The Phoenicians and Their Origins
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An essay by Maroun Kassab on the doubtful claims of Herodotus regarding the origins of the Phoenicians and the migration of the human race out of Africa

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In the world of archaeology and history, there exists a drastic confusion and a seemingly raging battle regarding the origin of the Phoenicians. Some have said that the Phoenicians came from the Shores of the Erythraean Sea* or the Dead Sea , and others have claimed that they came from India or even Ireland . This paper will shed some light on the Origin of the Phoenicians and explain exactly where these ancient people came from, far away from myth and legend.

Throughout the ages, the Phoenicians have been either lifted to the level of gods and pioneers of human achievements, or have been degraded to the status of thieves and culprits. This polar schism between the two views shows that these people were admired by many and hated by many others.

It might be true that history is written by victors, but a proper deconstruction of a historical situation will enable us to reconstruct a more objective reality than that projected by the original author of the text, the historian. The most ancient claim about the origins of the Phoenicians comes from the "father of history," Herodotus, the Greek historian, who lived around the 5th century B.C. In “The Histories”, Book 1, Chapter 1, he claims that the Phoenicians came from the shores of the Erythraean Sea . This geographic location at the time of Herodotus was a barren desert filled with nomadic and barbaric tribes. This is an excerpt of Herodotus's account:

"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus , which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds. According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people, who had formerly dwelt on the shores of the Erythraean Sea , having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria . They landed at many places on the coast, and among the rest at Argos , which was then preeminent above all the states included now under the common name of Hellas . Here they exposed their merchandise, and traded with the natives for five or six days; at the end of which time, when almost everything was sold, there came down to the beach a number of women, and among them the daughter of the king, who was, they say, agreeing in this with the Greeks, Io, the child of Inachus . The women were standing by the stern of the ship intent upon their purchases, when the Phoenicians, with a general shout, rushed upon them. The greater part made their escape, but some were seized and carried off. Io herself was among the captives. The Phoenicians put the women on board their vessel, and set sail for Egypt . Thus did Io pass into Egypt , according to the Persian story, which differs widely from the Phoenician: and thus commenced, according to their authors, the series of outrages. "

While revealing the quarrel between the Phoenicians and the Greeks, Herodotus refers to an outside and seemingly neutral source, the Persians, of which he calls: "best informed in history", and who blame the Phoenicians for beginning the quarrel, not the Greeks. Thus, Herodotus highlights the "great and wonderful actions of the Greeks," and calls the Phoenicians "barbarians" who came from the shores of the “ Erythraean Sea ”. (*Please see editor's note below regarding the name Erythraean which continues to cause a lot of confusion and misinformation)

Herodotus's account cannot really be addressed as history. Rather, it is more an account of events seen from a personal point of view and coming from a figure of a nation who was involved in a quarrel between nations. On the other hand, Herodotus seems to be trying to globalize a conflict. Instead of seeing it as a conflict between two nations, the Greeks and the Phoenicians, he raises it to be a conflict between two continents: Europe and Asia , West and East. Asia kidnaps “Io”; Europe kidnaps “ Europe ” and then kidnaps “ Medea ”; Asia believes this is unfair and therefore “ Paris ” seduces “Helen” and takes her to Asia . And the Trojan wars begin. Such an account can barely qualify as history. Therefore, Herodotus's statement about the origin of the Phoenicians as being from the shores of the Erythraean Sea is nothing but a demeaning provocation to the Phoenicians in a conflict between nations, to accuse them of being barbarians, and to glorify his own people, the Greeks, and their actions as being “great and wonderful”.

The problem regarding the conflicting origin of the Phoenicians begins when some historians took Herodotus' account as fact, and documented it for years as a historical record. This allegation that the Phoenicians came from the Erythraean Sea , remains merely an allegation since it is not founded on facts, but rather on an accusation from a biased writer. Therefore, the origin of the Phoenicians cannot ascribe to Herodotus's account but rather requires proper historical investigation.

Map of Early Human Migrations according to mitochondrial DNA.
Thumbnail of human migration.

One hundred thousand years ago, Homo sapiens left Africa and headed towards Lebanon along the Mediterranean coast. Some settled there while other small groups continued migrating north. Around 71,000 years ago, the Sumatra volcano erupted. The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt was disturbed and as a result, the temperature of the planet dropped nine degrees and a mini-ice-age began, lasting for almost 1000 years: A devastating event for Homo sapiens, for only a population of about 5,000 individuals remained, some of whom were still living in the on the east shores of the Mediterranean. The cold temperatures caused a scarcity of game and crops, and as a result, many fishing communities along the coast of the Mediterranean developed.

The Homo sapiens stock that was still living in Africa kept expanding along the East African Coast . Sixty thousand years ago, and because of the low level of the ocean, some of these African groups crossed Bab el Mandeb into the Arabian Peninsula, and from there crossed into Persia and India from the Strait of Hormuz . The stock split and a group followed the coast and reached Australia around 10,000 years later. Forty thousand years ago, the European stock split from the Eurasian stock at the intersection of the two continents. The Asian stock reached as far as Siberia . Thirty-five thousand years ago, modern humans reached Europe and the earliest cave was found in Fumane . Thirty thousand years ago, the biggest mass migration occurred from parts of the Middle East into India . Fifteen thousand years ago, the Northeast Asians migrated into North America through the Bering Straits, and 10,000 years ago, agriculture began in the Middle East . Jericho and Jbeil are attributed with the earliest agricultural settlements in history, and with the rise of the Neolithic man. (See Map of early Human Migrations).

