Ten bodies unveil the history of European immigrants 3,600 years ago

3, 000 years ago, a soldier came back from the front with 200 foreskins of dead enemies. He took the war trophies to his king and he gave his daughter's hand in return, making him the next king of Israel. That soldier was a shepherd enlisted in the war against the Philistines, arch-enemies of the Jews. His name was David and he had also killed the most fearsome Philistine, the gigantic Goliath, with his slingshot. This account is fictional, the Old Testament says. Now, DNA analysis of Philistine men, women and children of various eras has revealed its origin and shown that its history could not be so violent, as they fully mingled with local populations.

The mortal remains have been recovered in Ascalón, a port city whose ruins are about 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv (Israel). A team of archaeologists from several countries has been excavating this Philistine enclave since 1985. Ascalón was the main port in the area and its population was numbered in the thousands. Here is the arched door to the oldest known city, about six meters high, according to those responsible for the excavation. Hundreds of cemetery bodies, individual tombs and makeshift burials in the basements of the dwellings have been recovered in Ascalón. The 10 of those that have been able to extract DNA span the period between 3,600 and 2,800 years ago, a moment of transition between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in which many civilizations collapsed.

Until now the Philistines were supposed to be a migrant village of unknown origin. The ruins of their cities show an architecture reminiscent of mycanic civilization, the first complex society that emerged in Greece, some 1,600 years ago before the present era. Egyptian hieroglyphics from the 1,100before the common era suggested that the Philistines had come from "the islands," had conquered Cyprus, the coasts of Turkey and Syria, and intended to ravage Egypt. The Hebrew Bible suggests that the Philistines came from Crete. Adding to this lack of accurate data is a debate among specialists about whether the Philistines had arrived in the Middle East from other areas or simply a new culture adopted without the need for migration movements.

Now DNA shows that Ascalon Philistines from older eras had a genetic profile characteristic of "Southern Europe" populations. "We don't have enough samples yet to narrow that location further, but this includes Crete, the rest of Greece and the Iberian Peninsula," explains Michal Feldman, geneticist at the Max Planck Institute of Science and History in Jena, Germany, and first author of the study, published on Wednesday in Science Advances. Work also shows that after their arrival, these peoples mingled with local populations until in just two centuries their European DNA had been completely "diluted".

Un voluntario desentierra el cadáver de un niño en Ascalón (Israel), en 2016.A volunteer digs up the body of a child in Ascalón, Israel, in 2016. Leon Levy Expedition

The prehistoric Max Planck Philipp Stockhammer, co-author of the study, reconstructs the history of philistines according to genetic data and what was known from archaeological data. "Between the years 1,350 and 1,200 before the current era many societies collapsed for unknown reasons," he says. "There could have been wars, minion revolts against elites, epidemics. The collaboration that had allowed these civilizations to be built simply disappeared. It was the end of the Bronze era. This led to a wave of displaced people looking for a new place to live in that in turn could lead to new conflicts. Probably the Philistines were people from different places, as are the current African immigrants who cross the Mediterranean, but for the host populations they were all the same, all Philistine. We do know that they had another culture, for example they ate pork, which was taboo for the Israelites and other local peoples. What DNA analysis tells us is that the Bible may be telling the truth, because DNA shows that the first Philistines could come from Crete or other areas of Greece, although it is not disposable that they came from Sardinia, Anatolia [Turkey], Italy or even Spain. When the Philistines arrived in the Middle East, about 3,600 years ago, the Israelites were still small, unpowerful tribes. It wasn't an invasion. We're not sure how different they were culturally, but in a few generations they got mixed up a lot. By the time the great battles between Philistines and Israelites occurred, around 1,000 before the current era, the two populations were geneticly indistinguishable. It was a war between equals," he says.

Stockhammer explains that this is just the beginning. His Max Planck team is studying corpses from other Philistine settlements whose DNA could realize the origin of these people.

"It is a very interesting study, as it confirms that there were these migrations, something that some specialists had denied without much basis for ideological reasons," says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist at the CSIC. "Thanks to genetic study, it is proven that the migrations of so-called sea peoples, including the Philistines, were an engine of cultural change," he adds.

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