Lebanese are Phoenicians After All; And so Are Many of the Rest of US

A team of biologists at Lebanese American University estimates that 1 in 17 persons around the Mediterranean carries genetic markers distinctive to the ancient Phoenician people who resided in what is now Lebanon. The Phoenicians spread out in a trade diaspora two millennia ago, establishing colonies from Spain to Cyprus. The team also found that one third of Lebanese have the markers for Phoenician descent, and that these are spread evenly through the population, among both Christians and Muslims. In fact, all Lebanese have broadly similar sets of genetic markers. The lead researcher commented, “Whether you take a Christian village in the north of Lebanon or a Muslim village in the south, the DNA make-up of its residents is likely to be identical . . .”

In a Lebanese context these findings are politically explosive. There is a longstanding conflict among Lebanese as to whether they are Arabs or Phoenicians, with adherents of the Phoenician identity predominantly Christian. This sort of identity politics fed into the civil wars. In fact, Arabic is a language, not a race, and Phoenician descent is a heritage of all humankind by now.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the presence those distinctive “Phoenician” haplotypes on the Y chromosome only tells us about a fraction of the descendants of Phoenicians. Let’s say you had a Phoenician father in the port of Tyre in 50 BC who only had two daughters and no sons. And let us say he married one daughter to a resident Greek merchant. The sons and male descendants of the Greek merchant would lack the Phoenician signature on their Y chromosome, but would have a genetic inheritance from their Phoenician female ancestor. Since most genes get mixed up in every generation, there just would not be any way, after a while, to tell it.

Almost everyone in the world by now probably has some Phoenician ancestry. What the LAU team is finding is those lineages that retain markers for it. It is conceptually a difficult thing to keep in mind, but I am alarmed that a kind of Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA fundamentalism will make people divide themselves up on these grounds and create new forms of racism.

On the other hand, any finding that might convince the Lebanese that they are all one family would be all to the good. Many Lebanese Muslims reject the idea that they are descendants of converts to Islam from Christianity and prefer to trace their ancestry to Arabia. The LAU team is finding that the Lebanese don’t differ much among themselves.

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