There are several ways to distinguish the ancient Canaanites: as people who lived in Canaan (Lebanon, southern Syria, Israel, and Transjordan); people who spoke a Canaanite language; people identified in antiquity by other groups as Canaanites; and people who identified themselves as Canaanites. [See Canaan.] For the period before there is any evidence of the individual Canaanite languages, the term Canaanite simply designates people who lived in (or came from) Canaan. It is not known when, exactly, the peoples who will later speak Canaanite languages arrived in Canaan, or where they came from. The first certain extant mention of “Canaanites” is in an eighteenth-century text from Mari in Syria. [See Mari Texts.] The clear break in culture in the region seen at about the beginning of the second millennium BCE, known as the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age I, and some ties between MB I cultureon the coast of Syria and Palestine and the slightly earlier culture in the interior of Syria, suggest that the “Canaanites” of the second millennium BCE came to Canaan from Syria. At any rate, it is now evident that there was a major shift at the beginning of the second millennium BCE away from rural pastoralism and toward living in large, fortified urban centers, such as Megiddo, Jericho, Tell Beit Mirsim, Gezer, Shechem, and Hazor. [See Megiddo; Jericho; Beit Mirsim, Tell; Gezer; Shechem; Hazor.] Established urban centers were growing, new settlements were being founded, and trade was on an international scale, including the islands of the Mediterranean, another sign of prosperity.


CANAANITES. Relief showing Canaanite vassals. From the Memphite tomb of general Horemheb at Saqqara. Eighteenth dynasty. (Courtesy Rijks Museum van Oudheden, Leiden)

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The three-tiered settlement pattern typical of an urbanized culture can be seen: most people lived in large urban areas; most of the settlements outside the urban areas were small villages (many were 2 acres or less); and in between the villages were a few medium-sized towns. This information has been gleaned largely from archaeological surveys; adding to it what has been learned from full-scale excavations at a few sites and comparing settlement patterns in other areas of the world and in other periods of time to help us reach conclusions about life in MB Canaan. These conclusions are much broader than what we can learn from text finds or from the few tells that have been excavated intensely and well.

The massive fortifications around the urban areas usually included a rampart (e.g., Akko, Tel Zeror, Hazor, Tel Dan, Dor, Shechem, Ashkelon, Megiddo, Lachish, Gezer). Such fortifications could only be undertaken where there was surplus wealth, a workforce free from subsistence activities, central control of natural resources outside urban areas, and central planning. They also indicate that there was a perceived enemy or enemies to warrant such precautions, as do the more modest city walls found as defenses at small farming and pastoral villages (such as Mevorakh and Shiloh). The labor that went into huge fortifications was probably forced labor—an assumption that accords well with the archaeological indicators of a stratified society: large numbers of rather poor living arrangements alongside a very few large domestic structures as at Hazor and Tell Beit Mirsim.

The transition from the Middle to Late Bronze Age in Canaan entailed some destruction, especially in the hill country and in the south, but that destruction was not complete and, in the Late Bronze Age (especially LB II, the “Amarna age”), the old sites were largely resettled: Hazor, Megiddo, Shechem, Gezer, Tell Beit Mirsim, and Tell el-Far῾ah (North) retained their prominence. [See Far῾ah, Tell el- (North).] In general, the LB city-states did not build new fortifications: where they could, they used those that still stood. This is also an urban period in Canaan, but much reduced from the Middle Bronze Age. There were fewer sites and they were generally smaller, and most settlement was along the coast and in the valleys, along the trade routes (there was very little settlement in the central hill country). Until the very end of the Late Bronze Age, there is clear evidence of trade with Cyprus and the Aegean. [See Cyprus; Aegean Islands.]

Agriculture combined with pastoralism was the way of life for most Canaanites—in what was probably a kind of dimorphic society, like the one known from eighteenth-century BCE Mari. [See Mari; Agriculture; Pastoral Nomadism.] Rural pastoralists had close ties to the urban areas, from which they were supplied with agricultural and manufactured products. The urban areas, in turn, depended on the pastoralists for animal products. There is evidence of the cultivation of wheat and barley, as well as olives, grapes, and other horticultural products. [See Cereals; Olives; Viticulture.] Cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were herded. [See Cattle and Oxen; Sheep and Goats; Pigs.] By the Middle Bronze Age the technology existed to make tools sharper and of sturdier bronze than was possible in the Early Bronze Age. In addition, the quality of Canaanite pottery was extremely fine as a result of advances in ceramic technology.

