Where did the Philistines come from?

DNA analyzes show that ancestors of the biblical people came from Europe

Excavations of the bones of a dead Philistine - a member of the people, to whom the biblical giant Goliath belonged. © Melissa Aja / Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon
Read out

Goliath had European roots: researchers could have solved the mystery of the origin of the Philistines - the people mentioned in the Bible as the adversary of the Israelites. Accordingly, this ethnic group was apparently of European descent - their ancestors came from Southern Europe at the end of the Bronze Age. This is now revealed by DNA analyzes of ten dead who died in the Philistine city of Ashkelon during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Around 3, 200 years ago, many cultures in the Middle East experienced a major change. The power of many great empires, including the Egyptians, Mycenaeans and Hittites, waned. New centers of power and cultures spread. Among them were the Philistines - a people who then founded a five-city union on the coast of ancient Canaan. From the biblical tradition, the Philistines are known as opponents of the Israelites, their most famous representative was defeated by David warrior Goliath.

Reconstruction of a Philistine household 3200 years ago. © Balage Balogh / Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The mystery of the Philistines

But who were these Philistines? And where did they come from? It seems clear that their presence has brought significant cultural change, as evidenced by archaeological finds from the Philistine cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron. "These settlements were different in architecture and material culture than their neighbors, " report Michal Feldmann from the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena and his team. Researchers assume, therefore, that the Philistines immigrated to Israel from elsewhere.

According to one theory, the Philistines belonged to the mysterious "sea people" nomadic immigrants, who invaded coastal areas in the Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Their origins are also unknown Hypotheses range from Asia Minor over Greece to the Eurasian steppe. Other researchers, however, regard the Philistine Empire as more of a consequence of local immigration and cultural influences.

A European gene share

To solve the riddle of the Philistines, Feldmann and his team have now analyzed the DNA of ten dead people who were buried at the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Ashkelon. The researchers compared the genetic material with that of today's Europeans and those of modern and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant and Asia Minor. display

The result: Until the end of the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of Ashkelon were part of the normal population mix of the Levant. However, with the beginning of the Iron Age, the picture changed: the four dead from the time around 3, 200 years ago showed significant proportions of European DNA. "The unique cultural characteristics of the early Philistines are thus reflected in a specific genetic composition, " say the researchers.

This makes it clear that the Philistines were not a purely local ethnic group. Instead, they migrated to the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age to Canaan. "That agrees with the archological and written testimonials, " report Feldmann and his team.

Crete, Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula

But where did the ancestors of the Philistines come from in Europe? More detailed DNA comparisons revealed similarities between the Philistine genome and Bronze Age Cretans and Iberians, as well as modern inhabitants of Sardinia. This speaks for an origin of the Philistines from southern Europe or from the islands in the Mediterranean, as the researchers report. However, they also stress that they have not yet included all eligible populations in the comparisons.

However, these results are not only interesting with regard to the Philistines - they could also help to clarify the riddle of the sea people. For if the Philistines were one of them, their lineage may also lose the origin of these Bronze Age pirates and conquerors. In fact, the new DNA data at least weaken one of the common theories: Feldmann and his team did not find a good match with the DNA of Bronze Age steppe peoples.

"These data begin to close a temporal gap in the genetic map of the eastern Mediterranean, " explains Feldmann's colleague Johannes Krause.

European genes were quickly "diluted"

And yet, DNA analysis revealed that after the Philistines arrived in Ashkelon, they mingled relatively quickly with their neighbors. For 200 years later, the genetic footprint of immigrants is barely detectable, as the researchers report. Apparently, the European gene share was strongly "diluted" by intermarriage with the local population.

Although the Philistines in the late Iron Age culturally differed from their neighbors, they had long been "naturalized" genetically. (Science Advances, 2019; doi: 10.1126 / sciadv.aax0061)

Source: Max Planck Institute for the History of Human History

- Nadja Podbregar