The misconception, and at times, the advertisement of another culture coming to the land of the Phoenicians and populating it, does not sustain any scientific data. Actually, scientific data would disagree with such an assumption, knowing that the end of the Ice Age is dated around 14,000 years ago. This piece of information gives us a picture of what the geography looked like in Lebanon , as well as its weather. The only way to pass through modern day Lebanon was to follow the coastline of the Mediterranean because during that age, the mountains of Lebanon were impassable. They were snow-covered throughout the year, and not only one set of mountains had to be passed, but two. This year round snow cap was the legacy of the Ice Age that started 70,000 years ago. This meant that the only way to enter the Lebanese coast, and have access to Lebanon , was either from Turkey southward, or Palestine northward. The only other possibility was through the sea, but navigation on such a large scale would not happen for another 10,000 years.

There is further evidence that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coexisted in Lebanon until the extinction of the latter, giving a picture of the adequate weather and resources that was available there. A Japanese expedition conducted in the 1960's, identified a couple dozen sites where Neanderthal artifacts and remains were identified, the most important being at Wadi Keoue in the North of Lebanon. Many artifacts were found and documented during this expedition.

The proper scientific framework has established its broad outline for the understanding of human migrations. We must pursue and develop the research of our origins in order to intelligently contribute to the history of the migration of human race and its development. The east Mediterranean coast is key in the understanding of the earliest human migrations of the first stock that left Africa . The Phoenician culture is one of the earliest cultures to flourish on these shores, and therefore, is also key in shaping such an understanding.

We cannot ascribe to unattested records of history, and we cannot accept historical statements at face value, even if it comes from Herodotus, or any other historical and non-historical figure. We cannot ignore the fact that the Phoenicians were indigenous to their land, and this should be our starting point to setup the proper framework for historical research and the study of the Phoenician culture at large.

In conclusion, we can say that the Phoenicians came to the shores of Lebanon from somewhere else. It was Africa , tens of thousands of years ago, and from the stock that remained here, the Phoenician culture developed. Lebanon is one of the most important locations to understand the beginnings of this migration and its development, and therefore should begin to bare the fruits of this research. The Phoenician culture is a very important intersection to understand the development of the Human race, and in the light of the new information, it is no surprise that this piece of land is attributed with the rise of the Neolithic Age. These were the first adventurers that migrated from Africa at the dawn of man.

by Maroun Kassab

Additional Resources:

Site Editor's Note:
The Ancients, including Herodotus himself1 knew many other Eritreas or Erythraean. The Phoenicians, Antiquity's great mariners, gave the name to all the Eritreas known by the Ancients (Martin, HL, p 109) : beside that of the Red Sea (Herodotus, I, 1; VII, 89), we know those of the Atlantic Ocean (Herodotus, I, 202, 205; VII, 63, 69), of Qadesh (Spain), mentioned by Pliny (IV, 37), Strabo (IX, 2, 12) and others2 , the Eritrea of Beotia (Homer, Il, 20, 499)3 , of Greece of whom many have spoken4 , of Ionia (Asia Minor)5 , of the Indian Ocean (Polybius, V, 46, 54; IX, 43)6 and of the Eritrea of the Persian Gulf (Strabo, 16, 3, 4)7 . As for the Red Sea, it was called in Antiquity, "Sea of Papyrus" - as in ancient inscriptions, including the Phoenician inscription of Paraiba8 (Brazil) - and also Red Sea. (Return)

Note Sources:

  1. Herodotus himself mentions 44 sources regarding the Eritreas, 16 of which concern the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean. We have chosen some of the others to include in our coming notes.
  2. Martin, HL, p. 109...
  3. Herodotus, IX, 15, 19. Thucydides, III, 42. Cf. also Martin, HL, pp. 108-109.
  4. Herodotus, 1, 61-62. Thucydides, I, 15. Polybius, XV, 11, 45, 18...
  5. Herodotus, I, 18 and 142; 6, 8. Pausanias, VII, 5, 5; 16, 6. Thucydides, III, 24, 26; XXVI, 8, 34.? V. Bérard, PO, II, p. 25-26.
  6. Also Herodotus, I, pp., 180 and 202; II, pp., 8, 158-159. Martin, HL, pp. 105-106 + notes.? V. Bérard, PO, II, p. 39.
  7. Strabo, 9, 2, 12; 16, 3, 4. Herodotus, 3, 93; 7, 80. Bérard, PO, II, pp. 39-40.
  8. Cf. Father Emile Eddé, The Phoenicians and the Discovery of America (= PDA), (in Arabic), Beirut, Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 1969, pp. 65 ff and our manuscript entitled The Phoenicians discovered America (of about 500 pages).


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