The land of Canaan is referred to many times in the Bible and other documents from the same period. Historians have been puzzled, however, as to who these Canaanites really were. They had a tremendous influence on the cultures of the people around them, but most of what we know comes from their enemies, and their origins and fate have been mysterious. Now the sequencing of genomes from one of their major cities has provided some answers.
Around 3,700 to 3,100 years ago, much of the territory now marked as Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan was inhabited by the Canaanites. They appear to have been the first people to create a systemic alphabet, and for a while represented such a superpower in the region they were able to establish numerous colonies and offshoots, including Carthage.
Yet for all their capacity with letters, few Canaanite written records survive, perhaps because they preferred papyrus to clay. Consequently, most of what we know of them comes from ancient Romans, Greeks and Israelites, none exactly unbiased sources. So we know little about their ancestry or what happened to them, assuming you take Biblical accounts of their annihilation with a grain of salt.
The Sanger Institute's Dr Mark Haber extracted DNA from the skulls of five Canaanites buried 3,700 years ago in Sidon, a major city in what is now Lebanon, and sequenced their genomes. These were compared with the genomes of 99 modern Lebanese individuals. In the American Journal of Human Genetics Haber reveals that, far from disappearing from the region the Bible implies, the Canaanites were the dominant contributor to the genetics of the people living there today. The Sidon genomes were also similar to those from nomadic people of the day in what is now Jordan, who also called themselves Canaanites.
“The present-day Lebanese are likely to be direct descendants of the Canaanites, but they have in addition a small proportion of Eurasian ancestry that may have arrived via conquests by distant populations such as the Assyrians, Persians, or Macedonians," Haber said in a statement. As to their origins; “The Canaanites were a mixture of local people who settled in farming villages during the Neolithic period and eastern migrants who arrived in the region about 5,000 years ago."
"In light of the enormously complex history of this region in the last few millennia, it was quite surprising that over 90 percent of the genetic ancestry of present-day Lebanese was derived from the Canaanites," said co-author Dr Chris Tyler-Smith.
Moreover, Haber and Tyler-Smith's work shows that the Canaanites looked much like modern Lebanese, their genes indicating, hair and eye colors and slightly darker skin. Something to consider when you see portrayals of biblical peoples as fair haired and light-skinned.