Wild boars look more or less the same in Israel as they do anywhere else: stalky and hairy with big heads, long snouts, and beady eyes. Some even hunt wild boars as a delicacy, despite the religious prohibitions in Judaism and Islam from eating pork. Scientists had really no reason to suspect Israeli wild boars were any different at all than their brothers and sisters roaming the Middle East, all the way from Egypt to Iran.
But they were wrong.
Now, in a new study researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute have found that, unlike the Near Eastern wild boars in surrounding countries, Israel’s wild boars originated in Europe.
After a genetic and archaeological analysis, researchers led by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and his team suggest the wild boars living in Israel are descendants of domesticated pigs brought to Israel starting almost 3,000 years ago by the non-kosher Philistines and other seafaring raiders sometimes referred to as the Sea Peoples.
The findings were published this week in Scientific Reports.
Pillagers were pig lovers
“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,” says Finkelstein. “Given the concentration of pig bones found at Philistine archaeological sites, the European pigs likely came over in the Philistines’ boats.”
Pig bones have been found in abundance at Philistine archaeological sites along Israel’s southern coastal plane dating from the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1150 to 950 BCE. But pig bones are rare or absent at Iron Age sites in other parts of the country, including in the central hills, where Ancient Israel is thought to have emerged.
The researchers set out to determine whether the Philistines and other Sea Peoples — groups of seafaring invaders from around the Aegean Sea — made use of local pig breeds or brought new ones with them from their native lands. Because there is not much difference in the size and the shape between European and Near Eastern pigs, the researchers had to use DNA testing to identify the origins of the animals.
Wild boars and their babies, present day in Israel, at the Hula Valley:
Genetics researchers divide the pigs of the world into three main groups: European, Far Eastern, and Near Eastern. To the researchers’ surprise, each of the 25 modern-day wild boars they analyzed from Israel share a European genetic signature, whereas modern-day boars from nearby countries, like Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran, have a Near Eastern genetic signature. The researchers conclude that European pigs arrived in Israel at some point and overtook the local pig population.
To find out when, the researchers collected and analyzed pig bones from archaeological sites across Israel — ranging from the Neolithic period to medieval times, 9500 BCE to 1200 CE — the most comprehensive study of ancient DNA carried out in Israel in terms of both number of samples and time span. The results showed that pigs from the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age display the local Near Eastern genetic signature, while a European genetic signature appears early in the Iron Age, around 900 BCE, and has been dominant ever since.
Domestic European pig breeds may have been introduced by groups of “Sea Peoples” — including the Philistines, mentioned in the Bible — who migrated to the coast of the Levant starting in the 12th century BCE and settled in places like Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod.
Additional European pigs could have been brought to the Levant during the Roman-Byzantine period and during the Crusades. Over time, the European pigs overtook the European pigs, and their descendants are the only wild boars living in Israel today.
The domestic European pigs could have driven the local pigs to extinction, or mated with them — which the researchers think is more likely. To find out for sure, they are further analyzing the DNA of modern wild boars.
Pigs and the consumption of them are a much contested issue in Israel where kosher laws demand that no pigs for consumption be raised in or on the holy land. For that reason the pork industry is raised (literally) on platforms so that the little pigs do not touch the ground. Pigs also get a bad rap in Muslim countries, particulary in ones that have a Christian population. Refer to our article on the pig cull after swine flu outbreaks overtook Cairo.
Image of wild boar piglet via i.imgur