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Ancient Phoenician “Young Man of Byrsa” Shows European Lineage

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The remains of a 2,500-year-old body in modern-day Tunisia has thrown a wrench into scientists’ previous theories regarding the history of human migration.

According to new research published in the scientific journal PLOS One, the Phoenician remains, called “Young Man of Byrsa” or “Ariche,” gave the world the first ancient DNA of a Phoenician. An analysis of the body found that it contains a rare genome that was only previously present in ancient Europeans, even if Phoenicians are from the Near East.

This discovery has forced scientists to reconsider the history of human migration, because it had been a long-standing posit that Near-Eastern farmers came after European hunter-gatherers.

“Some of [the hunter-gatherers’] lineage may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian Peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa [through] Phoenician and Punic trade networks,” Lisa Matisoo-Smith, co-lead on the study and biological anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said in a statement.

This is the earliest European lineage recorded in North Africa, so in a way, it not only helps us understand Phoenician history, but also makes people rethink about the history of human mobility.

Matisoo-Smith said. “In reconstructions of genetic variation in the Mediterranean, there hasn’t been much consideration of Phoenician trade networks and the likelihood of people moving long distances and spreading those genetic markers widely.”

The “Young Man of Byrsa” was found in 1994 by gardeners in a sarcophagus near the National Museum of Carthage in Tunisia. This offered a clearer picture of what is considered to be one of the greatest early Mediterranean civilizations.

The Phoenicians are believed to have dominated trade routes in the Mediterranean, the study says. Originally from Lebanon, the Phoenicians traveled across the sea, bringing their highly valuable purple dyes and alphabet with them. They founded cities in Carthage, on the outskirts of modern-day Tunisia’s capital of Tunis, as well as the ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Arwad in Lebanon and Syria. There is also evidence that the Phoenicians reached the coasts of Spain and Morocco, and may have even made it all the way to Africa.

Not much is known about the Phoenicians, however. The only sources were from the Greeks and Romans that conquered them, as Phoenicians wrote on papyrus, which disintegrates easily. Phoenicians were always thought to be Lebanese in descent, but this new study shows evidence that the “Young Man of Byrsa” belonged to a rare European haplogroup, which is a genetic group with a common ancestor.

Research has traced this ancient man’s family tree to the northern Mediterranean, most likely the Iberia Peninsula of Spain or Portugal. The haplogroup he belongs to is almost extinct in today’s times, but has also been found in remains in central Europe and the Mediterranean.

The scientists were surprised, as they expected to find DNA of indigenous North African descent, or from the Near East. This means there may be a different story from the previously held assumptions on northern Mediterranean migration into North Africa, as the “Young Man of Byrsa” remains predates the time they moved from Iberia by about 2,000 years.

The researchers are conducting further investigation into the ancient DNA of the Phoenician remains and expect to have more information about this genetic anomaly.

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