Canaan is an ancient term for the country roughly corresponding to what was later historically known as Palestine, Eretz Yisrael, or the Holy Land, and in modern political terms Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The Canaanites were the Semitic inhabitants of Canaan before the Israelites arrived. In linguistic terms, Canaanite refers to the common ancestor of closely related North-Eastern Afro-Asiatic languages such as Hebrew, and Ugaritic, and was the first language to use a Semitic alphabet, from which the others derived their scripts.
The following is a much longer discussion based on an article from a 1911 encyclopedia, but it badly needs updating with modern research results.
Canaan (also Canaanites) are geographical and ethnic terms that have a shifting reference, which doubtless arises out of the migrations of the tribes to which the term "Canaanites" belongs.
Thus in Josh 5:1 the term seems to be applied to a population on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and in Josh. 11:3, Num 13:29 (cf. also Gen 13:12) not only to these, but to a people in the Jordan Valley. In Isa 23:11 it seems to be used of Phoenicia, and in Zeph 2:5 (where, however, the text is disputed) of Philistia. Most often it is applied comprehensively to the population of the entire west Jordan. land and its pre-Israelitish inhabitants. This usage is characteristic of the writer called the Yahwist (J); see e.g. Gen. 12:5, 33:18; Ex. 15:15; Num. 33:51; Josh. 22:9; Judg. 3:1; Ps. 106:38, and elsewhere. It was also, as Augustine tells us, a usage of the Phoenicians to call their land "Canaan." This is confirmed by coins of the city of Laodicea by the Lebanon, which bear the legend, "Of Laodicea, a metropolis in Canaan"; these coins are dated under Antiochus IV (175 - 164 BC), and his successors, Greek writers, too, tell us a fact of much interest, viz, that the original name of Phoenicia was Kèna, a short, collateral form of Kena’an or Kan’an, The form Kan’an is favoured by the Egyptian usage. Seti I is said to have conquered the Shasu, or Arabian nomads, from the fortress of Taru (Shtir?) to "the Ka-n-’-na," and Rameses III to have built a temple to the god Amen in "the Ka-n-’-na." By this geographical name is probably meant all western Syria and Palestine with Raphia--"the (first) city of the Ka-n-’-na"--for the south-west boundary towards the desert. In the letters sent by governors and princes of Palestine to their Egyptian overlord - commonly known as the Tel-el-Amarna tablets - we find the two forms Kinal7l7i and Kinabna, corresponding to Kena’ and Kena’an respectively, and standing, as Ed. Meyer has shown, for Syria in its widest extent. The letters are written in the official and diplomatic language Babylonian, though "Canaanitish" words and idioms are not wanting.
On the name "Canaan" Winckler remarks, "There is at present no prospect of an etymological explanation." From the fact that Egyptian (though not Hebrew) scribes constantly prefix the article, we may suppose that it originally meant "the country of the Canaanites," just as the Hebrew phrase "the Lebanon" may originally have meant "the highlands of the Libnites"; and we are thus permitted to group the term "Canaan" with clan-names such as Achan, Akan, Jaakan, Anak (generally with the article prefixed), Kain, Kenan. Nor are scholars more unanimous with regard to the region where the terms "Canaanite" and "Canaan" arose. It may be true that the term Kinabbi in the Amarna letters corresponds to Syria and Palestine in their entirety. But this does not prove that the terms "Canaanite" and "Canaan" arose in that region, for they are presumably much older than the Amarna tablets.
Let us refer at this point to a document in Genesis which is perhaps hardly estimated at its true value, the so-called Table of Peoples in the tenth chapter of Genesis. Here we find "Canaan" included among the four sons of Ham. If Cush in 10:6 really means Ethiopia, Mizarim Egypt, and Put the Libyans, and if Ham is really a Hebraized form of the old Egyptian name for Egypt, Kam-t (black), the passage is puzzling in the extreme. But if, as has recently been suggested, Cush, Mizarim, and Put are in north Arabia, and }Jati~ is the short for Yarham or Yerahme’el (see 1 Chr. 2:25-27, 42), a north Arabian name intimately associated with Caleb, all becomes clear, and Canaan in particular is shown to be an Arabian name. Now it is no mere hypothesis that beginning from about 4000 BC a wave of Semitic migration poured out of Arabia, and flooded Babylonia certainly, and possibly, more or less, Syria and Palestine also. Also that between 2800 and 2600 BC a second wave from Arabia took the same course, covering not only Babylonia, but also Syria and Palestine and probably also Egypt (the Hyksos). It is soon after this that we meet with the great empire-builder and civilizer, Hammurabi (2267 - 2213 BC), the first king of a united Babylonia. It is noteworthy that the first part of his name is identical with the name of the father of Canaan in Genesis (Ham or Kham), indicating his Arabian origin. It was he, too, who restored the ancient supremacy of Babylonia over Syria and Palestine, and so prevented the Babylonizing of these countries from coming to an abrupt end.
We now understand how the Phoenicians, whose ancestors arrived in the second Semitic migration, came to call their land "Canaan." They had in fact the best right to do so. The first of the Canaanite immigrants were driven seawards by the masses which followed them. They settled in Phoenicia, and in after times became so great in commerce that "Canaanite" became a common Hebrew term for "merchant" (e.g. Isa. 23:8). It is a plausible theory that in the conventional language of their Inscriptions they preserved a number of geographical and religious phrases which, for them, had no dear meaning, and belonged properly to the land of their distant ancestors, Arabia. The masses of immigrants which followed them may have borne the name of Amorites. A few words on this designation must here be given. Both within and without Palestine the name was famous.
