Philistines Likely Immigrants From Europe, DNA Discovery Shows

Ashkelon
Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon Photographer Melissa Aja Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

An archaeological discovery of the remains of Philistines that inhabited the ancient port city of Ashkelon, Israel during biblical times gives context to the accounts of this people group being referred to as outsiders and gentiles. Recent DNA testing on human remains uncovered at the site indicates the Philistines were immigrants to ancient Israel, possessing distinct genes from their predecessors in the area.

“Now with the DNA results that we have that show an influx of a European strain of DNA into Ashkelon in the 12th century (BCE) we can finally say—directly, physically—that these people were immigrants to this region in the 12th century,” Daniel Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, told Israel National News

The results of the genetic testing were published in the journal Science Advances.

Ashkelon Dig Uncovers Philistine Cemetery

Master leads an archaeological team working on a site in Ashkelon, which is located on the southern coast of Israel. While the team uncovered a Philistine cemetery in 2013, only recently was the DNA from the remains able to be analyzed thanks to recent scientific advancements in the field of genetics. The DNA samples from Ashkelon were sent to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany to be tested. Master explains “sequencing methods and DNA enrichment methods” were needed to be able to test the DNA and compare it to other remains found in the area. 

Archaeologists found remains at the site dating to the late Bronze Age (before the Philistines are believed to have come to Israel) and the Iron Age. The DNA testing revealed that the Bronze Age remains contained 2 to 9 percent “European ancestry” while the Philistine’s Iron Age remains contained roughly 14 percent. The discovery leads researchers to believe “a gene flow from a European-related gene pool entered Ashkelon either at the end of the Bronze Age or at the beginning of the Iron Age.” The genetic data gathered so far suggests the Philistines came from southern European areas such as Cyprus or Cilicia, although they are hesitant to say conclusively. The researchers believe “future sampling in regions such as Cyprus, Sardinia, and the Aegean, as well as in the southern Levant, could better resolve this question.” 

Other Indicators the Philistines Were Distinct People Group

Even before the information gleaned from this DNA sampling became available, archaeologists considered the Philistines a distinct people group due to indicators such as their pottery, which looks more Greek than Semitic, and their consumption of pork. 

History tells us that the Philistines were virtually wiped out by the Babylonians around 600 BCE, which might explain why the Philistines’ unique DNA seem to disappear from the area after that point. Another reason the European-related genetic footprint vanished from later generations might be due to foreign and local populations mixing. “Within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine related gene pool,” Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History explains.

As you may recall from the books of Samuel and Judges, Goliath was a Philistine, as well as Delilah. The Philistines and Israelites were constantly warring with each other. Before he became king, David presented Saul with the foreskins of 200 Philistines, which Saul took in exchange for David marrying Saul’s daughter, Michal. The Philistines are portrayed in the Bible as foreigners and are said to have come from “Caphtor”, which is the Bronze Age name for Crete. To this day, to call someone a Philistine is considered an insult and insinuates the person lacks manners or culture.

The DNA discovery is significant in the archaeological world. Master describes it as “extraordinary” and explains “archaeologists in this world have been working for 150 years on this issue.”

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Megan Briggs
Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for ChurchLeaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.