Archaeological Bombshell: Israel's Unique Wild Boars Came From Europe

Ancient Philistines most likely shipped the porcine ancestors across the Mediterranean, archaeologists say.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Israel has wild boars aplenty. They abound throughout the country, with the exception of the deep desert. But where did they come from? A new genetic study has determined that burning question: It turns out their forefathers were brought over from Europe, probably in biblical times by the Philistines, Israeli scientists say.

Genetically, it turns out that Israel's boars stand out from endemic populations in Syria, Turkey and Egypt, says the study published Monday in Scientific Report.

Dr. Meirav Meiri of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology led the team of archaeologists and zoologists from Tel Aviv University, the Weizmann Institute, the University of Haifa, Bar-Ilan University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.

Genetic researchers classify the world's pigs into three main groups: European, Near Eastern and Far Eastern. While European and Near Eastern pigs look so similar externally that researchers cannot tell the difference between them, each group has a different genetic signature.

The study, which examined 25 wild boars from Israel, found that all had the genetic signature of the European group. This means that at a certain point in history, the European pigs reached Israel and pushed out the local population.

Remains of Neolithic pork feasts

To find the historical period at which the wild boars arrived from Europe, the scientists collected pig bones discovered at archaeological sites. The oldest bones were taken from Neolithic-era sites, which date to roughly 9500 B.C.E., while the most recent bones were taken from sites dating back to the Middle Ages, about 800 years ago.

The study found that until the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, which was about 1000 B.C.E., the wild boars in Israel were still of the Near Eastern variety. About a century later, at the height of the Iron Age, the samples reflected a dramatic increase in the number of European pigs.

This period corresponds to the arrival of the Philistines, who immigrated from the Aegean Sea and settled on the coast of present-day Israel. The historical overlaps means the Philistines most likely carried the ancestors of Israel’s current wild boars on their ships across the Mediterranean.

Some of the boars, presumably being raised for their meat, escaped into the wild, supplanting the local boar population for some reason and leaving their own genetic signature among the current population.

The researchers believe that another group of wild boars was brought here from Europe about a thousand years later, during the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The period of the Philistines’ settlement in the Land of Israel was also the period of the Israelite monarchy — and the Philistines became the Israelites’ sworn enemies. One of the ways that archaeologists tell the difference between Philistine, Judaic and Canaanite sites is by seeing how many pig bones are among the total number of animal bones found at a given site. Judaic sites usually have no pig bones, while Philistine sites have them in abundance.

A wild boar splashing around.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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