There is no indication that the Canaanite urbanized three-tiered settlement pattern, or city-state system, was ever organized on a larger scale, into a true nation-state system. (No capital city of all Canaan has so far presented itself.) Canaan was ruled by Egypt from at least the time of Thutmosis III (early fifteenth century BCE), although Egyptian control of the province was sometimes very loose. The Canaanites of the fourteenth-century Amarna letters lived in feuding city-states that depend on Egypt to settle their disputes, and there is archaeological evidence of periodic Egyptian sorties, especially in the south. [See Amarna Tablets.] As the era proceeded, the evidence for Egyptian fortress sites and “governors' residencies” increases (e.g., Haruvit, Tel Mor, Jaffa, Deir el-Balah, Tell esh-Shari῾a, Aphek, Tell el-Far῾ah [South], and Tell Jemmeh), suggesting that the city-states' pleas for more protection from Egypt were heeded.


CANAANITES. Copy of a mural from a tomb at Beni Hasan. Semitic tribespeople dressed in colored striped costumes ask permission to enter Egypt. Dated to the nineteenth century BCE, Middle Kingdom. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

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A weakened Egypt lost control of Canaan in the mid-twelfth century BCE, and the vacuum left by its withdrawalallowed for the establishment there of independent political units: Israel, Moab, Ammon, Edom, the Philistine pentapolis, and the Phoenician cities in the north. This process in Israel and Judah seems to have been a gradual sedentarization of the population, helped along by deforestation and terracing for agriculture, and often in areas not heavily settled in the Late Bronze Age. [See Moab; Ammon; Edom; Philistines, article on Early Philistines; Phoenicians.]

Writing and Languages.

There is evidence that the Canaanite peoples used several writing systems in the Middle Bronze Age and later. Akkadian syllabic cuneiform texts have been found at Ta῾anach, Megiddo, Aphek, and Hazor. [See Akkadian; Cuneiform; Ta῾anach; Aphek.] One of them, a literary text found at Megiddo, is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, suggesting the existence of a traditional cuneiform scribal school there in which students learned to write in part by copying “the classics.” [See Writing and Writing Systems; Scribes and Scribal Techniques.] What is known as Peripheral Akkadian was the lingua franca of much of the Near East (outside Mesopotamia proper) in the Late Bronze Age. Many letters from Amarna in Egypt (ancient Akhetaten) exist that were sent to and from Canaanite cities (e.g., from Akko, Ashkelon, Beirut, Byblos, Gezer, Hazor, Jerusalem, Lachish, Megiddo, Shechem, Sidon, and Tyre) and are written in several of these Peripheral Akkadian dialects. [See Amarna, Tell el-; Akko; Ashkelon; Beirut; Byblos; Jerusalem; Lachish; Sidon; Tyre.]

A much-simplified cuneiform writing system is also known from such Canaanite sites as Ta῾anach, Sarepta, and Beth-Shemesh, although the vast majority of the texts in this system come from the Syrian city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) and its environs. [See Sarepta; Beth-Shemesh; Ugarit.] Because not all such texts are from Ugarit, there has been a tendency in recent scholarship away from calling this writing system Ugaritic cuneiform. [See Ugaritic.] It is referred to it instead as Canaanite cuneiform (although this usage also has its problems: strictly speaking, Ugarit was not a part of Canaan). Unlike the Akkadian syllabary, with its hundreds of signs, this Canaanite cuneiform writing system (also writing wedge-shaped characters with a stylus on clay tablets) has only thirty characters, each of which represents a consonant in the Ugaritic language—or, in the case of the phoneme 'aleph, represented by three signs, a consonant plus a vowel. It is, therefore, an alphabet rather than a syllabary.

