DNA from ancient Phoenician stuns scientists

A study of the first DNA obtained from an ancient Phoenician reveals that the man had European ancestry.

The research team, which was co-led by Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith of the University of Otago in New Zealand, sequenced the first complete mitochondrial genome of 2,500-year-old Phoenician buried in North Africa. Experts studied a man dubbed the “Young Man of Byrsa” or “Ariche,” whose remains were taken from a sarcophagus in the ancient city of Carthage, just outside Tunis, the Tunisian capital. Carthage was the center of the Phoenician civilization.

Analysis shows that the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup – a genetic group with a common ancestor – indicating that his maternal ancestry is linked to locations on the North Mediterranean coast, probably on the Iberian Peninsula.

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The findings offer the earliest evidence of the European mitochondrial haplogroup U5b2c1 in North Africa, according to Matisoo-Smith, dating its arrival to at least the late sixth century B.C.

"U5b2c1 is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there,” she explained, in a press release. “It is remarkably rare in modern populations today, found in Europe at levels of less than one per cent. Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche's mitochondrial genetic make-up most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern day individual from Portugal.”

Researchers note that, while the Phoenicians are thought to have originated from the area that is now Lebanon, their influence spread across the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish cities of Malaga and Cadiz, for example, were founded by Phoenicians.

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Experts analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of 47 modern Lebanese people and found none were of the U5b2c1 lineage. U5b2c1 has already been found in two ancient hunter-gatherers recovered from an archaeological site north-Western spain, according to Matisoo-Smith.

"While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa via Phoenician and Punic trade networks," she said, in the press release.

The study was published in the journal Plos One.