New Zealand researchers have sequenced the first complete mitochondrial genome of a Phoenician. The Young Man of Byrsa, who is 2,500 years old, was found inside a tomb in Tunisia during the 90s. Detailed results of the study were published Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE.
Researchers have agreed that we know little about Phoenicians. In 1994, archaeologists found a Punic burial crypt nearby the National Museum of Carthage in Tunisia. The vault contained the remains of a young man and burial goods.
In 2014, the remains were taken to a laboratory in the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut. New Zealand scientists were allowed to conduct DNA tests, to analyze the genetic ancestries of the man.
The young Phoenician was a member of a European haplogroup, which refers to a “genetic group with a common ancestor”. This the first time ever that scientists obtain the DNA of a Phoenician, according to the study authors from the University of Otago in New Zealand.
The Young Man of Byrsa belongs to a rare genetic group
Ancestries of the Phoenician were probably located on the North Mediterranean Coast near the Iberian Peninsula. Results from the study provide data about the European mitochondrial haplogroup U5b2c1, which is currently “rare in modern populations”.
U5b2c1 is among the oldest haplogroups in Europe, where it is linked to hunter-gatherer communities. It could have arrived in the Old Continent at least six centuries BC, said Study co-leader, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, of the Department of Anatomy.
“It is remarkably rare in modern populations today, found in Europe at levels of less than one percent. Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche’s mitochondrial genetic make-up most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern day individual from Portugal,” added Matisoo-Smith.
An osteological analysis at the remains of the man from Brysa determined that he was around 5.5 feet tall. He had between 19 and 24 years old, according to the study.
Study details and other theories: Phoenicians may have invented the first alphabetic writing system
A theory proposes that Phoenicians first established in the area equivalent to Lebanon. However, they spread out around the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula, where they built trading posts, said researchers in a press release issued Wednesday.
Researchers analyzed data of the mitochondrial DNA of 47 people from Lebanon. None of them were part of the U5b2c1 lineage. Prior studies found genetic traces that linked two old hunter-gatherers from north-western Spain to U5b2c1, said Matisoo-Smith.
Professor Matisoo-Smith explained that farmers from the Near East replaced hunter-gatherers in the region. However, their lineages may have prevailed in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. Then, they reached the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa through Phoenician trade networks.
Culture from this old civilization may have influenced the Western civilization, said Matisoo-Smith. For instance, Phoenicians developed the first alphabetic writing system.
“We still know little about the Phoenicians themselves, except for the likely biased accounts by their Roman and Greek rivals. Hopefully our findings and other continuing research will cast further light on the origins and impact of Phoenician peoples and their culture,” said Matisoo-Smith.