Ancient Canaanites, While Living in Different City-States, Were Culturally and Genetically Similar

The sons of Noach who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth –Ham being the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noach, and from these the whole world branched out. Genesis 9:18-19 (The Israel Bible™)

The Canaanites are long gone, having disappeared from the Southern Levant – now known as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and parts of Syria since 1150 BCE. This era ended in a large-scale civilization collapse across this region. But the People of Israel and Israelis live on. 

Now, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have provided new insight into the history of the Canaanites’ history based on a new genome-wide analysis of ancient DNA collected from 73 skeletons found at archaeological sites in the region.

“Populations in the Southern Levant during the Bronze Age were not static,” noted Prof. Liran Carmel, who researches ancient DNA and human evolution at the university and published findings (with his large team from Israel, the US, Italy, Austria, Ireland and Spain) in the journal Cell.  “Rather, we observe evidence for the movement of people over long periods of time from the northeast of the Ancient Near East, including modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, into the Southern Levant region.

Photo of Prof. Liran Carmel courtesy of Hebrew University

“The Canaanites, albeit living in different city-states, were culturally and genetically similar,” Carmel added. “In addition, this region witnessed many later population movements, with people coming from the northeast, from the south, and from the northwest.”

Carmel and colleagues reached these conclusions based on an analysis of 73 new ancient DNA samples – 71 from the Bronze Age and two from who lived during the Iron Age – representing mainly Middle-to-Late Bronze Age individuals from five archaeological sites across the Southern Levant. 

Thirty-five bones from separate individuals were found at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, most of whom date to the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age, except for one dating to the Intermediate Bronze Age and one dating to the Early Iron Age; 21 came from the Baq‛ah in central Jordan (northeast of Amman), mostly from the Late Bronze Age; 13 from Yehud in central Israel dating to the Middle Bronze Age; three from Tel Hazor in northern Israel dating to the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age; and one from Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel dating to the Iron Age.

To these new data, the researchers added previously reported data from 20 skeletons from four sites to generate a dataset of 93 individuals. The genomic analysis showed that the Canaanites do represent a clear group. 

“Individuals from all sites are highly genetically similar, albeit with subtle differences, showing that the archaeologically and historically defined ‘Canaanites’ corresponds to a demographically coherent group,” Carmel continued. 

The data suggest that the Canaanites descended from a mixture of earlier local Neolithic populations and populations related to Chalcolithic Iran and/or the Bronze Age Caucasus. The researchers, who also included Lily Agranat-Tamir, Shamam Waldman, Mario Martin, Israel Finkelstein and David Reich, documented a significant increase in the proportion of Iranian/Caucasus-related ancestry over time, which is supported by three individuals who are descendants of recent arrivals from the Caucasus. 

“We show evidence that different ‘Canaanite’ groups genetically resemble each other more than other populations. We find that Levant-related modern populations typically have substantial ancestry coming from populations related to the Chalcolithic Zagros and the Bronze Age Southern Levant,” they wrote. “These groups also harbor ancestry from sources we cannot fully model with the available data, highlighting the critical role of post-Bronze-Age migrations into the region over the past 3,000 years.”

The strength of the migration from the northeast of the Ancient Near East “and the fact that this migration continued for many centuries, may help to explain why rulers of city-states in Canaan in the Late Bronze Age carry non-Semitic, Hurrian names,” explained Dr. Carmel Shai. “There were strong and active connections between these regions through movements of people that help to understand the shared elements of culture.”

The researchers also studied the relationship of the Canaanites to modern-day populations. While the direct contribution of the Canaanites to modern populations cannot be accurately assessed, the data suggest that a broader Near-Eastern component, including populations from the Caucasus and the Zagros Mountains, likely account for more than 50% of the ancestry of many Arabic-speaking and Jewish groups living in the region today.

Prof. Carmel reports that they are now working to extend their sampling, both geographically and over time. “We wish to analyze Iron Age samples from different areas of the southern Levant,” Carmel said.  “This may shed light on the composition of the populations in the biblically mentioned kingdoms of the region, among them Israel, Judah, Ammon, and Moab.”