Feature: DNA testing on ancient bones shed light on Philistine people

Source: Xinhua| 2019-07-04 04:36:57|Editor: yan
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by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, July 3 (Xinhua) -- An international team of scientists announced on Wednesday that DNA testing on bones, found during a lengthy excavation, shows that the ancient Philistines had European derived ancestry.

The findings were published in the Science Advances journal. The excavation in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon lasted for three decades by a team of archeologists.

Beginning in 1985, the excavation concluded in 2016 and archeologists are still studying its many findings. The study into their genetic ancestry began about four years ago.

The Philistines were an ancient people mostly known from stories in the Hebrew Bible as the great enemies of the Israelites. According to the findings, they lived from 1200 B.C. to the end of the 7th century when they were completely destroyed.

"We've been trying to get the rest of the story," said Daniel Master, director of the Ashkelon expedition. "It's not a question of whether they were there, but a question of trying to understand more about them. We only know from the things their enemies told us and we wanted to get the fuller picture."

"This is really a highlight for us," said Master about the findings.

Up until now, scientists have not been able to determine the origins of the Philistines. The first time they were mentioned in an archeological finding was about 150 years ago in an Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

"We have identified the earliest Philistines and tested their genetic material and we have been able to demonstrate that... they...came from the west," Master told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

"This is direct physical evidence," he added, calling it a "breakthrough."

Because there is not enough DNA evidence available to researchers, the precise origin of the Philistines cannot be determined just yet. "But it is clearly not from this region, because the DNA we are seeing is very different."

According to Michal Feldman of the Department of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the discovery a few years ago that the inner ear bone could be useful DNA samples was critical to the research.

The process is complicated, which has been tweaked in the last decades with the help of new technologies. She was part of the research team examining the findings.

"We see this influx of European ancestry coming in to the region in the beginning of the Iron age and this is the same time when the Philistine culture appears in archeology. 200 years later, the same people that are still considered Philistines by their neighbors, or by ancient texts or by modern archeologists. They go back to genetically looking the same as Bronze age people that were living there before," Feldman explained.

This was one of the questions that Master and his team were looking to answer -- once they immigrated to the Levantine area, did they continue to be an exclusive group or did they assimilate with other residents of the area? The findings show that with time, the Philistines blended in with local residents.

"They very much mixed with the people around them, and so they were genetically not distinguishable from the people around them by the 9th century," Master explained. "They didn't stop being Philistines, but they had lost any distinctive genetic markers."

The use of DNA allows a look at archeological findings in a very high resolution and gives researches the ability to add more insight to their findings.

"It's a really important new tool in our toolkit. It's going to allow us to see things about people that we couldn't see before," Master told Xinhua.

"People are extremely similar to each other in terms of genetics -- 99.9 percent the same," Feldman told Xinhua. "We use a really miniscule proportion of our genome that does become different when populations are isolated from each other for long periods of time."

The technology used is cutting-edge and being more widely used in the last decade in archeology. It widens the scope and allows the experts to see the bigger picture or the greater context. But the DNA findings do not stand alone and cannot be detached from the other information available to archeologists.

"It shows, with these genetic studies many times, you have to look at things century by century or maybe even a finer grade in order to pick up the nuances of a very dynamic Mediterranean world," Master summarized.

With another piece of the puzzle solved, a greater understanding of the area's history has been achieved.