Ancient DNA Reveals Mysterious Origin Of The Biblical Philistines

Excavation of an infant at the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon Credit: Melissa Aja. Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

A smattering of skeletons discovered in the Middle East has shed the light on the backstory of the Philistines, the bad boys of the Bible whose origins have puzzled scholars for decades.

Using ancient DNA extracted from their bones, scientists have discovered that this mysterious ancient group of people actually originated from southern Europe around 3,500 years ago at the turn of the early Iron Age. The precise origin is hard to pin down – it could be anywhere from northern Italy, Sardinia, Greece, Cyprus, or even a ragtag group of pirate-like people – however, this was also a time when the prosperous cultures around the Mediterranean were starting to crumble, most notably the Greeks. 

Reported in the journal Science Advances, the skeletal remains of 10 individuals were unearthed in a known Philistine cemetery in the ancient port city of Ashkelon in Israel, one of the five Philistine city-states cited in the Hebrew Bible. Three of the individuals were from the pre-Philistine Bronze Age, four infants dated to the early Iron Age in the 12th century BCE, and the last three skeletons were from the later Iron Age around the 10th century BCE.

Goliath, perhaps the most famous Philistine, seen here after he was slain by David. Painted by De Sayvede Oude in 1624. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

The individuals who lived in early-Iron Age Ashkelon had a strong southern European ancestral component. However, the later individuals derived most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool. This suggests that the Philistines arrived from Europe in the early Iron Age then quickly mixed with the local populations in ancient Israel and the rest of the Levant.

“Within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine related gene pool,” study author Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History said in a statement.

“While, according to ancient texts, the people of Ashkelon in the first millennium BCE remained ‘Philistines’ to their neighbors, the distinctiveness of their genetic makeup was no longer clear, perhaps due to intermarriage with Levantine groups around them,” added Daniel M Master, study author and director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.

The Philistines are best known for being the violent, expansive arch-enemies of the Israelites, as described in the Hebrew Bible. This rivalry, that often bubbled over into war, meant that many contemporary written sources gave them a bad press, describing them as crass, uncultured, and anti-intellectual. Probably the most famous Philistine of all is the champion Goliath, the “giant” slane by the underdog young David, who would go on to become King David of Israel and Judah.

But these ancient people are not merely myths and legend. There’s a ton of modern archaeological evidence that shows the Philistines were real, from ancient Egyptian inscriptions to their distinctive pottery

 

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