The ancient Phoenicians may be largely forgotten, but they're not gone. Rome destroyed the Phoenicians' greatest city — Carthage — centuries ago, but new genetic studies indicate that as many as one in 17 men living in communities around the Mediterranean may be descended from these ancient mariners.
Originating from what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were early seafarers and traders who spread their culture, including a love for the color purple, to North Africa, Spain and other countries around the region. But they seemed to fade from history after being defeated in a series of wars with Rome.
Genographic Research Project scientists led by Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England were able to locate a genetic marker for the Phoenicians on the male-only Y chromosome.
First they studied references in the Bible and by Greek and Roman writers to determine where there had been Phoenician cities and colonies.
Then the researchers compared the genes of residents in those areas to those of people living in other Mediterranean communities which had not been Phoenician settlements.
They were able to find differences on the Y chromosome that occurred only in the Phoenician-settled areas, affecting more than 6 percent of the population there.
"When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians. All we had to guide us was history: We knew where they had and hadn't settled. But this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people," Tyler-Smith said in a statement.
Added Daniel Platt, of IBM's Computational Biology Center: "The results are important because they show that the Phoenician settlement sites are marked by a genetic signature distinct from any that might have been left by other trading and settlement expansions through history, or which may have emerged by chance. This proves that these settlements, some of which lasted hundreds of years, left a genetic legacy that persists to modern times."
While it wasn't part of their study, the researchers said they also saw genetic indications of the spread of the Greeks around the Mediterranean. They suggested similar studies may be able to trace the genetic influence of the army of Alexander the Great in Asia and India, the Mongol invasion of Europe and the spread of the Vikings.
The findings are being published online Thursday by the American Journal of Human Genetics. The work was supported by National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project, an effort to research the history of human migration.