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Were the Phoenicians Related to the Hittites?

An examination of the relationship between the ancient genetic origin of the Phoenicians and the Anatolian epicenter of Indo-European languages, home of the Hittites

By Daniel Natal (with research by Giuseppe Faraci), SC, USA
© Copyright 2006

“History,” Napoleon said, “is a set of lies agreed upon”. While the master Nineteenth Century politician might have taken a more Machiavellian stance on the subject at hand, the truth is probably less sinister. For, though propaganda abounds—and has always wielded great influence in the recording of history—the greatest single factor obscuring the truth is simply the scarcity of first-hand material. This leaves historians to, at times, make judgment-calls, educated guesses, nervous conjectures. Paleontologists faced with a single tooth must reconstruct an entire extinct animal, archaeologists confronted with a shard of broken crockery extrapolate and produce from thin air a whole lost civilization.

The history of the Phoenicians has always been at a handicap when it came to these factors. On the one hand, most of what we know about them comes to us from the propaganda of their rivals [the Romans], and on the other hand they left very little behind with which to point to their origins. Or perhaps they did leave something behind, after all: a vital clue that we did not, until very recently, have the technology to understand—their DNA.

Up until now, we've been left with a whole host of fanciful theories about their origins, and the inquisitive have been lazily dismissed by paleolinguists who tell us that the Phoenicians were “Semites”. As any educated person knows, “Semitic” is a linguistic designation, not an ethnic one. Nevertheless, we've been encouraged to accept this ad hoc definition on faith.

But there's a problem.

Ethnicity doesn't always follow language. Ask a black American, who speaks English; or an Amerindian in Guatemala who speaks Spanish. Or better yet: Take an example from the Phoenicians' own neighbors, the Jews. In recorded history, they've spoken Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Ladino and Yiddish. Some of these languages are Semitic, some are Indo-European. Did the DNA of the ethnic group change when their language did?

Genetics tells us—resoundingly—no.

So perhaps terms like “Semite” and “Indo-European” are inappropriate when discussing ethnic origins. Geneticist Spencer Wells, in his publicized study for The National Geographic Society, ran tests on the DNA gathered from Phoenician skeletons and concluded that they're far older than either “Semite” or “Indo-European”. They come from “the older Mediterranean sub-stratum” predating both of these groups.

So, in a word, to speak of Phoenicians as “Semitic” is anachronistic. They're older than the body of languages itself. To be fair, however, millennia later they eventually adopted a Semitic language.

But was it their original tongue?

Language-change for entire civilizations, though strange, is not an unheard-of phenomenon. Consider the example of Alexander the Great. He was a Macedonian, and spoke a dialect that Athenians considered “a barbarian language”. Yet when he spread his empire, he didn't spread his own language. No, he—oddly—spread the language of the Athenians (a nation that he had conquered). Likewise with the Normans. They were Scandinavians, who spread south into France. After so many years, they adopted the French language; so, when they invaded England, they spread the French language—not their own original Norse tongue.

It's strange to us to see the conquerors adopting the languages of their vanquished enemies, but history proves that it happens.

Did something similar occur with regard to the Phoenicians? Did they adopt the language of subject peoples to the south as they spread their empire?

Genetics gives an alluring clue. The Lebanese, the descendants of the Phoenicians, cluster with the Northern Middle East (along with Kurds and Armenians). This is significant because both Kurds and Armenians are Indo-Iranian groups—nations that speak Indo-European languages (not Semitic ones).

The Semitic-speaking countries lie in the Southern Middle East—a region whose population is somewhat more distant genetically to the Phoenicians.

So we have, at one stroke, a clue to what groups the Phoenicians were more closely allied with. Secondly we have geography as a hint. Phoenicia lies just south of Anatolia. In fact, modern-day Lebanon (the descendant of Phoenicia) shares a border with Anatolia. They're neighbors.

Under the Hittite empire, both Anatolia AND the land that would later be Phoenicia were under the same flag, and enjoyed the same cultural influences. It goes without saying that the Hittites also spoke an Indo-European language.

