A researcher at a sterile lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History extracts DNA from a human bone sample excavated from the ancient Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Courtesy Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)

Researchers Say Study Confirms Origin of Philistines

While others call evidence inconclusive, archaeologists say genetic analysis of ancient DNA from Ashkelon resolves longtime biblical mystery

An international team has for the first time used an analysis of ancient DNA to try to resolve the age-old question about the origins of the biblical Philistines, determining that they came to the Levant from the southern Aegean region of Europe around the 12th century BC.

The team’s findings asserting that a substantial proportion of Philistine ancestry was derived from a European population were published today in the multidisciplinary journal Science Advances.

“I think this puts an end to the debate [whether] the Philistines were an intrusive group in the region or not,” Dr. Adam Aja told the Media Line.

Aja is the assistant curator of collections at the Harvard Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the archaeological team that took part in the three-decade-long excavations at the ancient site in Ashkelon, Israel, from where the DNA samples were retrieved.

“We suspected [the Philistines] were from the general Aegean region but had never been able to pinpoint precisely where,” he said. “The DNA has allowed Philistines to be revealed definitively as an intrusive group.”

Aja said although some people have argued that the Philistines were local people imitating styles from elsewhere based on material culture such as excavated pottery, the new study “absolutely” determines they “were new people on the ground,” making things styled in their home tradition and preserving their own identity.

Though the Philistines are best known from the Old Testament as the arch-enemies of the Israelites, and mention of them appears in other ancient texts, very little was known about their origin.

The most famous Philistine was the giant Goliath, who was slain by the future King David. Also according to the Bible, the Israelite warrior Samson slew 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey and was later seduced by the beautiful Philistine woman Delilah, who betrayed him to the Philistines.

While some scholars suggested that the Philistines might have been indigenous to the Levant, coming from farther up the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Turkey, others felt they were the same as the group called the Peleset in Egyptian texts from the late 12th century BC. According to those texts, the Peleset traveled from “the islands,” attacking peoples in what is today Cyprus and along the Turkish and Syrian coasts before being defeated by the Egyptians.

The genetic study used state-of-the-art technologies and was undertaken by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, a project of the Harvard Semitic Museum, following 30 years of archaeological work at the site. Ashkelon was one of the five Philistine cities along the southern coast of modern-day Israel and Gaza.

In their excavation, the team discovered substantial changes in ways of life during the 12th century BC that they linked to the arrival of the Philistines. They also uncovered the first Philistine cemetery to be found adjacent to an ancient city, as well as burial sites of infants located beneath the floors of homes in the city itself.

Members of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon excavate skeletal remains at the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Melissa Aja, courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Actually being able to extract DNA samples from the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in the southern Levant itself, is a rare accomplishment because of the heat and humidity, according to Michal Feldman of the Department of Archeogenetics at the Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and lead author of the study.

The researchers screened over 100 bones, Feldman told The Media Line, and in the end were able to use DNA samples from 10 individuals, including men, women and infants.

“It was cool to see a clear signal that people did come from the outside and were not just a local people… [and] to show there was a movement of people. Maybe historians can start asking if there might have been a good reason for this movement. It was not a trivial thing to migrate in this period,” she explained.

The study, she added, also found that the European DNA signature disappears from later Iron Age samples, becoming identical to that of the local people in the Levant, probably due to intermarriage.

The infant remains were of particular importance, Aja notes, because they were born in the city although their DNA indicates their parents came to the area from another region in the 12th century BC. Nonetheless, he says, more DNA samples will be needed to refine and pinpoint the exact birthplace of the parents.

“It is exciting… to be able to track their story from an immigrant people arriving in a new land to mixing with the local population and becoming almost indistinguishable [from the local population… and] to see the whole story until their demise in the land almost 600 years later,” Aja said.

Archeologists have been working on the mystery of the provenance of the Philistines for nearly a century, Daniel M. Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, told The Media Line.

Master said archaeologists have seen cultural patterns in excavations of Philistine sites that are similar to patterns from the Aegean region, and the genetic results of his team’s study are a critical step toward understanding the long-disputed origins of the Philistines.

To carry out their genetic study, the researchers first established a genetic baseline using DNA extracted from skeletal remains from the Bronze Age, which was prior to the Iron Age-appearance of the Philistines. These remains had the genetic profile of local Levantine peoples. Their DNA was then compared to that from the infants and adults found in the Philistine cemetery.

“We are trying to fill in the gaps to understand the whole history and the biblical world more fully,” Master said. “This provides direct evidence of where the Philistines came from, [a question] we have been asking for a long time. These are very specific scientific details…. This is not just conjecture.”

He added that, based on available genetic information from the Stone Age, the best location matches to their DNA are Crete and as far west as Italy and Sardinia.

Master noted that the Philistines seemed to have retained their group identity despite the apparent intermarriage with the local population. Indeed, the Old Testament books of Amos and Jeremiah, as well as other texts, mention that the Philistines came from somewhere else.

“That memory is part of their cultural identity even more than any specific genetic identity,” he said.

Bar-Ilan University archaeology professor Aren Maeir notes that as the first study of Philistine DNA, the new findings are important and contribute to the understanding of the Philistines although they represent findings from only one location.

Maeir told The Media Line that there were ongoing analyses of DNA from other Philistine sites, including his own Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, and that these will need to be considered when they are completed. The city of Gath was a sister city to Philistine Ashkelon.

Although the Planck study presented only two possible scenarios for the origin of Philistines, the reality could be more complex, Maeir adds, saying he believes the group might actually have been made up of an “entanglement” of various peoples.

“There is no place called ancient Philistia,” he told The Media Line.

“I think from the beginning, [the Philistines] were a salad of Mediterranean people,” he continued. “There is no question that a significant component of them came from outside the Levant. When they came here, they brought different groups and influences and lived side-by-side. They brought together a new [and] unique cultural combination of all these cultures. The local study stresses a little too much the sudden arrival of a foreign monolithic group [that then] diluted with locals.”

Master cautioned against using the study to extrapolate any conclusions regarding the modern-day region.

“There is no legitimate connection to any modern political issue. There is no connection [between] this group, which was here from the 12th century BC to the 6th century BC, [and] modern times. We can demonstrate that from our excavations,” he told The Media Line.

“We know their end,” he went on. “There is evidence that the Philistines were categorially destroyed by the Babylonians. The name of Philistine was used in other ways by the Roman state using the land, however this usage has nothing to do with people today. I hope this story remains an archaeological one about people who lived here for 600 years, and then they were all gone.”

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