Unearthed Canaanite Graves Shed Light On Descendants In Lebanon

Aug 12, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 3:21 am
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You may recall the Canaanites from the Bible. God called for them to be annihilated. Little is known about them thereafter. But an archaeological dig has provided Canaanite DNA indicating that modern day Lebanese are their descendants. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports that doesn't sit well with everyone.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: In the heart of the Lebanese city of Saida, there's an archaeological dig that takes you back through centuries of Lebanon's past.

CLAUDE DOUMET-SERHAL: So now, we're walking down.

SHERLOCK: Dr. Claude Doumet Serhal is the director of the site, and she's worked here for 19 years. They have unearthed Canaanite graves.

DOUMET-SERHAL: This is the Canaanite area.

SHERLOCK: The archaeologists gently brush sand and mud from bones some 4,000 years old.

DOUMET-SERHAL: I'm going to lift this to show you.

SHERLOCK: Serhal lifts a cloth to uncover a child's skeleton still in the ground.

DOUMET-SERHAL: You can see here the cranium of a child. And you can see the bowl that was buried with the child.

SHERLOCK: Serhal partnered with an international group of geneticists to take DNA samples from this burial ground, and they compared them to the DNA of 99 people from around Lebanon. They concluded that modern day Lebanese are the descendants of Canaanites.

DOUMET-SERHAL: Alexander the Great invaded. The Romans invaded. The Arabs invade. But the people are the people, and the DNA proves it.

SHERLOCK: This might not sound so remarkable, but back in Beirut, I decided to tell some Lebanese about the study. And I found that the idea that they are all one people is controversial. That's because Lebanon is divided between religious sects. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians, and they all live in separate enclaves. The divisions run so deep that many insist they are even different ethnicities. I meet Ghadi Moussa, a Lebanese student in the lush gardens of the American University of Beirut.

GHADI MOUSSA: Lebanese people are so confused about their nationality. And it's something that Lebanese people have been fighting about for so long. Like, the Muslims think that's their area. The Christians think that they come from a different - I don't know.

SHERLOCK: In a coffee shop, Naji Mokh, a poet, tells me about how he broke up with a girlfriend because of an argument over their heritage. She was Christian. He's Muslim. He considered them both to be ethnic Arabs, but she insisted that she was Phoenician, which is another name for Canaanites.

NAJI MOKH: She told me that she was not Arabic. She is Phoenician. So I was mad at her. Then I split with her because of that.

SHERLOCK: Zulphi Qar Qubaisi, a local journalist, overhears us talking, and he beckons me over to tell me what he thinks about the study. He says so many powers have conquered Lebanon throughout the ages that it's not possible for the population to descend from one people.

ZULPHI QAR QUBAISI: I think it's a sort of impossibility that anybody can decide the mosaic or kaleidoscope of the Lebanese society.

SHERLOCK: He even thinks that the study is a plot to convince people that Lebanon is not an Arab country. But Pierre Zalloua, a co-author of the DNA study, tells me that sectarianism is exactly what he wants to discourage. He's a geneticist at the Lebanese American University.

PIERRE ZALLOUA: I want to use genetics to show them how rich their culture is and how proud they should be of their culture.

SHERLOCK: He wants to show that identity is about more than religion, but he says there is some research now that shows that religious division is starting to show in people's DNA.

ZALLOUA: Now, today, however, if you look at the DNA of let's say various religions, yes, there is a difference. Yes, you could tell them apart. Why? Because they have been living in separation for a long time.

SHERLOCK: He calls it genetic drift. He says the Lebanese survived for centuries as one people, but now, slowly, that is starting to change. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.