The Phoenicians of Sidon

Overarching period: Bronze Age West Asia 5,000 - 2,500 BP
Carbon dating: 3,700 years old
Sidon - 33.56° North, 35.38° East
Site location country: Lebanon
mtDNA haplogroups: H, K, R, N
Y haplogroups: J

Boy from Byrsa The Boy from Byrsa [14]

The Phoenician Traders of the Eastern Mediterranean:

The Phoenicians are rarely thought of when it comes to important ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, and this is much attributed to a lack of historical information about them. This lack of records does justice to their actual importance in history, as the Phoenicians had a profound impact on cultural and trading relations from the Levant to as far afield as present-day Spain.

The name ‘Phoenicians’ was given by the Homer in reference to the traders form the Levant that produced purple dyes form secretions of the snail Murex [1]. Each snail could only produce a few drops of dye, and the quantities necessary meant that the dye the Phoenicians traded was worth as much as its weight in gold. The word Canaan likely came from the term for purple dye in ancient Hebrew [1].

Biblical scholars speculated that the Phoenicians originated from the Sinai Peninsula or in the adjacent Arab steppe [2]. However, other historical and archeological evidence suggests that the Phoenicians have their origins in the rising complexity of Bronze Age states in the Levant region, starting around 5,300 years ago, which have been referred to as the Canaanite city states [3]. These were Semitic-speaking people who inhabited a region south of Anatolia and North of Egypt along the Mediterranean coasts [4]. They particularly came to prominence with the decline of Egyptian influence in the region between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, expanding across the Mediterranean Sea and settling trading cities in places such as Sardinia and Tunisia [5-8].

Studies of the Ugaritic texts support an eastern Mediterranean origin, but these studies cannot explain their cultural formation, a question that is reminiscent of other Levantine people, such as the Aramaeans, Philistines, and the Hebrews. The text itself was written in an early Semitic language. It is interesting to note, some of the similarities and differences shared by the Hebrews and Phoenicians. It is though they shared a similar languages and cultures, and co-existed relatively peacefully in the region for some time [9]. The Phoenicians were, however, far more interested in developing seaborne trade than the Hebrew and Egyptian states. There were also divisions in religion, whereby the Hebrew population gravitated towards a developing monotheism while the Phoenicians maintained a well-developed Pantheon, that included El, the Hebrew’s god, and a belief in the afterlife.

Otherwise, both people enjoyed the opportunities and suffered from the subjugation of the same superpowers. Eventually, their inability to establish internal unity led to their mutual destruction in a series of remarkable similar disasters. Their decline began 3,200 years ago when they came into conflict with the biblically mentioned Philistines who purportedly ravaged Phoenicians cities. Tiglatpileser I’s expedition in 1100 BC subjugated the Phoenicians to Assyria. In the 7th century the Phoenicians lost control of their sea trade routes due to the conquests of Assyria. The Phoenician cities surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar after resisting him for 13 years (586-573 BC) [1].

The Persians burnt Sidon after they rebelled in the 3rd century BC and Alexander conquered the area without a fight in 333 BC. The Phoenicians never recovered from these incursions, but they did not disappear completely and continued resisting the rising regional empires, whether they were Persian, Greeks, or Romans. The Roman general Scipio Africanus set fire to their navy and sowed salt in the fields of their western capital at Carthage in Tunisia in 146 BCE. This event sealed the fate of the Phoenicians, as a regional power, and political entity [10].

What is known about the Phoenicians is primarily from the writing of Homer and others as well as archeological finds. Only a few lines of their language survive, even though they are credited with inventing the alphabet we use today. Based on their tests and monuments, it is clear that sacrifices were the central motive to the Punic cult with human sacrifice (children included) being prevalent over the other forms of sacrifice [11] and that it did little good to the Phoenicians who were extinguished, until ancient DNA brought them back.

The Phoenicians from Sidon:

The five individuals in this sample all come from the coastal Phoenician heartland city of Sidon, which is located in present-day Lebanon. They have been dated to around 3,700 years old, the period before these famous “sea dogs,” as Homer called them, built a maritime trading empire that outstripped even the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The two males carry Y chromosome haplotype J1a2b and J2b. The latter type has been shown to be one of the genetic signatures of Phoenicians. J2 is the most common type of male DNA found today in what was once the Phoenician homeland in the Levant, with levels rising to 28 percent around Beirut, the modern capital of Lebanon. The same haplotype occurs at only half that rate and less in Middle Eastern men living outside the ancient Phoenician heartland [12]. The same characteristic lineage has been identified at high frequencies in contemporary locations around the Mediterranean associated with historical Phoenician trade colonies and mining operations: Cyprus (37%), Crete (38%), Malta (32%) and East Sicily (29%).

Another sign of Phoenicians is apparently Y chromosome lineage T (formerly called K2). It is not present in the small sample here, and it is admittedly a minor haplogroup when it does crop up, but it is relatively high in the ancient Israelites, ancient Levantines from Ain Ghazal, the ancient Judaeans, and a few other select populations with strong founder effects still detectable today [13]. The higher than average frequencies of T in Cyprus, Sicily, Tunisia, Ibiza, Andalusia and the northern tip of Morocco seem to mirror the “footsteps” of our Levantine Canaanites. In Spain, haplogroup T peaks at 10% in Cadiz and reaches over 15% on the island of Ibiza, colonized by Phoenician miners and traders from Cadiz in the first millennium BCE. This lineage may derive from southwestern Iran or the Gulf region, where important metals were first mined and the earliest sea ports grew up. Thomas Jefferson carried haplogroup T and so may have Charlemagne, a direct male ancestor of the U.S. president.


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  3. Rainey AF. 1996. Who is a Canaanite? A Review of the Texual Evidence. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 204: 1-15.
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  7. Mostari HA. 2005. The Language Question in the Arab World: Evidence from Algeria. Journal of Language and Learning 3: 36-52.
  8. Raven S. 2012. Rome in Africa. Routledge: London.
  9. Smith MS. 2001. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
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  11. Rives J. 1995. Human Sacrifice among Pagans and Christians. The Journal of Roman Studies. 85: 65-85.
  12. Zalloua PA. 2008. Identifying Genetic Traces of Historical Expansions: Phoenician Footprints in the Mediterranean. The American Journal of Human Genetics 83: 633-642.
  13. Mendez FL, Karafet TM, Krahn T, Ostrer H, Soodyall H, Hammer MF. 2011. "Increased resolution of Y chromosome haplogroup T defines relationships among populations of the Near East, Europe, and Africa". Human Biology. 83: 39–53.
  14. The boy of Byrsa: