The Malta Independent 22 June 2024, Saturday
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One-third Of Maltese found to have ancient Phoenician DNA

Malta Independent Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

A Lebanese genetic scientist who has been following the genetic footprint of the ancient Phoenician civilisation across the Mediterranean for the last five years has found that close to one-third of modern-day Maltese share a genetic link with the ancient Phoenicians.

Thirty per cent of DNA samples taken from Malta have been found to share a common and ancient genetic marker, known as the J2 haplogroup, with the Phoenician civilisation, which had colonised Malta for much of the first millennium BC.

Research carried out by Lebanese geneticist Dr Pierre Zalloua has shown that while a relatively high degree of Spaniards and Tunisians also share the marker, the Maltese population had a predominantly high proportion.

The research project, funded by a $1 million grant from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, issued its preliminary results in October 2004 and was famously the subject of a National Geographic Magazine focus that year.

The project, led by Dr Zalloua and research partner National Geographic Emerging Explorer Spencer Wells, has been under way for some five years.

The Phoenicians, who occupied the narrow coastal strip in the Levant today known as Lebanon, created the first trade routes circumnavigating the Mediterranean, and colonised Malta and Gozo – naming them “Melita” and “Gaulos” respectively.

The genetic marker identifying individuals as descendants of the ancient Levantines has also been found in Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian samples – in and near the Phoenician homeland – as well as in other areas colonised by the Phoenicians such as the Iberian Peninsula and Tunisia.

The J2 haplogroup genetic marker, according to dating techniques used by Dr Zalloua, is approximately 12,000 years old, give or take 5,000 years, and researchers are confident it originates in the Levant.

The project’s researchers are tracing part of the Y chromosome that does not mutate and which is passed on from father to son over the generations.

The fact that it does not change makes it a fixed genetic marker through history.

The ongoing research’s preliminary results, published in 2004 in National Geographic, had found that more than half the Y chromosome lineages in today’s Maltese population could have derived from the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians, and their Carthage-based successors the Punics, occupied Malta between the eighth and third centuries BC until they were run out by the Romans in 218 BC.

Unlike many other regions colonised by the adventurous traders, the Phoenicians are thought to have intermingled closely with the indigenous Maltese population.

The results of the now-finalised excavations at the Tas-Silg sanctuary in Marsaxlokk are expected to shed additional light on the relationship between the Phoenician colonisers and the Late Bronze Age indigenous population they found when landing in Malta.

The Phoenicians brought Malta into history by introducing the written word and settled, despite their famous preference for coastal areas, in the Mdina-Rabat area – a tradition followed by consecutive colonisers such as the Romans, Arabs and the Knights.

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