Canaanites Inhabit the Levant Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Canaanites, a new culture in an already ancient land, inspired city building, metalworking, and large-scale trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt, ultimately leading to alphabetic writing and biblical religions.

Summary of Event

Human presence and village life in the Levant go back many millennia. Excavations at Jericho reveal levels of habitation dating back to at least 8500 b.c.e. The Canaanites appeared around 3000 b.c.e., with a new way of life based on cities. There is some controversy over whether the Canaanites were invaders or a group already living in the region. They may have incorporated elements of both. Archaeologists have found their urban sites throughout the area, including 5,000-year-old stone gates at Beirut. An emerging, relatively coherent Canaanite culture was accompanied by technological advances.

Writing, which had already been invented in Mesopotamia, apparently had not reached the Levant by this time. There are no king lists or commercial records of early Canaan. Archaeological evidence can show much about material culture and city layout and sometimes can reveal the makeup of populations, but archaeologists can only make guesses regarding many matters of Canaanite social organization, based on later patterns and those in neighboring lands.

Canaanite cities, like those in Mesopotamia, had sturdy fortifications, public buildings, and some sort of water supply, which might include cisterns and irrigation measures. Presumably an administrative class and methods developed. As its early Bronze Age designation implies, this era was typified by advances in metalworking, especially useful for the production of weapons and tools. Potter’s wheels came into general use, and a wide variety of ceramics were made and decorated. In agriculture, the subsistence farming and herding of earlier times changed to large-scale production, creating a surplus for trade and storage.

These events did not take place in isolation. At the same time, Egypt and Mesopotamia were inventing the building blocks of their civilizations. In Egypt, the Old Kingdom had begun, and an overall political structure was emerging. Sumeria was at the prosperous center of Mesopotamia. Because of their location, Canaanite cities and towns received influences from both directions.

Canaanites participated actively in the exchange of goods and cultural traits in the ancient Near East. Their cities flourished by trade. Almost certainly they organized some of the donkey caravans that carried cargo overland at the time; a tomb in Lachish contains bones of a domesticated donkey. Wood from the cedars of Lebanon, famous in biblical lore, was already being shipped to Egypt from the port of Byblos.

Canaanites were also involved in commercial production of food for export. At Tell es-Sa’idiyeh in the Jordan Valley, excavations revealed a large Early Bronze Age complex apparently devoted to such an enterprise. Large empty jugs were stacked in a storeroom, and charred olives, grapes, wheat, and figs were found in other rooms. Presumably a fire devastated this early factory, which seems to have made, stored, and shipped textiles along with olive oil, wine, and other foodstuffs. Much of Canaan’s commerce was with Egypt, which imported its olive oil and wine in large quantities. Many trade goods also went to Syria and points east. Although more commerce probably took place with Egypt, in this era, Canaan seems to have shared more cultural traits with Mesopotamia. This may be partly because of similar climates and terrain as well as migration.

Such findings are interesting not only because they show the extent of commerce and manufacturing some five millennia ago. Also notable is the fact that Canaan, living midway between the two “cradles of civilization,” was in an ideal location to benefit from the cultural diffusion that accompanied trade and travel. After this era, a succession of incursions and conquests occurred, but successor cultures remained Canaanite in many ways. During this process two very important elements were transmuted, to form a part of future history and its cultures.

Significance

Canaanite hegemony in the Levant profoundly affected Judaism and its offspring, Christianity. The early Bronze Age era far predates the development of a Hebrew nation or the historical events of the Bible. However, the Canaanites had a complex pantheon and religion that endured through the following centuries. The religion placed much emphasis on blood sacrifices, often of children, to pacify the various deities.

When a rudimentary Jewish identity emerged, it was largely out of the Canaanite milieu and incorporated features of the religion into its own. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac may represent one such remnant. Later, as the Israelites attempted to claim Canaan as their promised land, their religion came to be defined in opposition to that of Canaan. Yahweh became a sole deity, distinct from the Canaanites’ high god El, and polytheism was denounced, along with the worship of idols.

The alphabet is the Canaanites’ other lasting legacy. Sumerian cuneiform sign-script was invented before 3300 b.c.e. and gradually found its way to the Levant. Over time, the Canaanites transformed it into a phonetic alphabet (so called for the Phoenicians who were latter-day Canaanites). All later alphabetic writing systems, from the Greek and Roman to our own, are built on this achievement.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albright, William Foxwell. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. London: The Athlone Press, 1968. Interesting survey of trade relations, the Canaanite pantheon, and Mesopotamian and Canaanite elements in Hebrew religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fritz, Volkmar. “Israelites and Canaanites: You Can Tell Them Apart.” Biblical Archaeological Review 28, no. 4 (July/August 2002): 28-31. Throws light on the differentiation between Israelite and other Canaanite residents in the early Iron Age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snell, Daniel C. Life in the Ancient Near East. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Emphasizes ties with Mesopotamia during this era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tubb, Jonathan N. Canaanites. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. The most comprehensive study of Canaanite history and civilization written for the nonspecialist.

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