Illuminating the Philistines’ Origins

Ancient DNA Confirms the Philistines’ European Ancestry

The bones don’t lie: The Philistines had European ancestry. A 2019 study published in Science Advances analyzes DNA extracted from ten people buried during the second and first millennia B.C.E. at the site of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea. It shows that the inhabitants of Ashkelon during the Iron Age I (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.)—the Philistines—had DNA with a significantly larger amount of European ancestry than the site’s earlier and later inhabitants.

Rachel Kalisher at Ashkelon Expedition

Rachel Kalisher, a member of the Leon Levy Expedition’s physical anthropology team, documents a tenth–ninth-century B.C.E. burial in Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery. Photo: ©Melissa Aja/Leon Levy Expedition

The Hebrew Bible claims that the Philistines came from Caphtor and displaced the earlier inhabitants of the land (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 2:23; Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). The location of Caphtor and whether the Philistines did indeed come from it have long been debated. Most scholars connect the Philistines to the Sea Peoples movement, a migration of peoples from the “islands” (according to an inscription by Ramses III at Medinet Habu) to the Levant around 1200 B.C.E., at the end of the Late Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age I. Ancient texts and inscriptions record this migration, often describing it as an invasion.

Many scholars think the “islands”—and Caphtor—refer to Crete or another location in the Aegean world, but some suggest locations as far away as Italy or as near as Cyprus or Cilicia (the southeastern coast of modern Turkey). Some think the Sea Peoples were not a homogenous group, but composed of various eastern Mediterranean peoples or perhaps bands of pirates. Others reject the notion that the Philistines migrated to the Levant. They think that the Philistines were indigenous to the Levant and that the new culture appearing in Philistia during the Iron Age I resulted from new ideas and knowledge that had either spread from other cultures or developed internally.

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The Hebrew Bible and other ancient texts identify Ashkelon as a major Philistine city, along with the cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (see, e.g., Joshua 13:2–3). Philistia’s heartland includes these five cities and their vicinities, but its hinterland extended much farther. All of the major Philistine cities have been excavated—or are currently being excavated, such as Tell es-Safi/Gath, whose excavations are led by Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. The archaeological remains from the major Philistine sites show that beginning in the Iron Age I, the inhabitants of these sites exhibited a recognizable, distinct culture. Their architecture, pottery, jewelry, tools, and weapons looked different from those of their neighbors and of the sites’ predecessors—and similar to those from the Aegean world.

The Leon Levy Expedition excavated Ashkelon from 1985–2016. Directed by the late Lawrence Stager of Harvard University and Daniel Master of Wheaton College, the expedition uncovered archaeological remains that spanned six millennia—from the Chalcolithic period (c. 4000 B.C.E.) all the way to the time of the Crusaders and Mamluks (1270 C.E.). During the course of their excavations, the archaeologists uncovered numerous burials, including a large Philistine cemetery, which dates from the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.E. The discovery and excavation of this cemetery allowed the team to extract the necessary DNA to analyze Ashkelon’s population from the Iron Age II.

The authors of the Science Advances article—Michael Feldman, Daniel Master, Raffaela A. Bianco, Marta Burri, Philipp W. Stockhammer, Alissa Mittnik, Adam J. Aja, Choongwon Jeong, and Johannes Krause—compared the DNA of ten individuals from three different time periods at Ashkelon: the Bronze Age, the Iron Age I, and the Iron Age II. Archaeologists uncovered the three Bronze Age individuals from tombs; two of these individuals were dated by radiocarbon to 1746–1643 and 1622–1522 cal B.C.E., which aligns with the Middle Bronze Age II–Late Bronze Age. The four individuals from the Iron Age I were infants buried in jars under the floors of 12th-century B.C.E. houses. The three Iron Age II individuals came from the tenth–ninth-century B.C.E. Philistine cemetery.

The results show that the Bronze Age people of Ashkelon had heritage that derived from the Stone Age inhabitants of the Levant and populations that originated in Anatolia and Iran. The authors refer to this as the “local Levantine gene pool.” Although the ancestry of the early Iron Age infants is also primarily “local Levantine,” it had an admixture of European genes. By the time of the Iron Age II, the ancestry of the people at Ashkelon once again returned to the “local Levantine gene pool”—the European gene pool no longer being pronounced.

The influx of European heritage in the people of Ashkelon from the Iron Age I supports the theory that the Philistines came from the Aegean world and migrated to the Levant. In fact, of all the models created to explain the heritage of the early Iron Age infants, the model combining the local Levantine gene pool with a southern European gene pool, such as from Crete or Iberia, works the best.

Interestingly, the European ancestry disappears after a couple generations. By the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., the people group still called Philistines no longer show significant European ancestry. By that time they had likely intermarried with the local population.

Extracting and studying ancient DNA opens new doors for the field of archaeology. Daniel Master tells Bible History Daily, “The study of the DNA has the potential to transform our understanding of the past, but it is critically important that it be combined with the careful study of archaeological remains and ancient texts. This genetic information adds to the story of the Philistines, but it is only one chapter in a story that scholars have been writing for more than a century.”

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Although the results of the DNA analysis from Ashkelon answer some questions about the Philistines’ origins, they also raise new ones: What did the DNA of the first Philistines to land in the Levant look like? When did the Philistines begin to intermarry with the local Levantine population? Will we ever be able to pinpoint Caphtor’s exact location? As archaeologists continue to uncover the ancient world layer by layer, the answers to some of these questions will surely surface. Until then, the debate about the Philistines’ origins will continue.

For the full scientific report, see Michael Feldman, Daniel M. Master, Raffaela A. Bianco, Marta Burri, Philipp W. Stockhammer, Alissa Mittnik, Adam J. Aja, Choongwon Jeong, and Johannes Krause, “Ancient DNA Sheds Light on the Genetic Origins of the early Iron Age Philistines,” Science Advances 3 (July 2019).


This post was first published in Bible History Daily in July, 2019

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