Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon.

Skeletons excavated from a cemetery (above) in ancient Ashkelon helped to trace the genetic history of the Philistines. Credit: Melissa Aja/Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Genomics

Ancient DNA reveals the roots of the Biblical Philistines

Bones found in the Philistine city of Ashkelon and dating to the twelfth century bc hint at European heritage.

The Philistines appear repeatedly in the Bible, but their origins have long been mysterious. Now genetic evidence suggests that this ancient people trace some of their ancestry west all the way to Europe.

Choongwon Jeong and Johannes Krause at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and their colleagues analysed the DNA of ten ancient people whose bones were found in Ashkelon, a Philistine city located in modern-day Israel. The DNA suggests an influx of people of European heritage into Ashkelon in the twelfth century bc. The individuals' DNA shows similarities to that of ancient Cretans, but the team warns that it is impossible to specify the immigrants’ homeland because of the limited number of ancient genomes available for study.

Ashkelon skeletons dated to the tenth and ninth centuries bc bear almost no trace of European heritage, suggesting that the immigrants had no lasting genetic legacy.