The system for which the Canaanites are best remembered, however, is the linear alphabet, first encountered on a single sixteenth-century BCE sherd from Gezer and then in large numbers of fifteenth-century BCE inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem, a turquoise-mining site in western Sinai where Canaanite-speaking slaves were the labor force. (The name Proto-Sinatic was given to the corpus.) [See Alphabet; Proto-Canaanite; Proto-Sinaitic.] Some of the signs resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs, but no consistent system of influence has ever been demonstrated. Each of the original twenty-seven symbols represents a consonantal phoneme. The linear alphabet operates according to the acrophonic principle: each symbol originated as the picture of something whose name in Canaanite was a word that began with the sound the picture represents. A picture of a house was the original b because the Canaanite word for house, bayt-, begins with the b sound. The k is a picture of a hand, because in Canaanite “(palm of) hand” is kapp-. This linear alphabet—incised in stone, metal, and gemstones and drawn in ink on potsherds (ostraca), papyrus, and leather—is the forerunner of all modern Western alphabets, spread through the Mediterranean by Phoenician traders. [See Ostracon; Papyrus; Leather.] Some of the signs in the earlier Canaanite cuneiform alphabet resemble this linear alphabet—it is as if the cuneiformists had attempted to draw the pictographs rather abstractly with a stylus on clay. It has therefore been suggested that the Canaanite cuneiform alphabet developed under the influence of the linear alphabet. The order of the alphabet is the same for both, as witnessed by the several complete and partial abecedaries discovered in both systems (e.g., from Ugarit, ῾Izbet Ṣarṭah, and Lachish).

This linear alphabet is the source of the later Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic scripts (including subsets of each, such as Ammonite and Edomite); it is also the source of the South Semitic alphabet—the letter shapes in this series suggest that it must have broken off from the rest by the thirteenth century BCE. [See Phoenician-Punic; Hebrew Language and Literature; Aramaic Language and Literature; Ammonite Inscriptions.] The earliest inscriptions in this linear alphabet so far recovered include (in addition to some largely dedicatory Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions) several short inscriptions likely representing claims to ownership: bronze arrowheads inscribed with personal names; several dedicatory inscriptions, usually written on the dedicated objects; and an abecedary from ῾Izbet Ṣarṭah.

The word Canaanite is also used as the name of a group of Northwest Semitic languages: Israelite and Judahite Hebrew; Phoenician and Punic; Ammonite; Edomite; and Moabite. Also Northwest Semitic languages, but differentiated from Canaanite, are Ugaritic, Aramaic, and the language of the plaster text from Tell Deir ῾Alla. [See Deir ῾Alla Inscriptions.] (Cf. the reference to Hebrew as the “language of Canaan” in Is. 19:18.) The Canaanite languages are differentiated from other Northwest Semitic languages in at least the following three ways.

  • 1. The suffix-conjugation forms for the D (“intensive”; Heb., pi῾el) conjugation and C (“causative”; Heb., hip῾îl) conjugation are ⋆qattila and ⋆haqtila in Proto-Northwest Semitic, but they become ⋆qittila and ⋆hiqtila in Hebrew, in Phoenician, and in at least one of the Amarna Canaanite dialects.
  • 2. The first-person singular independent pronoun, originally ⋆'anākū̆, becomes ⋆'anōkū̆ ([ā] > [ō] (the so-called Canaanite shift), and then dissimilates to ’anōkī. Corresponding to this new form comes the change from -tū̆ to -tī̆ in the suffix-conjugation ending for the first-person singular.
  • 3. Proto-Canaanite leveled -nū̆ for all first-person plural suffixes (on suffix-conjugation verbs, on nouns, and in the objective verbal suffixes), from an earlier mixture of -nū̆ and -nū̆. (Proto-Aramaic, on the other hand, leveled -nū̆.) Obviously, evidence for all these features is not to be found in the traditions that exist only in unvocalized form (e.g., Moabite, Edomite, Ammonite); where there is evidence, however, it supports these suggested divisions.

Religion and Cult.

The picture of Canaanite religion is often drawn from the texts found at ancient Ugarit (in spheres outside religion, however, most scholars do not include Ugarit within the scope of Canaan). While the Ugaritians distinguished themselves from Canaanites, Ugaritic religious literature has enough links with later biblical literature to place Ugarit on a cultural continuum with Canaan. The copious amounts of material from Ugarit may, then, suggest what LB Canaanite religion was like. Because the later political entities of Israel, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and the Phoenician cities were also Canaanite, their religious traditions also constitute “Canaanite religion,” although many biblical texts, for instance, distinguish between Israelite religion and the religion of “the Canaanites,” with the latter seen as the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land.

Canaanite religion was a religion of blood sacrifice, as can be seen not only in the Bible but also on the lists of sacrifices to various deities found at Ugarit and in the number of altars found in the vicinity of animal remains at archaeological sites throughout the region. [See Altars.] The harvest festivals known from the Bible are thought to be general Canaanite, and not specific Hebrew, festivals. Several other religious features known especially from the Bible are also confirmed by the archaeology and historical geography of the area: outside worship at installations called bāmôt; the erection of standing stones; and the veneration of mountains and hills. [See Cult.]

