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Skeletons excavated at the ancient city of Ashkelon in present-day Israel suggest that the Philistines came from southern Europe. 

Melissa Aja/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Biblical Philistines—archenemies of ancient Israelites—hailed from Europe, DNA reveals

As a schoolgirl in Israel, Michal Feldman learned that the ancient Philistines, who lived between present-day Tel Aviv and Gaza during the Iron Age, were "the bad guys." In the Bible, they were the archenemies of the Israelites, who fought Samson's armies and sent Goliath into battle against David. "Philistine" is still a slur for an uncivilized barbarian.

Now a Ph.D. student in Germany, Feldman has found a new way to understand the Philistines. By analyzing DNA from 12th century B.C.E burials in the Philistines's renowned city of Ashkelon, her team has found that they were interlopers in the ancient Middle East. Their closest known kin were from southern Europe, the team reports this week in Science Advances.

The DNA data suggest a kernel of truth to Greek and Middle Eastern legends that describe survivors who moved south after the catastrophic collapse of great Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean in the late 13th and early 12th centuries B.C.E. "This [DNA] story of migration is tantalizingly close to those memories," says co-author Daniel Master of Wheaton College in Illinois, who leads excavations in Ashkelon, Israel. "This is about real people who are moving from real troubles, finding new families in a new home," adds Assaf Yasur-Landau, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel who was not part of the study. "It's the most basic human story."

Archaeologists have known for a century that the distinctive ceramic pots and other artifacts that suddenly appeared in the 12th century B.C.E. Philistine cities resemble artifacts from the Mycenaean empire of Greece, the ancient power that, according to myth, battled Troy. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict a sea battle with people from the north whom 19th century scholars called the "Sea Peoples." But other scholars think Philistine culture spread when ancient empires in Turkey and Syria declined and local people filled the void.

Infant burials beneath the earthen floors of Philistine houses yielded ancient DNA. 

Robert Walch/Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Master invited Feldman's adviser, paleogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, to try to extract DNA from the teeth and inner ear bones of skeletons excavated in Ashkelon. The team analyzed 1.24 million sites across the genomes of 10 skeletons. Three of the oldest individuals, who lived 3500 to 3700 years ago, were not distinguishable genetically from local Levantine people. But DNA from four infants buried beneath the earthen floors of homes in Ashkelon 500 years later, when Philistine culture first appears, told a different story. They had inherited 25% to 70% of their DNA from southern European ancestors, and the closest matches were to ancient people from the Aegean, Sardinia, and Iberia. The remaining DNA was from local people, suggesting their European ancestors had quickly mated with their new neighbors. Indeed, two styles of pottery in neighboring houses suggest that Philistines and Levantines lived side-by-side in Ashkelon.

Just 200 year later, however, the DNA of three adults, presumably Philistines, fully matched that of local Levantine people. Intermarriage had swamped the genetic heritage of the European immigrants, Krause suggests.

With the study "we finally have real scientific proof that people moved into Ashkelon from Europe," says Kristian Kristiansen, an archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who suspects they hailed from Italy. But it will take ancient DNA from across southern Europe to pinpoint their homeland.