WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The seafaring Phoenicians left the world more than a legacy of alphabets and purple dye -- they left their DNA scattered throughout Mediterranean men, as well, according to a report published on Thursday.
As many as one in 17 men living in the Mediterranean region carries a Y-chromosome handed down from a male Phoenician ancestor, the team at National Geographic and IBM reported in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
“One boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a direct male-line descendant of the Phoenician traders,” IBM’s Daniel Platt said in a statement.
“The results are important because they show that the Phoenician settlement sites are marked by a genetic signature distinct from any that might have been left by other trading and settlement expansions through history, or which may have emerged by chance.”
The researchers are part of the Genographic Project, launched in April 2005 to investigate human origins and migrations.
The five-year project aims to collect more than 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous and traditional peoples around the world and trace how humans migrated from Africa to nearly every corner of the globe.
In 2003, an international team of researchers reported in the same journal they had found genetic evidence that 8 percent of men in Central Asia, 0.5 percent of men globally, carried genes that could arguably be linked to the Mongol invader Genghis Khan.
The Phoenicians, who thrived from 1500 BC to 300 BC, were headquartered in the coastal areas of present-day Lebanon and Syria. Demand for Tyrian Purple, a dye made from shell of the Murex sea snail, drove much of their trade.
“When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians,” Chris Tyler-Smith of Britain’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said in a statement.
“All we had to guide us was history: We knew where they had and hadn’t settled. But this simple information turned out to be enough, with the help of modern genetics, to trace a vanished people.”
The researchers used a simple tool -- the Y chromosome. Females do not carry it and it is passed down, with the occasional mutation, intact from father to son, so it can be used as a kind of genetic clock to gauge how one man is related to another.
A similar tool is found in mitochondrial DNA, which women pass on, again with only the occasional change, to their children.
Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Will Dunham