8,500 years ago and 4,000 years ago that pointed to long-term genetic mixing in the region and subtle population movements within the area, shedding light on a long-standing question.
"Within this geographic scope, you have a number of distinct populations, distinct ideological groups that are interacting quite a lot and it hasn't really been clear to what degree people are actually moving or if this is simply just a high contact area from trade," said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. "What we can see is that rather than this period being characterized by dramatic migrations or conquest, what we see is the slow mixing of different populations, the slow mixing of ideas, and it's percolating out of this melting pot that we see the rise of urbanism -- the rise of cities,"
The study was led by the Max Planck-Harvard Research center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean and published in the journal Cell. Warinner was a senior author on the paper.
Historically, Western Asia, which includes the modern-day Middle East, is one of the world's most important geographical locations. Early on it not only created some of humanity's earliest cities but its early trade routes laid the foundation for what would become the Silk Road, a route that commercially linked Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Even prior to being connected with other regions, however, populations across Western Asia had already developed their own distinct traditions and systems of social organization and complexity. The areas studied in this paper played major roles in this development from early farming to pastoral communities to early state-level societies.
With the study, the researchers wanted to fill in some of the anthropological gaps between the origins of agriculture and of cities to better understand these different communities came together to eventually form cities.
"What we see in archeology is that the interconnectivity within Western Asia increased and areas such as Anatolia, the Northern Levant, and the Caucasus became a hub for [the] exchange of ideas and material culture," said Eirini Skourtanioti, a Ph.D. student at the Max Plank Institute and the lead author of the study, in a video accompanying the release of the paper. "The goal of our study was to understand the role of human mobility throughout this process."
The researchers included an international team of authors from many disciplines and countries, including Australia, Azerbaijan, France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States. They gathered the 110 ancient remains and took samples from their teeth and part of the temporal bone called the petrous, which is part of the inner ear. The samples from the skeletons were all previously excavated and were housed in different museums and labs around the world. The genetic analysis was all conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute, including Warinner.
In the paper, the authors outline how approximately 8,500 years ago, populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began genetically mixing. It resulted in a gradual change in genetic profile that over a thousand years slowly spread across the both areas and entered into what is now Northern Iraq. Known as a cline in genetics, this mixture indicated to the researchers ongoing human mobility in the area and the development of a regional genetic melting pot in Anatolia and its surrounding areas.
The other shift researchers detected wasn't as gradual. They looked at samples from the ancient cities of Alalakh and Ebla in what is today southern Turkey and northern Syria and saw that around 4,000 years ago the Northern Levant experienced a relatively sudden introduction of new people.
The subtle genetic shifts points to a mass migration event. The timing of this migration corresponds with a massive drought in Northern Mesopotamia. It is likely where the migrants that entered the Northern Levant area originated from. The scientists can't be sure because there are currently no well preserved genomes for Mesopotamia.
Along with findings on interconnectivity in the region, the paper presents new information about long distance migration during the late Bronze age about 4,000 years ago. Researchers determined that a lone corpse, found buried in a well, genetically belonged in Central Asia at the time, not at a site that is part of present-day Turkey.
"We can't exactly know her story, but we can piece together a lot of information that suggests that either she or her ancestors were fairly recent migrants from Central Asia," said Warinner, who is also a group leader in the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute. "We don't know the context in which they arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean but this is a period of increasing connectivity in this part of the world."
The corpse had many injuries and the way she was buried indicates a violent death. Warinner hopes more genomic analysis can play some type of role in unraveling the ancient woman's story.
For Warinner, who earned her master's in 2008 and her Ph.D. in 2010 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, these types of studies are proof of the insights DNA analysis can provide when more traditional clues don't tell the full story.
"What's really interesting is that we see these populations are mixing genetically long before we see clear material culture evidence of this -- so, long before we see direct evidence in pottery or tools or any of these more conventional archaeological evidence artifacts," Warinner said. "That's important because sometimes we're limited in how we see the past. We see the past through artifacts, through the evidence people leave behind. But sometimes events are happening that don't leave traces in conventional ways, so by using genetics, we were able to access this much earlier mixing of populations that wasn't apparent before."
