March 6, 2021

Ten corpses reveal the history of European immigrants 3,600 years ago | Science

Three thousand years ago a soldier returned from the front with 200 foreskins of dead enemies. He brought the war trophies to his king and he gave his daughter's hand in return, which made him the next king of Israel. That soldier was a cowherd boy enlisted in the war against the Philistines, archenemies of the Jews. His name was David and he had also killed with his sling the most fearsome Philistine, the gigantic Goliath. This story is fictional, it is told in the Old Testament of the Bible. Now, the DNA analysis of Philistine men, women and children from various eras has revealed their origin and has shown that their history could not be so violent, since they were totally mixed with the local populations.

The mortal remains have been recovered in Ascalón, a port city whose ruins are about 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv (Israel). A team of archaeologists from several countries has been excavating this Philistine enclave since 1985. Ascalón was the main port of the area and its population was counted by thousands. Here is the door with access arch to the oldest city known, about six meters high, according to those responsible for the excavation. In Ashkelon hundreds of corpses have been recovered from cemeteries, individual tombs and makeshift graves in the basements of the houses. The 10 that have been able to extract DNA span the period between 3,600 and 2,800 years ago, a time of transition between the age of bronze and the iron in which many civilizations collapsed.

A volunteer unearths the corpse of a child in Ashkelon (Israel) in 2016.

A volunteer unearths the corpse of a child in Ashkelon (Israel) in 2016.

Until now it was assumed that the Philistines were a town of migrants of unknown origin. The ruins of its cities show an architecture reminiscent of the Mycenaean civilization, the first complex society that emerged in Greece, about 1,600 years before the current era. Some Egyptian hieroglyphs of the 1,100 before the common era suggested that the Philistines had come from "the islands", had conquered Cyprus, the coasts of Turkey and Syria, and intended to raze Egypt. The Hebrew Bible suggests that the Philistines came from Crete. This lack of exact data is compounded by a debate among specialists on whether the Philistines had arrived in the Middle East from other areas or it was simply a new culture adopted without the need for migratory movements.

Now the DNA shows that the Philistines of Ashkelon from earlier times had a genetic profile characteristic of the populations of "Southern Europe". "We still do not have enough samples to further narrow that location, but this includes Crete, the rest of Greece and the Iberian Peninsula," explains Michal Feldman, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute of Science and History in Jena, Germany, and first author of the study. , posted today in Science Advances. The work also shows that after their arrival, these people mixed with the local populations until in just two centuries their European DNA had been completely "diluted".

The Max Planck prehistorian Philipp Stockhammer, co-author of the study, reconstructs the history of the Philistines according to the genetic data and what was known by archaeological data. "Between the years 1,350 and 1,200 before the current era many societies collapsed for unknown reasons," he says. "There could have been wars, revolts of subjects against the elites, epidemics. The collaboration that had allowed these civilizations to be built simply disappeared. It was the end of the Bronze Age. This caused a wave of displaced people in search of a new place to live, which in turn could cause new conflicts. Probably the Philistines were people from different places, as are the current African immigrants who cross the Mediterranean, but for the host populations they were all the same, all Philistines. We do know that they had another culture, for example they ate pork, which was taboo for the Israelites and other local people. What the DNA analysis tells us is that the Bible may be telling the truth, because the DNA shows that the first Philistines could come from Crete or other areas of Greece, although it can not be ruled out that they came from Sardinia, Anatolia (Turkey), Italy or even Spain. When the Philistines came to the Near East some 3,600 years ago, the Israelites were still small and unpopular tribes. It was not an invasion. We are not clear how different they were culturally, but in a few generations they mixed a lot. By the time of the great battles between the Philistines and Israelites, around the year 1000 before the current era, both populations were indistinguishable from the genetic point of view. It was a war between equals, "he emphasizes.

Stockhammer explains that this is only the beginning. His Max Planck team is studying corpses from other Philistine settlements whose DNA could determine the origin of these people.

"It is a very interesting study, because it confirms that these migrations existed, something that some specialists had denied without much basis for ideological reasons", highlights Carles Lalueza-Fox, CSIC geneticist. "Thanks to the genetic study it is proved that the migrations of the so-called peoples of the sea, which includes the Philistines, were an engine of cultural change," he adds.

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