First, as regards the Old Testament, we find "the Amorite" (a collective term) mentioned in the Table of Peoples (Gen. 10:16-18a) among other tribal names, the exact-original reference of which had probably been forgotten. No one ill fact would gather from this and parallel passages how important a part was played by the Amorites in the early history of Palestine. In Gen. 14:7 f, Josh. 10:5f., Deut. 1:19 if., 27, 44 we find them located in the southern mountain country, while in Num. 21:13, 2ff., Josh. ii.xo, 9:10, 24:8, 12, etc., we hear of two great Amorite kings, residing respectively at Heshbon and Ashtaroth on the east of the Jordan. Quite different, however, is the view taken in Gen. 15:16, 48:22, Josh.24:15, Judg. 1:34, Am.n.9, 10, etc., where the name of Amorite is synonythous with "Canaanite," except that "Amorite" is never used for the population on the ocast. Next, as to the extra-Biblical evidence. In the Egyptian inscriptions and in the Amarna tablets Amar and Amurru have a thore limited meaning, being applied to the mountain-region east of Phoenicia, extending to the Orontes. Later on, Ahiurru became the Assyrian term for the interior of south as well as north Palestine, and at a still more recent period the term "the land of Hatti" (conventionally = Hittites) displaced Amurru so far as north Palestine is concerned.
Thus the Phoenicians and the Amorites belong to the first stage of the second great Arabian migration. In the interval preceding the second stage Syria with Palestine became an Egyptian dependency, though the links with the sovereign power were not so strong as to prevent frequent local rebellions. Under Thothmes III and Amenhotep II the pressure of a strong hand kept the Syrians and Canaanites sufficiently loyal to the Phgraohs. The reign of Amen-hotep III., however, was not ‘chute so tranquil for the Asiatic province. Turbulent chiefs began to seek their opportunities, though as a rule they did not find them because they could not obtain the help of a neighbouring king. The boldest of the disaffected was Aziru, son of Abd ashirta, a prince of Arnurru, who even before the death of Amenhotep III endeavoured to extend his power into the plain of Damascus. Akizzi, governor of Katna (near Horns or Hamath), reported this to the Pharaoh who seems to have frustrated the attempt. In the next reign, however, both father and son caused infinite trouble to loyal servants of Egypt like Rib-Addi, governor of Gubla (Gebal).
It was, first, the advance of the ijatti (Hittites) into Syria, which began in the time of Amenhotep III, but became far more threatening in that of his successor, and next, the resumption of the second Arabian migration, which most seriously undermined the Egyptian power in Asia. Of the former we cannot speak here, except so far as to remark the Abd-Ashirta. and his son Aziru, though at first afraid of the Uatti, was afterwards clever enough to make a treaty with their king, and, with other external powers, to attack the districts which remained loyal to Egypt. In vain did Rib-Addi send touching appeals for aid to the distant Pharaoh, who was far too much engaged in his religious innovations to attend to such messages. What most interestsus is the mention of troublesome invaders called sometimes sa-gas (a Babylonian ideogram meaning "robber"), sometimes Habiri. Who are these Habiri? Not, as was at first thought by some, specially the Israelites, but all those tribes of land-hungry nomads ("Hebrews") who were attracted by the wealth and luxury of the settled regions, and sought to appropriate it for themselves. Among these we may include not only the Israelites or tribes which afterwards became Israelitish, but the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites.
We meet with the Habiri in north Syria. Itakkama writes thus to the Pharaoh, "Behold, Namyawaza has surrendered all the cities of the king, my lord to the SA-GAS in the land of Kadesh and in Ubi. But I will go, and if thy gods and thy sun go before me, I will bring back, the cities to the king, my lord, from the Habiri, to show myself subject to him; and I will expel the SA-GAS." Similarly Zimrida, king of Sidon, declares, "All my cities which the king has given into my hand, have come into the hand of the habiri." Nor had Palestine any immunity from the Arabian invaders. The king of Jerusalem, Abd-~iba, the second part of whose name has been thought to represent the Hebrew Yahweh, reports thns to the Pharaoh, "If (Egyptian) troops come this year, lands and princes will remain to the king, my lord; but if troops come not, these lands and princes will not remain to the king, my lord." Abd-~iba's chief trouble arose from persons called Iilkili and the sons of Lapaya, who are said to have entered into a treasonable league with the Ijabiri. Apparently this restless warrior found his death at the siege of Gina. All these princes, however, malign each other in their letters to the Pharaoh, and protest their own innocence of traitorous intentions. Namyawaza, for instance, whom Itakkama (see above) accuses of disloyalty, writes thus to the Pharaoh, "Behold, I and my warriors and my chariots, together with my brethren and my SA-GAS, and my Suti ‘9 are at the disposal of the (royal) troops to go whithersoever the king, my lord, commands." This petty prince, therefore, sees no harm in having a band of Arabians for his garrison, as indeed Hezekiah Long afterwards had his Turbi to help him against Senn~cherib.
From the same period we have recently derived fresh and important evidence as to pre-Israelitish Palestine. As soon as the material gathered is large enough to be thoroughly classified and critically examined, a true history of early Palestine will be within measurable distance. At present, there are five places whence the new evidence has been obtained: at Tell-el-Hasy, eventually identified with the Lachish of the Old Testament. Excavations were made here in 1890-1892 by Flinders Petrie and Bliss,- 2. Gezer, plausibly identified with the Gezer of I Kings x. 16. Here RAS Macalister began excavating in 1902.
based on an article from a 1911 encyclopedia, this article badly needs updating with modern research results.
Canaan is also the name of some places in the United States of America:New Canaan, Connecticut