Genome sequencing of a 2,500-year old man from Carthage reveals his European lineage


Researchers from the University of Otago (New Zealand) have successfully managed to sequence the first complete mitochondrial genome of a Phoenician who lived 2,500 years ago. The ancient man in question here is dubbed as ‘Ariche’, and he hailed from Byrsa, the walled citadel overlooking the massive harbor of ancient Carthage. So in other words, Ariche didn’t come directly from ancient Phoenicia as we know it – the maritime civilization which had its origins on the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent; rather he came from the mightiest Phoenician overseas ‘colony’ of Carthage, the North African city that even rivaled Rome in terms of economy and military power during the First and Second Punic Wars. Now interestingly, in spite of his geographical origins lying in Northern Africa (via Near East), the genome sequencing has revealed that the man belonged to a rare European haplogroup.

To that end, Ariche’s maternity ancestry is linked to the European locations along the northern Mediterranean, mostly likely to Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal). This particular haplogroup is simply known as U5b2cl. As a matter of fact, Ariche provides the earliest evidence of the European U5b2cl haplogroup in North Africa, while its arrival in the region is dated from around late 6th century BC. As Lisa Matisoo-Smith, co-leader of the study, made it clear –

U5b2cl is considered to be one of the most ancient haplogroups in Europe and is associated with hunter-gatherer populations there. It is remarkably rare in modern populations today, found in Europe at levels of less than one per cent. Interestingly, our analysis showed that Ariche’s mitochondrial genetic make-up most closely matches that of the sequence of a particular modern day individual from Portugal.

She further added –

While a wave of farming peoples from the Near East replaced these hunter-gatherers, some of their lineages may have persisted longer in the far south of the Iberian peninsula and on off-shore islands and were then transported to the melting pot of Carthage in North Africa via Phoenician and Punic trade networks.

But as we mentioned before, the Carthaginians (or rather Phoenicians) originally hailed from the western part of Fertile Crescent, including the region of what is modern-day Lebanon. However the mitochondrial DNA analysis of 47 modern Lebanese people didn’t reveal any sort of the European U5b2cl haplogroup lineage. On the other hand, the evidence of U5b2cl presence was found previously from two ancient hunter-gatherers, from a site in northwestern Spain.

Lastly, as for the historical credentials of Ariche from Carthage, he was probably a member of the Carthaginian elite (much like the eminent Hannibal Barca). His ancient grave was discovered way back in 1994, and burial scope unveiled a range of precious objects, including gems, amulets and the ubiquitous scarabs – along with the relatively tall skeleton (for its time) of 5 ft 6 inches. And as for the eminence of Carthage itself, according to Strabo, the city had a population of around 700,000 just before its unceremonious fall in 146 BC (at the hand of the Romans), while Polybius talked about how Carthage was the wealthiest city of its time in the world (circa 2nd century BC).


Ancient Carthage with its pronounced ‘cothon’ harbor.

The study was originally published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Otago

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