Researchers have sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome of a 2,500-year-old Phoenician, showing the ancient man had European ancestry.
This is the first ancient DNA to be obtained from Phoenician remains.
Known as "Ariche," the young man came from Byrsa, a walled citadel above the harbor of ancient Carthage. Byrsa was attacked by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus "Africanus" in the Third Punic War. It was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C.
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Ariche's remains were discovered in 1994 on the southern flank of Bursa hill when a man planting trees fell into the ancient grave.
Analysis of the skeleton revealed the man died between the age of 19 and 24, had a rather robust physique and was 1.7 meters (5'6″) tall. He may have belonged to the Carthaginian elite, as he was buried with gems, scarabs, amulets and other artifacts.
Now genetic research carried out by a team co-led by Lisa Matisoo-Smith at New Zealand's University of Otago has shown the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup - known as U5b2cl - that likely links his maternal ancestry to the North Mediterranean coast, probably on the Iberian Peninsula.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings provide the earliest evidence of the European mitochondrial haplogroup U5b2cl in North Africa, dating its arrival to at least the late sixth century BC.
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"U5b2cl is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there," Matisoo-Smith said.
She noted that mitochondrial group was found in two ancient hunter-gatherers recovered from an archaeological site in north-western Spain.
"While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages 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 via Phoenician and Punic trade networks," Matisoo-Smith said.
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The haplogroup is very rare in modern populations today. In Europe, it appears at levels of less than 1 percent.
"Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche's mitochondrial genetic makeup most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern-day individual from Portugal," she added.
On the contrary, mitochondrial DNA of 47 modern Lebanese people showed none were of the U5b2cl lineage.
Thought to have originated from what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were seafarers and traders who spread their culture across the Mediterranean and west to the Iberian Peninsula where they established settlements and trading posts. The city of Carthage in Tunisia, North Africa, was first established as a Phoenician port and later became the center for Punic trade.
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Despite the significant impact of their culture on Western civilization - they introduced the first alphabetic writing system – the Phoenicians faded from history after being defeated in a series of wars with Rome. They then remained somewhat elusive.
"We still know little about the Phoenicians themselves, except for the likely biased accounts by their Roman and Greek rivals," Matisoo-Smith said.
"Hopefully our findings and other continuing research will cast further light on the origins and impact of Phoenician peoples and their culture," she added.