June 8, 2021
Pit burials in the first Philistine graveyard found in Israel, in ancient Ashkelon, June 28, 2016. (Credit: Menahem Kahana, AFP)
Science has made a huge leap forward in dispelling the mystery that surrounds the Philistines, the biblical archenemies of the Israelites who suddenly appeared on the coasts of the Levant more than 3,000 years ago.
The origins of this ancient population have eluded scholars for centuries. Now, an analysis of DNA extracted from skeletons unearthed at Ashkelon, on Israel's southern coast, confirms the theory that the earliest Philistines had at least some European ancestry, most likely from the south of the continent. This supports the long-held theory by some scholars, based on clues from ancient texts and similarities in archaeological finds from the two regions, that the Philistines hailed from the Aegean.
"This is pretty critical evidence that we are on the right track in understanding the Philistines as a people who came out of the Aegean and reached places like Ashkelon as immigrants," says Daniel Master, a professor of archaeology at Wheaton College and co-director of the dig at Ashkelon.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, shows that these early European settlers quickly intermingled with the local population. Within a couple of centuries the Philistine genome became virtually indistinguishable from that of the Levantine peoples among whom they dwelled.
The new research appears to confirm what ancient texts, including the Bible, tell us about the origins of the Philistines. More broadly, it sheds light on the enigmatic Sea Peoples, a loose coalition of marauding groups — which included the Philistines — who have often been blamed, perhaps unfairly, for singlehandedly causing the sudden destruction of major civilizations during the so-called Bronze Age Collapse.
Since the early 19th century, when hieroglyphics were first deciphered, scholars have identified the biblical Philistines with the "Peleset" described in Egyptian records as one of the Sea Peoples who came from "their islands" and attacked Egypt during the reign of Ramses III, in the first half of the 12th century B.C.E.
The Sea Peoples were barely repulsed, but Egypt was diminished, losing its empire in the Levant. Meanwhile, the Philistines settled on the southern coast of Canaan just as other great civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Myceneans and the Hittites, disappeared entirely. Questions of what role the Philistines and the other Sea Peoples played in this collapse, whence they came from any and why they swept through the Mediterranean have been hotly debated by researchers.
Burial of Philistine infant, Ashkelon. (Credit: Ilan Sztulman / Courtesy Leon Le)
The Bible tells us (in Jeremiah 47:4 and Amos 9:7) that the much-despised Philistines were from Caphtor, a name that some scholars identify as Crete. Supporting the idea of an origin from the Greek islands, archaeologists have pointed out that some of the pottery found at Ashkelon and other Philistine city-states is similar to Aegean ceramics from the Late Bronze Age.
But pots and pans can be traded or imitated, and there is an opposing school of thought arguing that the Philistines themselves were not Aegean. Some researchers believe their origins should be traced to the Levant, possibly to southern Anatolia, where a kingdom with the Philistine-sounding name "Palasatini" or "Palastin" emerged after the collapse of the Hittite empire.
While it is possible that European settlers or their influence also reached the northern Levant, it is no longer feasible to theorize that the Philistines were simply a local cultural variation, say the archaeologists behind the new study.
"The DNA shows that no, these were new people who came in and brought with them their own culture and traditions," says Adam Aja, an archaeologist from Harvard University and assistant director at the Ashkelon dig.
The researchers sequenced the genomes of Ashkelonites from different periods in antiquity, comparing them to each other as well as to ancient and modern DNA samples from across the Middle East and Europe.
While humans share about 99 percent of their DNA, there are some parts of the genome that are more variable and prone to change because they don't have a biological function, explains Michal Feldman, a Ph.D. student in archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
"Within these sites of the genome you can find differences between various populations if they were relatively isolated from each other for a long period of time," says Feldman, who is the lead author on the study published in Science Advances. "Using statistical methods we can compare different groups, and place these individuals on the genetic map to know which groups they are closer to."
Europeans were here
Out of 108 bones sampled at Ashkelon, only 10 yielded sufficient amounts of DNA. The earliest subjects were three individuals who lived between the 18th-16th centuries B.C.E., long before the Philistines arrived, when the city was a Canaanite settlement. These people's genome is closest to that of modern-day Near Easterners and to Bronze Age samples from across the Levant and Anatolia, the study says.
But things change when looking at the DNA of four infants found buried underneath houses dated to the late 12th century B.C.E., just after the Philistines are known to have settled in Ashkelon, at the dawn of the Iron Age. These babies (who were unrelated to each other) could count European hunter-gatherers amongst their distant ancestors, according to the study.
Aerial view of the Philistine city of Gath. (Credit: Griffin Aerial Imaging)
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of this part of the early Philistine genome because we don't have enough samples of ancient DNA from this period in Europe, Feldman says. But the statistical models run by the geneticists show that the most likely scenario is that these individuals derived around 43 percent of their ancestry from people in Bronze Age Greece, and the rest from the original Levantine population of Ashkelon. Other, less likely models, show similarities with the genome of modern Sardinians or with people from Bronze Age Iberia, the study says.
"In the future, as we get more samples from across the region, we will be able to speak more precisely about the source than we can do now," says Master, the lead archaeologist on the study. But the genetic modeling, coupled with the archaeological evidence already tips the scales heavily in favor of the Aegean hypothesis.
