Scientists Reconstructed the Face of This 2,500-Year-Old Man

May 29th 2016

Aron Macarow

Scientists have reconstructed the face of a 2,500-year-old man using the first DNA obtained from ancient Phoenician remains.

Dubbed "Ariche," the young Phoenician was discovered in 1994 by a man who accidentally fell into a grave while planting trees. Advances in gene sequencing allowed scientists only recently to piece together his complete mitochondrial genome.

A reconstruction of the ancient Phoenician man dubbed "Ariche."

Researchers initially expected to link the skeleton to North Africa because of the grave's location near the ancient city of Carthage (which is close to the modern city of Tunis in Tunisia). But they were surprised to find that the man had European ancestry: Ariche belongs to a rare haplogroup — U5b2cl — that links the young Phoenician to the north Mediterranean coast, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE. (A haplogroup is defined as a genetic population group of people who share a common ancestor.) The discovery could change the way that we think about human migrations in ancient times.

"This is the earliest European lineage recorded in North Africa, so in a way it not only helps us understand Phoenician history, but also makes people [rethink] ... the history of human mobility," said Lisa Matisoo-Smith, who co-led the study.

The haplogroup U5b2cl is extremely rare in modern populations, occurring in less than 1 percent of modern Europeans. Only one person in Portugal has been found to share the exact same genome.

What does this mean for our understanding of human migration?

Finding European lineage in North Africa dating as far back as 2,500 years ago was "very unexpected," according to Matisoo-Smith. It places Europeans in North Africa much earlier than previously thought.

The discovery is not completely surprising: Scientists point out that known trade networks linked Carthage and the rest of the Mediterranean, so the new findings may simply mean that ancient humans were able to travel farther than previously thought.

Matisoo-Smith explained:

"Before, when we only looked at modern DNA, we had to guess or try to reconstruct how and when different lineages may have appeared. This means that we missed a lot of prehistoric population history, since we now know that many populations were replaced by incoming farmers and so on. In reconstructions of genetic variation in the Mediterranean, there hasn’t been much consideration of Phoenician trade networks and the likelihood of people moving long distances and spreading those genetic markers widely."

Related: Scientists Recreate What the First Humans Probably Looked Like