Sunday 21 December 2008

Phoenicians, so they say

A goodwill message for Lebanon? Well we share the Phoenician DNA, apparently.

I am very suspicious of genetic determinism so not sure what the results tell us, but the heirtage question is an important plank of of the so called "Libanism"— a specific Lebanese nationalism that seeks to distinguish the coast from the rest of the Arab world.

Libanism emerged with the creation of the country in the 1920s as a specific nationalist project that sought to separate Lebanon from "socialist" Syria, and justify free market capitalism.

There have been similar studies to show that one in six Lebanese Christians are descended from Crusaders, so worthy of western support "against the eastern hoards".

Of course the obvious research would be to see how many are actually Arab... err quite a lot I suspect. These arguments have taken different forms in different historical periods. For centuries the main question was whether families were "Yemeni or Qaisi"... but that's for another time.

Anyway, here's the BBC spin on the Phoenician story:

In Lebanon history has always been a source of contention - even when it came to something as ancient as the country's Phoenician heritage.

In the first millennium BC, Phoenicians, enterprising seafarers from the territory of the modern day Lebanon, established their trading empire.

From their base, they spread across the Mediterranean founding colonies and trading posts along its shores.

Described by historians as the "worlds first capitalists" the Phoenicians controlled the Mediterranean for nearly 1,000 years, until they were finally conquered by the Romans.

Today they are among the most enigmatic of ancient civilizations, history knows very little about them and most of their legacy has long been lost.

But during the civil war in Lebanon, Christians and Muslims often disputed their Phoenician roots, each claiming they were the true descendants.

Now science has put this argument to rest.

The genetics lab at the Lebanese American University is part of the multimillion dollar Genographic Project that uses genetics to map out human migration.

In Lebanon, geneticists led by Dr Pierre Zalloua have managed to identify the Phoenician gene.

"The Phoenicians were here three thousand years ago and we were not at all sure whether we would be able to find out any genetic remains of their civilization. I think the fact that we did is amazing," says Dr Zalloua.

Dr Zalloua and his team studied DNA data from more than 6,000 men across the Mediterranean, and used a new analytical technique to detect the genetic imprint of historical migrations.

"Whether you take a Christian village in the north of Lebanon or a Muslim village in the south, the DNA make-up of its residents is likely to be identical," says Dr Zalloua.