Genetic study shows Ashkenazi Jews descend from men from the Levant and their European wives

Social distinctions between Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. and the Ashkenazim still persist and of course the Ethiopian Jews are a class apart. This latest study published in Nature Communications which shows that the Ashkenazim derive from male ancestors from the Levant who moved to Europe and took local women as wives will not be without its detractors.

Marta D. Costa, Joana B. Pereira, Maria Pala, Verónica Fernandes, Anna Olivieri, Alessandro Achilli, Ugo A. Perego, Sergei Rychkov, Oksana Naumova, Jiři Hatina, Scott R. Woodward, Ken Khong Eng, Vincent Macaulay, Martin Carr, Pedro Soares, Luísa Pereira and Martin B. Richards, A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages, Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2543, doi:10.1038/ncomms3543

Abstract:The origins of Ashkenazi Jews remain highly controversial. Like Judaism, mitochondrial DNA is passed along the maternal line. Its variation in the Ashkenazim is highly distinctive, with four major and numerous minor founders. However, due to their rarity in the general population, these founders have been difficult to trace to a source. Here we show that all four major founders, ~40% of Ashkenazi mtDNA variation, have ancestry in prehistoric Europe, rather than the Near East or Caucasus. Furthermore, most of the remaining minor founders share a similar deep European ancestry. Thus the great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant, as commonly supposed, nor recruited in the Caucasus, as sometimes suggested, but assimilated within Europe. These results point to a significant role for the conversion of women in the formation of Ashkenazi communities, and provide the foundation for a detailed reconstruction of Ashkenazi genealogical history.

There is a belief that all Ashkanazim are descended from just 4 women who migrated to Europe but this study contradicts that. The NYT reports that some opposition to the results is already evident:

….. The finding establishes that the women who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Europe were not from the Near East, as previously supposed, and reinforces the idea that many Jewish communities outside Israel were founded by single men who married and converted local women.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, is based on a genetic analysis of maternal lineages. A team led by Martin B. Richards of the University of Leeds in England took a fresh look at Ashkenazi lineages by decoding the entire mitochondrial genomes of people from Europe and the Near East. ….

This uncertainty seemed to be resolved by a survey published in 2006. Its authors reported that the four most common mitochondrial DNA lineages among Ashkenazis came from the Near East, implying that just four Jewish women were the ancestresses of nearly half of today’s Ashkenazim. Under this scenario, it seemed more likely that the Ashkenazim were the result of a migration of whole communities of men and women together. ….

With the entire mitochondrial genome in hand, Dr. Richards could draw up family trees with a much finer resolution than before. His trees show that the four major Ashkenazi lineages in fact form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. The same is true of most of the minor lineages.

“Thus the great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant, as commonly supposed,” Dr. Richards and colleagues conclude in their paper. Overall, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe, and 8 percent from the Near East, with the rest uncertain, the researchers estimate. …

Dr. Richards estimates that the four major lineages became incorporated into the Ashkenazi community at least 2,000 years ago. A large Jewish community flourished in Rome at this time and included many converts. This community could have been the source of both the Ashkenazim of Europe and the Sephardim of Spain and Portugal, given that the two groups have considerable genetic commonality, Dr. Richards said.

EurekAlert: In the vast majority of cases, Ashkenazi lineages are most closely related to southern and western European lineages – and that these lineages have been present in Europe for many thousands of years.

This means that, even though Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from Palestine around 2000 years ago, they brought few or no wives with them. They seem to have married with European women, firstly along the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, and later (but probably to a lesser extent) in western and central Europe. This suggests that, in the early years of the Diaspora, Judaism took in many converts from amongst the European population, but they were mainly recruited from amongst women. Thus, on the female line of descent, the Ashkenazim primarily trace their ancestry neither to Palestine nor to Khazaria, but to southern and western Europe.

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2 Responses to “Genetic study shows Ashkenazi Jews descend from men from the Levant and their European wives”

  1. agnophilo Says:

    Modern science debunks a long held religious belief and once again I’m sure will have zero impact on those who hold that belief.

  2. Daniel Gavron Says:

    Historians suggested many years ago that Judaism attracted a significant number of citizens of the Roman empire–particularly women. Just as communism became less attractive and acceptable, as the education level in the Soviet Union went up, the increasing sophistication of Roman society meant that the system of the gods of Olympus was seen as inadequate and many women found inspiration in the deeper philosophy of monotheism. Later of course Christianity exerted the same appeal. At least one historian proposed that the Greek freemen of the Roman empire deliberately escalated the Jewish War of 70 CE so that Jewish civilization, which threatened the Greek & Roman religion, could be destroyed. The latest discovery about the origin of European Jews seems to fit quite nicely with this idea.

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