Hittite Kingdom

But even before the age of the Hittites, Anatolia was significant for a far more important reason: it is the growing consensus of experts from several different fields that it is the birth-place of all the Indo-European languages. For example, Dr Russell Gray and PhD student Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand had calculated from a group of 87 languages--as diverse as English, Lithuanian and Gujarati —that the so-called proto-Indo-European language arose between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, and that the epicenter for the spread was in Anatolia. Likewise, geneticists—operating in complete independence of the linguistic experts—arrived at the conclusion that the genes associated with the so-called Neolithic Farmers that would later enter Europe and spread their language, originated in Anatolia. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew —isolated from both the linguists and geneticists—drew upon his knowledge of archaeology and concluded that the so-called Indo-Europeans originated from Anatolia.

This is a striking confluence of events, since the proposed “Aryan homeland” (as the Indo-Europeans were then known) had always been assumed to have been in Southern Russia, or the Caucus Mountains of Georgia.

To be fair to Nineteenth Century archaeologists, these are incredibly small spaces. Terms like “Russia” conjure up images of cold to the Western imagination; but it's important to remember that the old Soviet Union actually shared a border with Turkey; and that the old Soviet Republic of Georgia was adjacent to Armenia.

These were the very nations and peoples at the epicenter of the Indo-European genesis in Anatolia —and the people most closely related to Phoenicians, according to genetics.

So the objective outsider, patiently reviewing the mounting circumstantial evidence, comes away scratching his head, wondering—if there appears to be growing consensus for an Anatolia origin for the so-called “Aryan homeland”—why it hadn't been suggested before.

The truth is: It has. Intriguingly, it was suggested in the 1920s by a British anthropologist named L.A. Waddell. To make things even more fascinating, his area of expertise was not the Middle East, but Northern India and Tibet. He traveled with the British army and learned the Tibetan language and was considered one of the world's foremost experts on Tibetan Buddhism. While in Northern India, he also learned Sanskrit. While reading the ancient Indian epics whose authors described their original homeland before arriving in the sub-continent, he recognized topographical traits and features that very much suggested Anatolia.

Since Sir William Jones presented his analysis of Sanskrit in 1786, Western scholars knew that Sanskrit—like Hittite—was an Indo-European language. So Waddell was intrigued that this Indo-European-speaking people in Northern India appeared to be pointing to Anatolia as their homeland. What drew his attention there even more were certain provocative correspondences. For instance, the ruling class who first invaded Northern India called themselves “ Khattiyo ”. Why this is interesting is that the reason we call the people in Anatolia “Hittites” is because they called themselves Khatti. Since English does not possess certain sounds, the term is transliterated in several different ways—such as the Jewish celebration of Hannukah, which is sometimes spelled Channukah. Likewise, the people who called themselves “ Khatti ” are variously referred to as “ Catti ” or “ Hatti ”. And it is from this that the English-speaking nations derived the exonym“Hittite ”.

Waddell was fascinated that an Indo-European-speaking people in Anatolia called themselves “ Khatti ” and that the Northern Indians who appeared to be describing Anatolia as their “homeland” called themselves “ Khattiyo ”.

