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Genetic Roots of the Ashkenazi Jews

Most Ashkenazi Jews, traditionally believed to have descended from the ancient tribes of Israel, may in fact be maternally descended from prehistoric Europeans.

By | October 8, 2013

FLICKR, ADAM BAKERThe majority of Ashkenazi Jews are descended from prehistoric European women, according to study published today (October 8) in Nature Communications. While the Jewish religion began in the Near East, and the Ashkenazi Jews were believed to have origins in the early indigenous tribes of this region, new evidence from mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on exclusively from mother to child, suggests that female ancestors of most modern Ashkenazi Jews converted to Judaism in the north Mediterranean around 2,000 years ago and later in west and central Europe.

The new findings contradict previous assertions that Ashkenazi mitochondrial lineages originated in the Near East, or from mass conversions to Judaism in the Khazar kingdom, an empire in the north Caucasus region between Europe and Asia lasting from the 7th century to the 11th century whose leaders adopted Judaism. “We found that most of the maternal lineages don’t trace to the north Caucasus, which would be a proxy for the Khazarians, or to the Near East, but most of them emanate from Europe,” said coauthor Martin Richards, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K.

Richards and colleagues’ story “seems reasonable,” said Harry Ostrer, a human geneticist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City who was not involved in the study.  “It certainly fits with what we understand about Jewish history.”

The Ashkenazi Jews make up the majority of Jews today and most recently have ancestry in central or Eastern Europe. Previous work has demonstrated that just four mitochondrial types, pass down from four mothers, account for 40 percent of variation in Ashkenazi Jews’ mitochondrial DNA, and some researchers have published evidence of Near Eastern origins for these Ashkenazi mitochondrial types.

To further investigate the matrilineal lines of the Ashkenazi Jews, Richards and colleagues looked at mitochondrial genome sequences in living Jews and non-Jews from the Near East, Europe, and the Caucasus. Based on the results, the team concluded that, in contrast to the evidence for many Ashkenazi males, whose Y chromosomal DNA suggests a likely origin in the Near East, the female lineage of Ashkenazi Jews have substantial ancestry in Europe.  Specifically, the researchers found that the four main Ashkenazi founder mitochondrial types were nested within European mitochondrial lineages, not Near Eastern ones, and an analysis of more minor haplogroups indicated that an additional 40 percent of mitochondrial variation found in Ashkenazi Jews’ mitochondrial DNA was likely of European origin. The remaining variants appeared to be from the Near East or are of uncertain origin, and there was no evidence for Ashkenazi Jewish origins in the Khazar kingdom, according to the authors.

Historical evidence indicates that Jewish communities began to spread into Europe during classical antiquity and migrated north during the first millennium CE, arriving in the Rhineland by the 12th century. Local European women could have begun to join the Jewish population around 2,000 years ago or earlier, Richards and colleagues suggest, and the Ashkenazis may have continued to recruit additional women as they headed north.

But some scientists question these conclusions. “While it is clear that Ashkenazi maternal ancestry includes both Levantine [Near Eastern] and European origins—the assignment of several of the major Ashkenazi lineages to pre-historic European origin in the current study is incorrect in our view,” physician-geneticists Doron Behar and Karl Skorecki of the Rambam Healthcare Campus in Israel, whose previous work indicated a Near Eastern origins to many Ashkenazi mitochondrial types, wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist. They argue that the mitochondrial DNA data used in the new study did not represent the full spectrum of mitochondrial diversity.

Eran Elhaik, a research associate studying genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, is split. He agreed with the study authors that the study rules out a Near Eastern origin for many mitochondrial lineages of the Ashkenazis but disagreed that it rules out a Khazarian contribution. “Jews and non-Jews residing in the regions of Khazaria are underrepresented, which biases the results toward Europe as we have seen in many other studies,” he said in an e-mail to The Scientist. Elhaik recently concluded from autosomal DNA that European Jews did, in fact, have a Khazarian background.

David Goldstein, a geneticist and director of the Center for Human Genome Variation at the Duke University School of Medicine, said that the questions of whether there was a Khazar contribution to the Ashkenazi Jews’ lineage, or exactly what percentage of mitochondrial variants emanate from Europe, cannot be answered with certainty using present genetic and geographical data. Even if a set of variants are present in a specific region today, that doesn’t mean that the region always had that set of variants. Some variants could have been lost due to drift, or perhaps migration altered the balance of variants present in the population.

“These analyses really do not have any formal statistical inference about evolutionary history in them,” Goldstein wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist. “They are based on direct interpretations of where one finds different [mitochondrial DNA] types today.  And so the analyses are largely impressionistic.”

