by John Noble Wilford
Scientists reported Thursday that as many as 1 in 17 men living today on the coasts of North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician direct male-line ancestor.
The Phoenicians who founded Carthage, a great city that rivaled Rome. They introduced the alphabet to writing systems, exported cedars of Lebanon for shipbuilding and marketed the regal purple dye made from the murex shell. The name Phoenica, for their base in what is present-day Lebanon and southern Syria, means “land of purple.”
Then the Phoenicians, their fortunes in sharp decline after defeat in the Punic Wars, disappeared as a distinct culture. The monumental ruins of Carthage, at modern Tunis, are about the only visible reminders of their former greatness.
The scientists who conducted the new research said this was the first application of a new analytic method for detecting especially subtle genetic influences of historical population migrations. Such investigations, supplementing the traditional stones-and-bones work of archaeology, are contributing to a deeper understanding of human mobility over time.
The study was directed by the Genographic Project, a partnership of the National Geographic Society and IBM Corporation, with additional support from the Waitt Family Foundation. The international team described the findings in the current American Journal of Human Genetics.
“When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians,” Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, said in an announcement. “All we had to guide us was history: we knew where they had and hadn’t settled.”
It proved to be enough, Dr. Tyler-Smith and Spencer Wells, a geneticist who directs the Genographic Project, said in telephone interviews.
Samples of the male Y-chromosome were collected from 1,330 men now living at six sites known to have been settled in antiquity as colonies and trading outposts of the Phoenicians. The sites were in 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 were then compared with similar research from neighboring 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.
“We were lucky in one respect,” Pierre A. Zalloua, a geneticist at Lebanese American University in Beirut who was a principal author of the journal report, said in an interview. “So many Phoenician settlement sites were geographically close to non-Phoenician sites, making it easier to distinguish differences in genetic patterns.”
In the journal article, the researchers wrote that the work “underscores the effectiveness of Y-chromosomal variability” in tracing human migrations. “Our methodology,” they concluded, “can be applied to any historically documented expansion in which contact and noncontact sites can be identified.”
Dr. Zalloua said that with further research it might be possible to refine genetic patterns to reveal phases of the Phoenician expansion over time — “first to Cyprus, then Malta and Africa, all the way to Spain.” Perhaps, he added, the genes may hold clues to which Phoenician cities — Byblos, Tyre or Sidon — settled certain colonies.