For thousands of years, the story of the Philistines has been told through the lens of their enemies, such as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the writers of the Hebrew Bible — who described David's defeat of Goliath, the mighty Philistine warrior.
While little of the Philistines' own stories endure, ancient DNA from Bronze and Iron Age skeletons, uncovered in the ruins around the seaport city of Ashkelon in Israel, is providing clues to the mysterious origins of these long gone people. A team of archaeologists and geneticists who have spent more than 30 years excavating the city retrieved, for the first time, genetic data from 10 Ashkelon skeletons, from about 3,600 to 2,800 years old.
Their analysis suggests early Iron Age Philistines shared some genetic heritage with Mesolithic, or Stone Age, hunter-gatherers from Southern Europe. That contributes genetic evidence to the idea that people migrating eastward from the Mediterranean sailed to the shores of the Levant and helped contribute to the beginnings of the Philistines.
Archaeologists have long wondered about the origins of the Philistines, who are thought to have established themselves in the Levant around the 12th century B.C. and lived there until their destruction by the Babylonians in 604 B.C.
Scientists and historians have argued over different theories: the appearance of the Philistines resulted from a mass migration from a particular homeland, such as Cyprus or Anatolia; they came from multiple places across the Mediterranean; they were always in the Levant, or they were pirates.
"Now we finally have direct evidence for this key idea: Where did the Philistines come from?" said Daniel Master, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. "They came from outside this region, they came from the West, they came from across the Mediterranean."
The genetic clue that led Master and his colleagues to their conclusion was found in DNA collected from the skulls of four early Iron Age infants buried beneath the floors of their late 12th century B.C. homes in Ashkelon. Master said the infants, who were not related, were most likely Philistines born in Ashkelon and not immigrants because of the conditions in which they were buried.
His colleagues uncovered European-derived genetic material, suggesting the infants' recent ancestors may have arrived from overseas somewhere in Southern Europe.
The researchers said they could not yet pinpoint whether these people came from Greece, Sardinia, Crete or elsewhere. "We kind of managed to narrow it down to Southern Europe, but we are very limited at this point by the amount of reference populations that we have because there are a lot of gaps in geography and time," said lead author Michal Feldman, a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
The team also retrieved DNA from three Bronze Age individuals found in an Ashkelon necropolis, who likely lived there before the Philistines, and were radiocarbon dated to around 1746 to 1542 B.C. These individuals did not show the same European-derived genetic signature seen in the infants, offering the team a genetic comparison between Late Bronze Age and Iron Age people of Ashkelon when there was a known cultural change.
In later centuries, population mixture reduced the Southern European genetic signature among the Philistines, although the group's identity remained clear in ancient texts.
"What surprised me the most was to see that 200 years later this European signal almost completely disappeared," Feldman said.
She said the finding suggests that after arriving in the Levant, the people who had this European signature intermarried with a local population, which led to the genetic signature getting diluted in the Levantine population. "It is a drop of migration that had a very short-term genetic effect, but a long term cultural effect."