Washington, Oct 31 : A new study by genographic scientists has found that as many as one in 17 men in the Mediterranean basin may have a Phoenician as a direct male-line ancestor.
Part of the National Geographic and IBM's Genographic Project scientific consortium, the study has led to the development of a new analytical method for detecting the subtle genetic impact of historical population migrations.
Its first application has been to reveal the genetic legacy of the Phoenicians, an intriguing and mysterious first-millennium B.C. trading empire.
From their base in present-day Lebanon, the Phoenicians expanded by sea throughout the Mediterranean, founding colonies as far afield as Spain and North Africa, where their most powerful city, Carthage, was located.
The world's first "global capitalists," the Phoenicians controlled trade throughout the Mediterranean basin for nearly a thousand years until their conquest by Rome in the 2nd century B.C.
Over the ensuing centuries, much of what was known about this enigmatic people was lost or destroyed.
According to Chris Tyler-Smith, a Genographic research associate from The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, "When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians. All we had to guide us was history: We knew where they had and hadn't settled. But, this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people."
The new analytical method looked for genetic signatures in modern men that were more common in regions with a Phoenician history than in nearby places where the Phoenicians had never lived.
It revealed a handful of genetic lineages that are shared among far-flung populations from around the Mediterranean, all united by just one feature: They had been Phoenician colonies.
"The results are important because they show that the Phoenician settlement sites are marked by a genetic signature distinct from any that might have been left by other trading and settlement expansions through history, or which may have emerged by chance," said Daniel Platt, of IBM's Computational Biology Center at the T. J. Watson Research Center.
"This proves that these settlements, some of which lasted hundreds of years, left a genetic legacy that persists to modern times," he added.
Adding together, all the lineages suggests that the Phoenicians contributed at least 6 percent to the modern populations.
According to Pierre Zalloua, Genographic principal investigator, Middle East/North Africa, "This study brings to life a magnificent piece of our population heritage that has been buried or forgotten. This new finding is a key fortification against miscomprehension or misconceptions of our history."