He approached this correspondence cautiously, however, realizing that it could just be a coincidence. A coincidence, that is, until he studied the King Lists embedded in the Purana of the Northern Indians. According to Waddell, “They covered many hundreds of pages, recording in full detail the main line and numerous branch line dynasties from the commencement of the Aryan period down to historical times; and specifying the names and titles of the various kings, reproduced with scrupulous care, and citing in regard to the more famous of them their chief achievements, thus making the record something of a chronicle of the kings as well. These traditional Aryan kings are implicitly believed by all Brahmins and modern orthodox Hindus to be the genuine lineal ancestors of the present day ruling Indo-Aryan caste in India ... . But modern western Vedic scholars, without a single exception as far as I am aware, have summarily rejected all this great body of Epic literary historical tradition as mere fabulous fabrications of the Brahmin priests and bards—just as modern writers of British history have arbitrarily rejected the Ancient British Chronicles preserved by Geoffrey and Nennius. The excuses offered by Vedic scholars for thus rejecting these ancient epic traditional records are twofold. Firstly, they say that, as these voluminous King Lists are not contained in the Vedas, which books they assume to the sole source of the ancient Aryan tradition, these King Lists must be fabulous. In making such an objection, they entirely overlook the patent fact that the Vedas are merely a collection of psalms, and not at all historical in their purpose, so that one would no more expect to find in them systematic lists of kings and dynasties than one would expect to find detailed lists of kings and prophets in the “Psalms of David”. The second argument of Vedic scholars for rejecting the ancient Epic King Lists is, as they truly say, that no traces whatever of any of these Early Aryan Kings can be found in India. But this fact is now disclosed by the new evidence to be owing to the very good reason that none of these Early Aryan Kings had ever been in India, but were kings in Asia Minor, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia centuries and millenniums before the separation of the Eastern branch to India.

“Picking up these despised traditional Epic King Lists of the Early Aryans, thus contemptuously rejected by Vedic scholars, I compared the names of their later main-line dynasties with the names of the later historical Hittite kings of Asia Minor, as known from their own still extant monuments, as well as from the contemporary Babylonian and Assyrian records, and I found that the father of the first historical Aryan king of India (as recorded in the Maha Barata epic and Indian Buddhist history) was the last historical king of the Hittites in Asia Minor, who was killed at Carchemish on the upper Euphrates on the final annexation of that last of the Hittite capitals to Assyria by Sargon II in 718 BC. And I further found that the predecessors of this Hittite king, as recorded in the cuneiform monuments of Asia Minor and in the Assyrian documents, back for several centuries, were substantially identical with those of the traditional ancestors of this first historical Aryan king of India as found in these Indian Epic King Lists.”

He adds, “On further scrutinizing the earlier dynasties of these Epic King Lists, I observed that several of the leading kings of the earlier Aryan dynasties in these lists bore substantially the same names, with the same records of achievements, and in the same relative chronological order as several of the leading kings of early Mesopotamia—the so-called ‘ Sumerians ' and ‘ Akkads,' as recorded in their own still extant monuments and in the fragmentary ancient chronicles of the land. Still further, I observed that isolated early kings of Mesopotamia, who are only known to Assyriologists from their stray inscribed monuments as solitary kings of unknown dynasty and unknown origin and race, were mostly recorded in my King Lists in their due order and chronological succession in their respective dynasties with full lists of the Aryan Kings of these dynasties who had preceded or succeeded them. It thus became obvious that these Indian Epic King Lists supplied the key to the material required for filling up the many great blanks in the early history of Ancient Mesopotomia in the dark and ‘prehistoric period' there.”

Waddell finds a third leg for support with regard to his theory in the form of religion. For, as he notes, “The ruling clan in India celebrated in the Vedas were the most ardent of all devotees of the Sun and Fire cult associated with worship of the Father-god Indra ... like the Hitto-Phoenicians [who] were especial worshippers of the Father-god Bel (also called by them ‘ Indara ').”

He adds, “In 1907, in the old Hittite capital, Boghaz Koi in Cappadocia, Winckler discovered the original treaty of about 1400 BC between the Khatti or Hittites and their kinsmen neighbors on the east, in Ancient Persia, the Mitani (who were the ancient Medes ). In this treaty they invoked the actual Aryan gods of the Vedas of the Indian branch of the Aryans and by their Vedic names. Significantly the first god invoked is the Vedic Sun-god Mitra (i.e., the “ Mithra ” of the Greco-Romans), as some of the later Aryans made separate gods out of the different titles of the Father God. His name is followed by In-da-ra, that is the solar Indra or ‘Almighty,' the principal deity of these Indo-Aryan Vedic scriptures …”

Waddell goes on to point out the prominence of the swastika (or “sun-cross”) in the worship of Fire or Sun cults. The symbol arose in reference to the two wooden sticks that one rubs together to form fire, so the swastika came to symbolically signify “the Sun-god”.