A team around Ron Pinhasi at the University of Vienna carried out a detailed analysis of ancient DNA of individuals from the Bronze Age Southern Levant known as 'Canaanites', to provide insights on the historical and demographic events that shaped the populations of that time and area. The scientists aimed at answering three basic questions: How genetically homogenous were the people from the Bronze Age Southern Levant, what were their plausible origins with respect to earlier peoples, and how much change in ancestry has there been in the region since the Bronze Age?
The team extracted and studied the DNA of people from five archaeological sites in the Bronze Age Southern Levant. They all share the "Canaanite" material culture and seem to be descending from two sources: People who lived in the region at earlier times and people who arrived from the area of the Caucasus-Zagros Mountains. These populations mixed at roughly equal proportions.
The data shows strong genetic resemblance, including a component from populations related to Chalcolithic Zagros and Early Bronze Age Caucasus introduced by a gene flow lasting at least until the late Bronze Age and affecting modern Levantine population architecture. These groups also harbor ancestry from sources that cannot fully be modeled with available data, highlighting the critical role of post-Bronze-Age migrations into the region over the past 3,000 years. The study provides evidence that the movement of Caucasus/Zagros people is already evident 4,500 years ago and likely started even earlier. This movement continued (although not necessarily continuously) throughout the Bronze Age.
"Populations in the Southern Levant during the Bronze Age were not static. Rather, we observe people movements over long periods of time - not necessarily continuously - from the northeast of the Ancient Near East into the region. The Canaanites are culturally and genetically similar. In addition, this region has witnessed many later population movements, with people coming from the northeast, from the south and from the west", says Ron Pinhasi.
From the viewpoint of archaeology and history of the Ancient Near East, the team was surprised to see the strength of the Caucasus/Zagros component in the population of the Bronze Age, and that migration from this area continued as late as the second millennium BCE. According to archaeological findings, the Bronze Age Southern Levant was divided into city-states, which present similar material culture. Now it can be concluded that similarity between these populations extends also to genetics, showing that it is a case of cultural unity associated with shared ancestry. "Our results provide a comprehensive genetic picture of the primary inhabitants of the Southern Levant during the second millennium BCE", says Pinhasi.
Officials in the township of Negrar, north of Verona, posted photos of the colorful and complex flooring after the discovery, noting that a Roman villa had been known to exist in the area, but scholars had searched in vain for its remnants for a century.
A wave of new technology in the Late Paleolithic had reached North China by around 41,000 years ago, according to a study published May 27, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Fei Peng of the Minzu University of China, Beijing and colleagues.
Around 40,000 years ago, the Asian continent saw the spread of new forms of technology associated with what's known as the Initial Upper Paleolithic. This change brought new blade technology along with symbolic materials such as beads and pendants, and it is thought to mark the spread of humans, possibly our own species Homo sapiens, across the continent. But the exact timing and route of this dispersal has been difficult to ascertain in past studies.
Shuidonggou is an archaeological site in North China that provides the southernmost examples of Initial Upper Paleolithic technology in North Asia. In this study, Peng and colleagues provide radiocarbon dates on 18 samples of charcoal and ostrich eggshell beads from multiple stratigraphic layers of Shuidonggou Locality 2. Their results indicate that this new wave of technology had reached this region by between 43,000 and 39,000 years ago, slightly later than dates recovered from more northern sites.
These results support previous hypotheses that the spread of this Initial Upper Paleolithic technology originated in the Altai region of Russia around 47,000 years ago before spreading eastward and southward across Asia. While more dating will be need to further constrain the timing of this event, this study importantly shows that, even in a region with unfavorable conditions for preserving datable materials, careful selection and treatment of samples can yield reliable results from multiple corroborating sources of data.
The authors add: "We carried out a systematical radiocarbon analysis of charcoal and ostrich eggshell samples obtained from 2014-2016 excavation throughout the whole sequence of Shuidonggou locality 2. Based on the Bayesian age modeling, two phases which is an early phases 43-35 cal kBP and a later phase 35-28 cal kBP were split. The result supports the interpretation that the blade technology appeared in this region by at least ~41ka."