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The Phoenician Alphabet

The Phoenician civilization is understood to be the dominant maritime trading culture between the period of 1550 BC to 300 BC. While they were based out of the Levant, their city-states were spread all across the Mediterranean. The golden age of Phoenician culture and seapower is usually placed around 1200–800 BC. When Cyrus the Great conquered Phoenicia in 539 BC, he divided the Phoenicians into four vassal kingdoms by the Persians: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos. Each flourished, building fleets for the Persians against the Greeks. But their autonomy as distinctly Phoenician people declined after this. The lasting and most important cultural legacy of Phoenicians on modernity is their alphabet. It is generally thought that their alphabet is the ancestor of most modern alphabets.

Okay enough of a history lesson, a team of researchers developed a set of algorithms to detect the subtle genetic impact of historical population migrations. They’ve tested out their formulas on 1,330 men in hopes that they’ll be able reveal the genetic legacy of the Phoenicians. Specifically, they have made a new set of tests that seek out patterns in genetic signatures of modern men. They’ve published their research in the the American Journal of Human Genetics under the title, “Identifying Genetic Traces of Historical Expansions: Phoenician Footprints in the Mediterranean.”

The team sampled Y chromosomes of men from historic Phoenician trading centers in the Mediterranean regions of Syria, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, Cyprus, and Malta. After genotyping them, they compared them on 11 STRs and 58 Y-SNPs markers. They weeded out background variation from previous Neolithic migrations, and singled out more widespread Greek colonization events from isolated Phoenician expansions, such as the Phoenician colonization of Tunisia.

The Phoenician Genetic Footprint In the Mediterrenean

The Phoenician Genetic Footprint In the Mediterrenean

The authors were able to detect a half dozen haplotypes and they call them Phoenician Colonization Signals (PCS). PCS3+ is calculated to be the strongest Phoenician-colonization candidate. It is tightly associated with the SNP haplogroup E3b, but it does not show the wide geographic coverage that the other PCS+s demonstrate. Both PCS1+ and PCS2+ score well, although not as strongly as PCS3+. The excess of haplogroup J2, and PC1+ to PS3+ in coastal Tunisia, the site of Carthage, compared to inland Tunisian populations is exceptionally significant, and suggests that the Roman destruction of Carthage did not eliminate the Carthaginian gene pool. So the presence of these seven related genetic lineages in places around the Mediterranean Sea, tell us that where Phoenicians had lived and persisted genetically.

These lineages suggest that the Phoenicians contributed their genes to at least six percent of modern populations of historic Phoenician trading outposts. In fact, one boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a direct male-line descendant of the Phoenician traders.

Of course, since this is only a Y-chromosome test, we’re only getting part of the genealogical history. If a Phoenician man fathers only daughters, his Y-chromosome lineage dies out. That means tests likes these can only say something when there’s an unbroken male line in that area. It is certainly possible that more people from Cyprus to Tunis have a Phoenician heritage. Dienekes, a Greek, has a scathing criticism of the paper. This paper explicitly says they didn’t try to seek out Greek expansion but Dienekes outlines six shortcomings, related to Greek expansions, that the paper didn’t factor that would affect these conclusions — he ends his post saying,

“Is there anything of value in this paper? Well, it’s a good idea to try to correlate Y-chromosome distribution with historical rather than pre-historical events. Too bad the authors botched the job, but their paper can at least serve as a reference point for how not to go about doing it.”

    Pierre A. Zalloua, Daniel E. Platt, Mirvat El Sibai, Jade Khalife, Nadine Makhoul, Marc Haber, Yali Xue, Hassan Izaabel, Elena Bosch, Susan M. Adams, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana María López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Mark A. Jobling, David Comas, Jaume Bertranpetit, R. Spencer Wells, Chris Tyler-Smith, The Genographic Consortium (2008) American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.10.012