Philistines were very likely of Greek origin, as a new DNA study traces the origins of the ancient villains in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This is actually the first study of DNA recovered from an ancient Philistine cemetery, as scientists wanted to find the roots of the infamous people of the Hebrew Bible, according to a new report from the National Geographic.
In the Old Testament, Philistines are presented as being a different race from the Hebrews, coming from the “Land of Caphtor,” which is today’s Crete.
Likely originating out of Crete, the Philistines later took control of the shoreline of today’s southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, beginning in the 12th century BC.
A cemetery gives clues to Philistines’ origins
In 2016, scientists discovered an ancient cemetery near Ashkelon, Israel, containing approximately 150 dead bodies inside oval graves.
A groundbreaking 2019 genetic study showed that the genes of the buried belong to a European gene pool, unlike the Semitic Levantine gene pool of later inhabitants of the area.
According to scientists, there was a European-related gene flow that took place during the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, which supports the theory that Europeans migrated to the Middle East.
The National Geographic report says that the DNA analysis from human remains covered three different time periods:
From a Middle/Late Bronze Age burial ground (about 1650-1200 BC), which pre-dates the arrival of the Philistines; infant burials from the late 1100 BC, following the arrival of the Philistines; and individuals buried in the Philistine cemetery in the later Iron Age (10th and ninth centuries BC).
The early Iron Age DNA samples include proportionally more “additional European ancestry” in their genetic signature — at roughly 14 percent — than in the pre-Philistine Bronze Age samples, which were 2 to 9 percent.
While the origins of the European genes are not conclusive, the most plausible are that they were from Greece, Crete, Sardinia, or the Iberian peninsula, experts believe.
Many researchers also tie the presence of the Philistines to the exploits of the Sea Peoples, tribes that raided the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age in the 13th century and early 12th century BC.
That supports the theory that the Philistines began as migrants from Europe — who were possibly Greek — who then settled in Ashkelon in the 12th century BC.
Philistines often went to war against Israelites
Their arrival in the early 12th century BC is marked by pottery like that of the the ancient Greek world, as well as the use of an Aegean script, and their notable consumption of pork.
Archaeologists agree that the Philistines were different from their Hebrew neighbors, and there were frequent wars between these peoples.
In the Old Testament, Philistines are portrayed as war mongers, and enemies of the Israelites.
The giant Goliath, who fought against and was killed by a young shepherd who later became King David is the best known Philistine in the Bible.
Also, Delilah, the beautiful woman who seduced and cut the hair of the powerful Israelite Samson in order to drain him of his strength, is a Biblical example of the cunning of the Philistines.
The European genes of Philistines eventually disappear
In comparing DNA recovered from the cemetery at Ashkelon only a few centuries after the infant burials, scientists found that their European characteristics had disappeared.
The later Philistine burials were found to have genetic signatures very similar to local populations who had lived in the region before the arrival of the Philistines.
The DNA study shows that the European DNA of the Philistines disappeared within 200 years, most likely because they intermarried widely, and their genetic signature was diluted within the local population.
The findings reinforce the theory that the origin of the Philistine population was likely Greek, Cretan, or Sardinian.
Along with the archaeological discoveries, the DNA study solidifies the theory that Philistines were probably Greek — either from mainland Greece or Crete — who later mixed with local Levantine populations from the early Iron Age onward.
The Philistines were genetically assimilated to the local population, yet they retained their distinct cultural traits that separated them from their neighbors for more than five centuries.
The Philistines lived in the area for more than five centuries, until they were finally conquered by the Babylonians in the year 604 BC — several years before the 598 BC conquest of the Hebrew people by the Babylonians and their subsequent exile there.