DNA Research Holds the Keys to Human History – but It’s Being Weaponized by Politicians

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Twitter account blew up in July in the wake of an extraordinary tweet: “A new study of DNA recovered from an ancient Philistine site in the Israeli city of Ashkelon confirms what we know from the Bible – that the origin of the Philistines is in southern Europe. … The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000 year connection that the Jewish people have with the land.”

Netanyahu, like the hundreds of people who replied to the tweet, interpreted the study as overwhelming proof of Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel and proof that the Philistines — who share an etymological history with the Palestinians — were “new” immigrants, having arrived here just 3,000 years ago. Officials from the Palestinian Authority were quick to say that Palestinians are the descendants not of the Philistines but rather of the Canaanite Jebusites, who were ostensibly the original inhabitants of the land.

Netanyahu’s tweet came a few days after the publication in the magazine Science advances of a study by researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Leon Levy Expedition. The researchers sampled DNA from 10 skeletons found in Ashkelon and concluded that their gene pool came from southern Europe. The finding supports the accepted theory that the Philistines migrated from the area of Greece and settled along what is today Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast.

The study’s authors, however, were infuriated by the prime minister’s tweets. They considered responding but decided it might give the tweets more exposure. Netanyahu’s political spin on the research upset many scholars, who saw it as an example of the danger inherent in bringing genetics into the study of human history. Critics fear that used incautiously, genetic research not only has the potential to distort history but also can become a tool for racist propaganda in the hands of extremist politicians and groups.

The ability to extract and sequence DNA from samples that are thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years old has led to significant breakthroughs in the study of evolution. By sequencing Neanderthal genomes, scientists have learned about the health, physical appearance and settlement patterns of Neanderthals. Even more important, DNA research led to the discovery of formerly unknown hominids. The most famous being the Denisovans, which was discovered only thanks to a single finger bone found in a cave in Siberia, from which its owner’s genome was sequenced. The researchers were also able to determine that most modern human beings carry genes from Neanderthals, Denisovans and additional, as-yet unidentified hominids.