Without a doubt, the Near East has been a linguistic, cultural and religious crossroad for many thousands of years. This area has had many different rulers, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Christian European Crusaders, Arabs, and Ottomans. Many of these groups instilled everlasting cultural changes on the local population, including changes to religion and even languages that we present in modern day life.
But curiously, prior research has helped us understand that present-day local people in Lebanon are mainly descendants of a group of people from the Bronze Age (2100-1500 BCE). 90% of their genetic make-up originates from a group that existed in the area around 4,000 years ago. In fact, there are very few lasting traces of even the Crusaders invasion around the 11th-13th Century.
To understand this potential contradiction and build a picture of the genetic history of ordinary people in the region, the researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, University of Birmingham, French Institute of the Near East in Lebanon and their collaborators studied the DNA of ancient skeletons throughout the last 4,000 years. The remains came from four archaeological excavation sites in Beirut, which were discovered during building projects in the Lebanese capital city and rescued by the Directorate General of Antiquities. The archaeologists and researchers then worked together to transfer the bones to a laboratory in Estonia, which is dedicated to extracting ancient DNA. The DNA was then sequenced and analyzed at the Sanger Institute. Recent advances in DNA extraction and sequencing technology made studying the ancient and damaged DNA possible.
Ultimately, the team was able to sequence the genomes of 19 ancient people who lived in Lebanon between 800BCE and 200CE and compared them to modern populations. They reported their findings in the journal American Journal of Human Genetics. Again, this study combines ancient and modern genetic data to create an 8-point time line across the millennia.
With more granularity, this team was able to detect lasting genetic changes in the local people from just three time periods. The first occurred during the beginning of the Iron Age (about 1,000 BCE). With the arrival of Alexander the Great (beginning 330 BCE) the second event happened. And, lastly, the domination of the Ottoman Empire (1516 CE) – but not from the other times. Marc Haber, is quoted saying:
“We revealed a genetic history of the area across 4,000 years, with a time-point approximately every 500 years. This showed us that despite the huge cultural changes that were occurring during this period, there were only a few times that the genetics of the general population changed enough to affect the ordinary people.”
The study did reveal that some smaller admixture events with people from other cultures. For example, one burial site was found to contain the remains of an Egyptian mother, and her son whose father had Egyptian and Lebanese ancestry. But this was not widespread.
Whilst the invasions and conquests may have been revolutionary for the elite rulers, and may have biased us to think these local Near Eastern populations were biologically integrated with their conquerors… Studies like these are able to show the value of using ancient DNA and population genetics alongside archaeology to help understand what could be happening in the lives of ordinary people throughout time. Joyce Nassar, a co-author comments on the importance of this study,
“This study is really exciting, as the genetic evidence is helping us to interpret what we find. Some people might think that when a land was invaded, that the population would change. But this study shows it isn’t that simple, and reveals there was only limited biological mixing, despite the cultural and political influence of the invasions.”