Swastika Crosses on dress of Phoenician Sun-priestess carrying sacred Fire. Terra-cotta from Phoenician tomb in Cyprus. (After Cesnola, 30.)

Waddell then produces a picture of a Phoenician Sun-goddess bedecked with swastikas:

No educated person, of course, has to be told about the corresponding prevalence of the swastika in the Indo-European religions of Northern India.

Waddell's list of “coincidences” is most compelling—but we leave it as an open question whether it cumulatively amounts to evidence of how the ancient Middle East flowed into Northern India. The question that peaks our interest is rather smaller in scope—namely, whether the Hittites and proto-Phoenicians were, at one time, a single people ... or, rather, two different tribes of a larger umbrella group. Waddell provides coins left in ancient Briton by Phoenician mariners with the name “ Catti ” imprinted on them. Likewise, he notes that “the Phoenicians usually spelt their tribal name of ‘ Khatti ' or ‘ Catti ' or ‘Gad,' and were in the habit not infrequently of calling their rivers at their settlements ‘ Gadi,' ‘Gad- es ' or ‘ Ka-desh '.”

Historians have long known that the Spanish city Cadiz was once a Phoenician colony called “ Gades ”. In Scotland, a river named by the Phoenicians is likewise known as the “ Gadie ”.

Could these variants of “ Catti ” be derived from the “ Khatti ” whence we get the term “Hittite”?

No one can say definitively—although the genetic and geographical proximity of the two peoples leave a clear implication.

Another fact that must be considered is that a scholar named Rajeswar Gupta published a controversial study of the Vedas, in which he independently states that the Phoenicians were in Northern India, circa 10,000 BC. If true, this would place them there at approximately the same time that Dr. Russell Gray said that the proto-Indo-European language emerged in Anatolia.

Stanford University, silent on Mr. Gupta's translation of the Vedas, admits that the Phoenicians are known to have traded with the Indian city of Kerala as early as 3000 BC “for ivory, sandalwood, and spices. Their presence in Northern India only decreased as Arabs, Assyrians, and Greeks became more powerful.”

So they were there—the only questions are “How early were they there?” and “Did they arrive with the proto-Hittites as one larger group”?

Waddell would argue yes. But, of course, Waddell's legacy is marred by the prejudices of his age. Where he erred, he erred fabulously—such as his assumption that Phoenicians provided the base population for the ancient Britons. Though all historians are unanimous in their concession that the Phoenicians colonized ancient Briton (for their tin trade), the Phoenicians encountered an already-populated island. It wasn't largely empty, as Waddell assumed. Geneticists tell us that the aborigines were related to Spain's mysterious Basque people and were a pre-Aryan people that we would today call paleo-Europids. Waddell finds some support for his Phoenician theory insofar as Thomas Jefferson—an ethnic Welshman—was disclosed in a DNA test, to possess the K2 haplogroup associated with the Phoenicians. But K2 is rare in the British Isles and is the exception. The predominant Y-chromosome among the ancient Britons was the R1b haplogroup associated with the paleo-Europids. So Phoenicians made a genetic contribution—albeit a much more modest one than Waddell assumed.

Because of his mistakes, it would be easy to dismiss the rest of his work completely—were it not for those troublesome times when he anticipated modern historians by almost a century, such as when he identified Anatolia as the Indo-European homeland, or when he correctly realized that the Hittites spoke an Indo-European language (in an era before experts had definitively deciphered their language). So, knowing all that, could he have also been right when he leagued the Phoenicians with the neighboring Hittites?

It will have to remain an open question for now—until geneticists finally get around to analyzing the skeletons of this ancient Anatolian group who lived in, among and around the proto-Phoenicians.

-- Daniel Natal
© Copyright 2006

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