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Genetics helps tackle the origins of the Philistines

Published online 5 July 2019

Ancient DNA brings new insights to the history of the southern Levant.

Letizia Diamante

Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon.
Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon.
Melissa Aja, Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon
Analyses of ancient DNA found in the Mediterranean seaport of Ashkelon in western Israel suggests that southern Europeans arrived in the area between the Bronze and Iron Ages. The finding could shed light on the origins of the Philistines, famously led at one time by the giant Goliath in a battle against the Israelites.   

Previously, archaeologists had observed changes in pottery styles, architectural traditions and burial practices in this region occurring around the 12th century BCE; the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age. The Hebrew bible identifies Ashkelon as being Philistine during this time. The new patterns resembled those found in the Aegean, or present-day Greece. Debates ensued whether the changes indicated a cultural transformation caused by an influx of new people or of new ideas. 

A new study led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany extracted and sequenced DNA from 108 bone samples, excavated by the Leon Levy Expedition (1997-2016) in Ashkelon. Sufficient amounts of DNA were found in ten individuals: three from the Late Bronze Age, four from the early Iron Age, and three from a later Iron Age. They were compared with genomic datasets from more than 600 ancient and almost 5,000 contemporary individuals from all over the world. 

The analysis revealed a European-derived genetic component in the early Iron Age samples, which was not present in their predecessors or in the samples from the later Iron Age, suggesting a transient genetic impact. “Our analysis points to a migratory influx from southern Europe at the end of the Bronze Age or at the beginning of the Iron Age, but we need more data from this period to identify the source population more precisely,” says Max Planck archaeogeneticist Choongwon Jeong. 

“The study shows the power of combining archaeology and genetics. The mobility of the people and the transient genetic impact of the migration at the Bronze to Iron Age transition are general themes that will probably recur time and again as more pre-historic and historic events are reinvestigated using genetic approaches,” says population geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, who was not involved in the study. 

The Levant has undergone many cultural and demographic transitions, adds bio-historian Hila May of Tel Aviv University, who was not involved in the study. “The cause of some of these transitions is debated. This manuscript is an additional example of the importance of ancient DNA studies for solving this type of riddle…although some information is still missing due to the small sample size,” she adds. 


Feldman, M. et al. Ancient DNA sheds light on the genetic origins of early Iron Age Philistines. Sci. Adv. 5, eaax0061 (2019).