I was interested to read about a recent study of genetic connections between ancient and modern inhabitants of the Levant.
The article explains that genetic researchers were testing a theory about what the history of Canaan—roughly Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and western Syria—would imply about the genetics of its modern inhabitants. Since the region has been the subject of numerous migrations and changes in suzernity over the ages, it would seem likely that its ancient populations and modern populations would be substantially different. After all, new people would bring new genes with them.
Instead, the study found that the modern Lebanese people sampled share a "whopping" 93% of DNA with Bronze-age inhabitants of the region.
So, it would seem that the ancient peoples of the region shared a close, genetic relationship to begin with. Also, it would seem that the genetic impact of migration into the region from outside has been relatively small.
If it stands up, this result is of interest for our understanding of the history of the region. However, the researchers also believe it has relevance for the present political situation there:
“When Lebanon started in 1929,” Doumet-Serhal said, “the Christians said, ‘We are Phoenician.’ The Muslims didn’t accept that and they said, ‘No, we are Arab.’”
But from this work comes a message of unity. “We all belong to the same people,” Doumet-Serhal said. “We have always had a difficult past … but we have a shared heritage we have to preserve.”
The political schisms in Lebanon are well-known and profound. Would knowledge of a close, genetic relationship amongst its peoples bring them unity?
Perhaps. It may be that such a relationship could appeal to some sort of tribal concept of affiliation and help the Lebanese people to live together more harmoniously than in the past. Genetic relationships do matter to people and not just in Lebanon.
I will admit to some skepticism and even chagrin, however. It reminds me of a somewhat silly episode of Star Trek The Next Generation ("The Chase") in which the Enterprise, and Klingon, Cardassian and Romulan ships compete to put together a message left by an ancient, alien race in the DNA of humanoid races across the quadrant.
Instead of schematics for some cool or destructive technology, the message turns out to be a holographic carte de visite in which an ancient alien explains that they created all the humanoid species in the quadrant because they were lonely and hope that their creations will try to get along with each other.
The message appears to fall on deaf ears, except for one Romulan commander who hints that, in light of this revelation, he might consider not fighting with the humans so much "one day."
Historically, people have made their treatment of each other contingent on clan memberships, which may be construed genetically. Modern technology can reveal unexpected relationships, including those between warring clans. Such revelations could cause the people involved to reassess their attitudes towards one another.
Yet, this seems like disappointing grounds for deciding how to treat other peoples. For example, were the study cited above to find that Christian and Muslim people in Lebanon were not closely related, either to each other or to ancient inhabitants of the region, would that justify them fighting with each other? I think not. Non-genetic commonalities, such as similar aspirations and feelings, are better grounds for mutual respect.
In any event, the story shows that genetic relationships are significant, for both their historical and their political implications.