| BYBLOS, Lebanon
BYBLOS, Lebanon A Lebanese scientist following
the genetic footprint of the ancient Phoenicians says he has
traced their modern-day descendants, but stumbled into an old
controversy about identity in his country.
Geneticist Pierre Zalloua has charted the spread of the
Phoenicians out of the eastern Mediterranean by identifying an
ancient type of DNA which some Lebanese, Syrians and
Palestinians share with Maltese, Spaniards and Tunisians.
A seafaring civilization which reached its zenith between
1200 and 800 BC, the Phoenicians' earliest cities included
Byblos, Tyre and Sidon on Lebanon's coast.
But their link to Lebanon, whose borders were drawn as
recently as 1920, has long been a subject of controversy in a
country split between an array of religious communities.
"Negotiating these waters is a very delicate job," Zalloua
Seeking to set themselves apart from their Muslim
compatriots, some Lebanese Christians have drawn on the
Phoenician past to try to forge an identity separate from the
prevailing Arab culture.
"Whenever I use the word 'Phoenician', people say 'this guy
is trying to say we are not Arabs'," said Zalloua, himself a
Christian. But after five years of research, the scientist says
his work has shown what Lebanese have in common. "We had a
great history -- let's look at it," he said.
The genetic marker which identifies descendants of the
ancient Levantines is found among members of all of Lebanon's
religious communities, he said. "It's a story that can actually
unite Lebanon much more than anything else."
The marker, known as the J2 haplogroup, was found in an
unusually high proportion among Lebanese, Palestinians and
Syrians tested by Zalloua during more than five years of
research. He tested 1,000 people in the region.
FROM LEBANON TO SPAIN
"The further south you go, the less likely you are to see
this marker. The further north and the further inland you go,
the less you see of this marker. It is very Levantine," he
The same marker was found in unusually high proportions on
other parts of the Mediterranean coast where the Phoenicians
are known to have established colonies, such as Carthage in
"It's abundantly present in the Iberian peninsula," Zalloua
added. In Malta, the ancient DNA type was found in an extremely
high 30 percent of samples, he said.
"We are seeing a pattern of expansion out of the Levant
area along the maritime routes the Phoenicians used," he said.
The J2 haplogroup has been dated using a calculation based
on the rate at which DNA mutates. The fewer the mutations on
any given type of DNA, the older it is.
"Our calculation estimates it at roughly 12,000 years old,
plus or minus 5,000 years. It's an old haplogroup and we are
pretty sure it originated in this area," he said.
Many Lebanese were keen to take part in the research,
giving either a blood sample or a cheek swab so DNA could be
extracted from their cells.
"They wanted to see if they are actually old Levantine or
not. This area has been mixed through invasions. It has been a
crossroads of many populations," Zalloua said.
Albert Akl, 61, took part out of curiosity about his
ancestry. Tests showed he had the J2 haplogroup.
"We belong to this area -- we are not passers-by," said
Akl, an engineer. Although Phoenician history should be a
source of pride for Lebanese, Akl said its importance should
not be blown out of proportion in today's Lebanon.
"It carries no big meaning," said Akl, adding that he views
himself as "Lebanese, Arab and Christian -- in that order."
The research has thrown up surprise results for some.
Zalloua tested his own DNA and found a type common in India
and Iran. Another participant, Joseph Tabat, got an unusual
"I was always intrigued as to why I look different to the
rest of the guys in high school," he said. "I'm a red-head with
freckles." Tabat's DNA matched types found in France and Spain,
perhaps a sign that one of his ancestors was a European who
arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades.
"Many of the people who think they are Phoenicians are not
-- like me," he said. "I'd like to see a high percentage of
Lebanese going through this experience. I think it would be a
unifying force and not a divisive one."