Pigs may not be able to be raised on Israeli soil in modern times, but researchers say wild boars that lived in the region about 3,000 years ago have Europe roots, not Near Eastern ones as previously thought.
The new study, published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, sequenced DNA found in pig bones from archaeological sites across Israel. The results found the bones that originated in the early Iron Age, around 900 B.C., contained European genetic signatures that continued to dominate wild boar population in the country.
"Our DNA analysis proves that the wild boars living in Israel today are the descendants of European pigs brought here starting in the Iron Age, around 900 BCE," Prof. Israel Finkelstein said in a statement. "Given the concentration of pig bones found at Philistine archaeological sites, the European pigs likely came over in the Philistines' boats."
The bones, which were recovered from the Israeli lowlands such as Ashkelon and Ekron, led researchers to the theory that the wild boars came from the Philistines, a non-Semitic seafaring people that came to Israel from the Aegean Sea and brought their local pig breeds with them. Scientists speculate some of the domesticated pigs took off into the wild and bred with the local population.
Genetic researchers have classified pigs into three main groups: European, Far Eastern, and Near Eastern. It was previously thought that wild boars in Israel had Near Eastern genetic signatures, much like those from nearby Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and Iran. Researchers were surprised when DNA analysis revealed that pigs in Israel came from Europe and at some point overtook the local pig population.
The study, which is part of a larger one to reconstruct ancient Israel, involved two-years’ worth of mapping the modern wild boar population in the country. Piece of a pig’s ear, skin, and bones taken from various archaeological collections and site in the country were used. Out of the 177 ancient samples, just 34 had DNA preserved to find their genetic origin, the New York Times reports.
Researchers theorize that it wasn’t just the Philistines that brought European pigs to Israel. More work needs to be done in order to fully understand how wild boars with European roots dominated the region.
“Here, there’s an island of pigs with European ancestry,” Steve Weiner, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who is a partner in the project, told the New York Times. “We don’t know if Napoleon brought pigs, or the Crusaders, or if they all did.”