Ancient Canaanite DNA has been sequenced for the first time, revealing that their descendants are alive and well, and living in Lebanon.
Canaan was a country that now covers Lebanon and Israel, as well as parts of Syria and Jordan. The Canaanites worshiped the goddess Astarte and her consort Baal, and women had a degree of equality in the culture. Women could be priestesses, own land and initiate divorce.
The fifth book of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy, marks the Canaanites out as a people to be annihilated on God's orders. Traditional teachings claim that the Israelites later carried this out around 1250 BCE.
But the first analysis of Canaanite DNA has found that this did not in fact happen. The genomes of five Canaanite individuals who lived 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age have revealed that they were the ancestors of modern Lebanese people.
The sequenced ancient DNA was compared with worldwide genome data from modern populations, including people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
"The Lebanese shared a substantial amount of ancestry with the Bronze Age population," study author Marc Haber of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK told IBTimes UK.
A further 99 Lebanese people's genomes were sequenced for comparison in the study. They found that 90% of the modern Lebanese people's DNA was derived from the Canaanites. This suggests that the Canaanites were the direct ancestors of the Lebanese.
Present-day Lebanese genomes showed some integration with incomers from Eurasia between about 3,800 to 2,200 years ago, accounting for some of the variation in genetic makeup.
"In light of the enormously complex history of this region in the last few millennia, it was quite surprising that over 90% of the genetic ancestry of present-day Lebanese was derived from the Canaanites," said study Chris Tyler-Smith, also a study author at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
The populations of other countries in the region also showed a significant Canaanite signature, but none of the others were so strong.
"The Canaanite Bronze Age ancestry was widespread in the region and can be found today in modern populations such as the Syrians but with different proportions than in the Lebanese," Haber said.