JERUSALEM – Ancient bones excavated in Israel and analyzed in Germany may have cracked the puzzle of the Philistines’ provenance and provided for the first time evidence of the biblical people’s European origins, researchers say.
The findings related to the Old Testament nemesis of the ancient Israelites were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances and dubbed “extraordinary” by one of the archaeologists involved.
Many are familiar with the Philistines through the biblical story of Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior killed by the underdog David and his sling in the Valley of Ella, as told in the Book of Samuel.
The Philistines are believed to have arrived in the region in the 12th century BC, but researchers have had no proof that they hailed from elsewhere.
Biblical and ancient Egyptian texts indicated their origin to be from “the sea,” while their building styles and pottery suggested Aegean influences.
“The idea that the Philistines were immigrants was something we could never demonstrate before,” said Daniel Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, one of the five Philistine cities, and head of the archaeological team there.
Using cutting-edge technology, experts analyzed Ashkelon bones from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, said researcher Michal Feldman from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.
“When we compared the ancestry of the two (periods) by using genome data, we saw that the Philistines, already Iron Age people, have an ancestral component that was not there in the Bronze Age people, who lived there before,” she said.
“And this ancestral component seems to be European derived.”
The discovery, said Master, was “extraordinary.”
“Archaeologists in this world have been working for 150 years on this issue,” he said.
“Now with the DNA results that we have that show an influx of a European strain of DNA into Ashkelon in the 12th century (BC) we can finally say — directly, physically — that these people were immigrants to this region in the 12th century.”
Master’s expedition uncovered an Ashkelon Philistine cemetery in 2013 that provided a wealth of samples, but only thanks to recent scientific developments could the precious information be gleaned from the bones.
“We could do this now because of technological advancements in the field of genetics, so sequencing methods and DNA enrichment methods that were not available before are available to us now,” said Feldman.
While their origin could be traced to “Europe and probably Southern Europe,” researchers “still don’t have enough data to narrow it down further to the exact population,” he added.
The reason behind the Philistines’ odyssey to the sunny Middle Eastern shores of what today is Israel and the Gaza Strip remains unclear, but the DNA testing provides backing to the literary narrative of late Bronze Age relocations.
“In the 13th century (BC) civilization collapses, and civilization all around the eastern Mediterranean collapses, and it’s very likely that groups are spun out all over the place,” Master said.
“We’ve never been able to track those groups before, and so to be able to track a group coming from the West all the way to a place like Ashkelon is a first.”
Besides their role as the hostile “others” to the biblical Hebrews, the Philistines were totally wiped out by the Babylonians around 600 BC.
From the biblical descriptions of savage marauders comes the modern usage of “philistine” as a person without culture or manners.
The word Philistine also morphed through centuries in Greek, Roman and Hebrew texts to create the geographic term Palestine.