A large number of male and female deities was worshiped throughout the area, known from Ugarit, the Bible, various Canaanite personal names, and inscriptions. The high god 'El, the father-god, head of the council of gods, lived on top of a mountain at the foot of which was the source of fresh water. Of the same “generation” was Asherah, a marine goddess ('atiratu yammi at Ugarit); the gods at Ugarit are called her children and she is called creator of creatures. Asherah was also known as Qudshu, “holiness” (in Egypt as well as at Ugarit), and as 'Elat, “goddess” (e.g., on a ewer from Lachish; see Cross, 1954, pp. 19–22). The storm god, Ba῾al Hadad, a warrior-god, fights battles with both the Sea (Yamm) and Death (Mot). ῾Anat, a warrior goddess, is also typical of the Near Eastern goddess represented as an adolescent—no longer a child but not yet a woman (like some descriptions of Mesopotamian Ishtar). She is described in a manner reminiscent of some iconographic representations of the Indian goddess Kali, adorned with skulls and hands (KTU–11). The goddess ῾Ashtart is not very well developed at Ugarit or in the Bible, but she is the head deity at Sidon in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, where her cult is presided over by the royal family. Dagon, god of grain (known also from Ugarit), is said in the Bible to be worshiped by the Philistines (e.g., 1 Sm. 4), and so may have been more important in second-millennium BCE Canaan than the texts suggest.

These deities demonstrate continuity with those of the national religions of the Iron Age: Yahweh in Israel, for instance, is a storm god as well as an 'El figure (patriarch, head of the council). There is no evidence that Chemosh in Moab, Milkom in Ammon, and Qaws in Edom were any different. In fact, there is some slight evidence that they were similar; they were also national gods from the same time period, and the onomastica are similar; and the Mesha stela shows Chemosh leading Mesha in war and requiring a kind of “holy war” destruction.

The Phoenician gods vary in name and/or function from city to city. Ba῾al Shamêm (“lord of heaven,” probably a local name for Ba῾al Hadad) is the god who legitimizes and blesses the ruling families of several Phoenician (and Aramean) cities; the Lady of Byblos seems to have the same function at Byblos. [See Arameans.] ῾Ashtart, mentioned above, was also one of the gods, along with Melqart, Eshmun, Bethel, ῾Anat-Bethel, and various Ba῾al figures, who served as Tyrian guarantors of Tyre's seventh-century BCE treaty with the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. [See Assyrians.] Eshmun is the Phoenician god of healing, and Melqart (“king of the city”) appears largely in Tyrian or Tyrian colonial settings. Tanit (or Tinnit), presumably a local name for Asherah, is at home in seventh-century BCE Sarepta in Phoenicia and throughout the Mediterranean, especially in North Africa in the third-second centuries BCE. [See Phoenicia; North Africa.]

No local evidence presently exists for the kind of sexual magico-sympathetic religion so often asserted for the Canaanites—even though the fertility of humans, animals, and crops was of course a concern of ancient Near Eastern religions (including that of the Israelites and Ugaritians). At Ugarit, Ba῾al Hadad was the provider of rain as well as the god of fertility for crops; and 'El was the deity appealed to for human fertility, just as Yahweh was the god of fertility in Israel.

In addition to the cults of the national or city gods of Canaan, other forms of religious activity existed throughout the area. Both the goddess figurines excavated by archaeologists in Israel and the inscriptions from Kuntillet ῾Ajrud in Sinai offer evidence of goddess worship officially or unofficially alongside the worship of Yahweh. [See Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.] From the coastal areas there is some evidence, mostly iconographic and architectural, of a religion peculiar to seafarers: anchors included in temple architecture, temples on isolated promontories, and what appear to be divinized ships portrayed on coins. [See Seafaring; Anchors.] Moreover, there appears to be a form of ancestor religion attested in texts and in burials from Israel (e.g., Ps. 106:28) and Ugarit (especially KTU 1.161 and the Duties of the Ideal Son repeated several times in KTU 1.17), as well as farther afield in Syria and Mesopotamia. [See Burial Techniques.] (Ancestor religion, which exists primarily in patrilineal societies, generally includes blood sacrifice; it functions to tie males to ancestors in the genealogy, while seeking blessings as a reward for keeping up the cultic ties.)

