Monthly Archives: February 2009

the phoenician gene

And now / the Phoenician Gene


Ask almost any Maronite in Lebanon about their ancestry and they’ll tell you it’s Phoenician. Well, probably! But what those guys ignore is that Lebanese Muslims share this ancestry as well.


Let me condense some history. Around 3000BC a group of individuals migrated from the Arabian Peninsula into the land of Canaan. Canaan is located between Egypt and Syria. Those people were known as the Phoenicians; their name derived from Phoenicia which means "land of purple."


By 1200 B.C. the Phoenicians controlled a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea where they built a number of cities like Byblos, Tyre and Sidon. They expanded by see throughout the Mediterranean founding colonies as far as Spain and North Africa, where their most powerful city, Carthage, was located. The Phoenicians thrived from 1300 BC to 300 BC. They disappeared as a distinct culture after defeat in the Punic Wars with Rome.


The Phoenicians were master traders of the sea and left the world more than the legacy of the alphabet and purple dye – they left their DNA scattered throughout Mediterranean men as well, a kind of lasting genetic imprint.


According to the American Journal of Human Genetics, one in 17 men living in the Mediterranean region carries a Y-chromosome handed down from a male Phoenician ancestor. This research is part of the Genographic Project, launched in April 2005 to investigate human origins and migrations.


With the help of modern genetics, researchers have now set to trace the vanished people. Their tool is very simple – the Y chromosome. This chromosome is not carried by females. It is passed down, with the occasional mutation, intact from father to son; so it can be used as a kind of genetic clock to gauge how one man is related to another. Genetic analysis has traced all modern males back to a Y-chromosome ancestor, nicknamed Adam, who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago and whose descendants spread around the world.


Genetic markers can be found at specific places on the Y chromosome – a thread-like package of genes located in the nucleus of almost every cell in males, which makes the new analysis trends universal.


Note: two chromosomes, the X and the Y, determine sex. Females have two X’s; males have one X and one Y. The Y contains the genes that create maleness.


A similar tool for genetic analysis is found in mitochondrial DNA, which women pass on, again with only the occasional change, to their children. So, in cases where a person needs to trace mother’s ancestral lines, mitochondrial DNA is analyzed. 


The Phoenician Project:

A genetic footprint of an ancient civilization


Samples of the male Y-chromosome were collected from 1330 men now living at six sites known to have been settled in antiquity as colonies of the Phoenicians. The sites were Cyprus, Malta, Morocco, the West bank, Syria and Tunisia. Each participant, whose inner cheek was swabbed for the samples, had at least three generations of indigenous ancestry at the site.


To this was added data already available from Lebanon and previously published chromosome findings from nearly 6,000 men at 56 sites throughout the Mediterranean region. The data was then compared with similar research from communities having no link to Phoenician settlers.


From the research emerged a distinctive Phoenician genetic signature, in contrast to genetic traces spread by other migrations, like those of late Stone-Age farmers, Greek colonists and the Jewish Diaspora. The scientists thus concluded that, for example, one boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a descendant of Phoenician traders.


The project was initially run by Dr. Tyler-Smith and Geneticist Spencer Wells who directs the Genographic Project. This work is now complemented by geneticist Pierre Zalloua at LAU in Beirut. However, there are pessimists who argue against this new theory, such as Dr. Helen Sader, a professor at the Department of History and Archaeology at AUB.


Now, it is almost established that there is a Phoenician gene; and further research may even refine the genetic patterns to reveal phases of the Phoenician expansion over time, and the results may hold clues from which Phoenician cities – Byblos, Tyre or Sidon – settled colonies originated from.


Going back to my Maronite compatriots – they should know that both Christians and Muslims share the same Phoenician heritage.


For those Lebanese who want to check their ancestry, you can purchase a DNA Genealogy kit from and have the analysis done in Switzerland; and don’t be surprised if your genetic heritage goes back much further than the Phoenicians!