Still, the study does not provide the last word on the origin of the Philistines. For one thing, it is based on a very small sample and on DNA taken from one city, Ashkelon, rather than from the multiple sites in the region that the Philistines occupied, says Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University who did not take part in the study.
Even the genetic data recovered from the four early Iron Age infants cannot be unequivocally interpreted as indicating that these people had a single point of origin, says Maeir, who directs the excavation at Tel es-Safi, once known as the Philistine city of Gath.
"The Philistines used to be understood as a monolithic culture that invaded from somewhere the coastal plain and took over," says Maeir. "Today many people argue that when you look at the early Philistines you don't see a single culture but what we call an 'entangled' culture, one formed by contributions from many peoples, with influences from Cyprus, Anatolia, Greece and other places that are all mixed in with local elements to form this Mediterranean salad: and this is what we see in the material culture and in the ancient DNA."
Whatever the statistical significance of the samples from Ashkelon, Tthere is one more twist in this story, which comes from the DNA of three skeletons recently uncovered in a Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon that were was dated to the 10th-9th centuries B.C.E.
In these individuals, who lived just a couple of centuries after the Philistines first arrived, the European genetic component is almost undetectable. On average their genome resembles more that of the Canaanite Ashkelonites from the Bronze Age than their chronologically closer ancestors in the early Iron Age.
This means that those European migrants very quickly "intermixed with the local people and became the local people, genetically indistinguishable, even as some of the traditions they brought with them were carried on," says Aja.
Excavating at the Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon. (Credit: Melissa Aja / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)
We don't know for sure whether this means that the new arrivals interbred just with the original population of Ashkelon and its nearby towns, or if they also mingled with members of other local groups, including the ancient Hebrews. But in any case, this finding is fairly in line with what archaeologists have uncovered so far about this long-lost culture.
The Philistines disappeared from history when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II conquered them (soon to be followed by Judah and the rest of the Levant) at the end of the 7th century B.C.E. Since they have left us very few inscriptions, the only primary historical sources we have about them are from their adversaries — Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians and Babylonians — some of whom may have been prejudiced in describing them as barbaric outsiders, says Master.
In reality, the archaeological record shows that the Philistines were sophisticated traders and their culture very quickly became completely Levantine in character, just like the genome of their people. For example, the few Philistine inscriptions that have survived show that early on they used a Cypro-Minoan script, but in later periods switched to a writing that is almost indistinguishable from ancient Hebrew and other local Semitic languages, Master explains.
There is also plenty of archaeological evidence that the cultural borders between the Philistines and their neighbors were fairly permeable.
And the Bible itself, while casting aspersions on the "uncircumcised" and polytheistic Philistines, does suggest that intermarriage with them was not unheard of. Even Samson, the biblical bane of the Philistines, attempts to marry one at the beginning of his adventures (Judges 14-15).
"So beneath all the antipathy in the ancient texts, you sense that there is something going on," notes Master. "People were going back and forth, and even though there was an obvious political difference and a lot of rhetoric, on the ground there was also a lot of interaction."
Examples of Philistine-type pottery, Kibbutz Revadim.
The relatively rapid pace at which the Philistine genome — and culture — went native also tells us something about those early European settlers who started it all. Archaeologically, it has been difficult to determine whether their takeover of Ashkelon and other sites on the coastal plain was a violent or peaceful affair — it may have varied from place to place.
But the genetic study proves that the new arrivals must have been fairly small in number compared to the population they eventually merged with.
"It's not as if they come and establish a beachhead and continue to talk with the people back home," says Master. "This is a one-time influx of people who are not being replenished and are cut off from wherever they came from: they are on their own."
They just wanted to live
The scarcity of their numbers suggests that the first Philistines may have been small groups of refugees fleeing from some catastrophe, or even bands of pirates and mercenaries, as they and the other Sea Peoples are often described in ancient texts.
But whatever their nature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to credibly see them as a large mass of barbarians that swept through the Mediterranean and were solely responsible for the Bronze Age Collapse.
They may have been aggressive in their search for a new home — there is no reason to doubt Ramses III's claim that they attacked Egypt — but it's hard to believe that on their own they could bring down multiple great empires.
Philistine dedicatory inscription Ekron Iron Age II 7th century BCE.
Research on the period has already been going in this direction for a while. Studies like those of historian Eric Cline suggest the Bronze Age Collapse was not sparked by a single cause but by multiple systemic and environmental factors that caused a domino effect among polities that were deeply interconnected. Climate change may have been a major contributor, as scientists studying the pollen record in the Sea of Galilee have shown that between 1250 and 1100 B.C.E. the entire region went through a period of severe droughts, which would have caused famine, unrest and population displacement.
"The Philistines were probably reacting to their environment, either the movement of other people or environmental stresses," says Aja. "There must have been a very dramatic reason for them to leave their homes and migrate over what was then a fairly large distance. Why did the leave? Why did they come to the Levant to start from scratch and create new families?"
Answering such questions is important not just to illuminate the Bronze Age Collapse, but to understand the underlying problems that can undermine civilization at any time — especially today, the archaeologist says.
"These are very timely questions when you look at the movement of people in the world today as a reaction to conflict or environmental pressures," he says. "People will go to great lengths and put themselves in great danger to move because, they want to have better lives, they want to live."