The gruesome practice of child sacrifice was also a part of Canaanite religion. It is best known from the Punic colonies in North Africa, but inscriptions related to Phoenician child sacrifice have also turned up on Malta, Sicily, and Sardinia. [See Malta; Sardinia.] There are many biblical references to the practice in Israel and its environs (e.g., Dt. 12:31, 18:9–10; 2 Kgs.3:26–27, 16:3; Jer. 7:31; Ps. 106:37–38).

Hebrew Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible, the word Canaanite(s) is sometimes used as a general term for the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land (Ex. 13:11; throughout Jgs. 1); the term Amorite(s) is also used (Gn. 15:16; Jgs. 6:10). More often, several peoples are said to have lived in the land before the Israelites, and the Canaanites are mentioned as one among them (e.g., Gn. 15:19–21; Ex. 3:8; Jos. 3:10). In a few of these cases, the Canaanites are specifically located along the coast—perhaps a reflection of the position of Phoenicia in the first half of the first millennium BCE (Nm. 13:29; Jos. 5:1, cf. 7:7–9). In the genealogy of Genesis 10:6, Canaan is the son of Noah’s son Ham and the brother of Ethiopia (Cush), Egypt, and Libya (Put); and in 10:15–18 it is the father of Sidon, the Hittites (Heth), and the Jebusites and Amorites (who are elsewhere listed as pre-Israelite peoples in the land), as well as the father of the Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, and Hamathites.

The term Canaanite fell out of use for the most part in about 1000 BCE, when it was replaced by the gentilics of the various Iron Age nations that grew out of Canaan. Trade in the coastal cities continued to be active, however, and the Phoenicians (see above) eventually set up a long-distance trade network in the Mediterranean world. Carthage, initially a Phoenician colony, became the head of a commercial empire of its own in the late first millennium BCE. [See Carthage.] In the fourth century CE its people, according to Augustine, still called themselves Canaanites (Migne 35, 2096).


  • Clifford, Richard J. “Phoenician Religion.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 279 (1990): 55–64. Brief but excellent presentation of current thinking about the religion and gods of the Phoenicians.
  • Coogan, Michael D. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Westminster, 1978. The best English translation of the three major mythic narratives from Ugarit.
  • Cross, Frank Moore. “The Evolution of the Proto-Canaanite Alphabet.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 134 (1954): 15–24.
  • Cross, Frank Moore. Conversations with a Bible Scholar, edited by Hershel Shanks. Washington, 1994. A recent and informal exposition of Canaanite and biblical religion by the scholar who defined the parameters of the discussion in the United States.
  • Dever, William G. “The Middle Bronze Age: The Zenith of the Urban Canaanite Era.” Biblical Archaeologist 50.3 (1987): 148–77. Comprehensive presentation of the era, plus a discussion of the New Archaeology.
  • Halpern, Baruch. The Emergence of Israel in Canaan. Chico, Calif., 1983. Painstaking exposition of the beginnings of Israel in Canaan, as revealed in Israel's earliest literature.
  • Huehnergard, John. “Languages (Introductory).” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4, pp. 155–170. New York, 1992. Extensive overview of the languages of the biblical world, the time periods in which they are attested, and the kinds of texts written in each.
  • Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, ca. 10,000–586 B.C.E. New York, 1990. Readable and thorough introduction to the archaeology of Israel and its environs.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr. “Ugarit and the History of Religions.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 9 (1981): 119–28. The best short treatment of the subject of Ugaritic religion.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr., Paul D. Hanson, and S. Dean McBride, eds. Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross. Philadelphia, 1987. More than thirty Scholars address Israel's religion in the context of the ancient Near East.
  • Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore, 1992. The definitive translation, with introduction and notes, of the fourteenth-century BCE diplomatic letters, found at el-Amarna in Egypt, between the pharoah and his vassals in Syria-Palestine. The correspondence is the source of much of what is known of LB Canaan.
  • Na'aman, Nadav, “Economic aspects of the Egyptian occupation of Canaan.” Israel Exploration Journal 31.3–4 (1981): 172–185. Discussion of the logic of the administration of Canaan during the Amarna age.
  • Naveh, Joseph. Early History of the Alphabet. Jerusalem, 1987. Readable survey of the earliest known West Semitic inscriptions and the later first-millennium BCE evolution of the script traditions.

Jo Ann Hackett