Nevertheless, Goldstein noted that the new study “does offer better resolution of the [mitochondrial DNA] than earlier ones, and so the suggested interpretation could well be right.”

M.D. Costa et al., “A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages,” Nature Communications, doi:10.1038/ncomms3543, 2013.

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Avatar of: Bernard Baars

Bernard Baars

Posts: 1

October 8, 2013

I'm not a geneticist, so I have a simple question. 

Does the term "mitochondrial lineage" indicate an exclusively female-to-female line of descent? In that case, it seems to me, given the doubling of the genetic material in each generation, we are only describing one out of very many lineages, the number of mixed-gender lineages expanding in each generation, while the same-gender lineages remain at two only, the male-male (etc) line, and the female-female (etc.) line. 

Therefore based on this particular study we cannot make much of an inference about the total genetic variation in Ashkenazi vs. non-A individuals living today. 

This is not true for 100% sex-linked genetic traits, of course. 

Since this is a simple question of definition, I wonder if you could give us the answer? 

Thank you!

Bernard Baars

Avatar of: Martin Croghan

Martin Croghan

Posts: 1

October 8, 2013

I'm in the semiotics business. This focus on genetic narrative scares me, if it denies my right to identity. Could semiotics and genetics have a bit of a fling to mix things up a bit. The abuse of genetics, like the abuse of self-ascribed identity of any sort, is a nightmare, waiting to happen. Would it be rude to ask genetics to take tea with semiotics once a week. Genetic purity is a myth, but myth is my side of the fence, and it can be your worst nightmare in my world, in proposing an explanatory framework for violence.

 

P.S. The transference of geneticism, analogically, to religious absolutism, in terms of identity, has arrived in Ireland, and we are the last rock on the extremity of Europe. And it is not the Church of Rome.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 105

October 9, 2013

From the original article, it is quite unclear just where the population source is from or what they describe as their own old country-of-origin history.  Perhaps, they are, for the most part, quite tightly regional.  In addition, one needs to remember that a huge swath of the potential Jewish population for sampling was disappeared from the gene pool from 1933-1945.  Hence, there could be some significant inborn sampling bias in the study from the start.  So, looking way, way back and extrapolating to a huge geographical region is frought with error.  Therefore, the conclusions are only valid as far as this particular sampling goes...whatever that was.

Avatar of: Lucke

Lucke

Posts: 3

October 9, 2013

MitDNA tells about the female (mother) migration story, whereas the Y chromosome about the male story. Antropological studies indicated that women were object of sequestration in many mass movements (wars, invasions) that ocurred in historical times. That means they were taken away (stolen) from their lands, or that, they did not "own" lands as men did. Would that indicate the mitDNA not be a good marker for mass movements through history, as in this case where the "Ashkenazi Jews" migrated, but not been taken away?

I would appreciate your comments on this view...

 

L

Avatar of: Pavel L.

Pavel L.

Posts: 1

October 9, 2013

It means only that statistically more female than male descendents of European mothers and generaly of mixed marriages remain in Jewish genetic pool.

Avatar of: Hugh-F-61

Hugh-F-61

Posts: 29

Replied to a comment from Bernard Baars made on October 8, 2013

October 9, 2013

Mitochondria are organelles in cytoplasm and are passed on in the egg from mothers to all her children. Mitochondria in the sperm are destroyed at fertilisation. Mitochondrial lines therefore trace female-female inheritance for ever. This research shows that the mothers of most of the current Askenazi jews have always been (or at least could have been) European. The likely scenario would have  been male merchants travelling into Europe without women and then taking wives from the local population.

Similarly in Iceland, most men came from Norway, but many of their wives were Irish, probably slaves.

Avatar of: Lucke

Lucke

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from Hugh-F-61 made on October 9, 2013

October 10, 2013

Yes, but how could then ruled out the hypothesis that the "Ashkenazi Jews" came from the central Caucasus, for instance, based on the mother mitDNA if women could be "grabbed" from anywhere? The Jews were forced to move many times throughout AC and BC history. So, this poses an enormous difficulty to the task, don’t you think so? I recognize this is not an appealing hypothesis but rather a polemic one, given the actual circumstances in the middle east…

Avatar of: 99bonk

99bonk

Posts: 1

October 10, 2013

It is clear from the article that insufficient information is at present available using current methods of mitochondrial analysis to come to any definite conclusion regarding the origins of Ashkenic Jews.   We need to wait until the technology is better developed.

Avatar of: blumberg

blumberg

Posts: 23

Replied to a comment from 99bonk made on October 10, 2013

October 10, 2013

Wrong.  Sorry if it bothers you that most Jews are really Italians.

Avatar of: S Churchill

S Churchill

Posts: 6

October 11, 2013

While I agree that mitochondrial DNA may not be a definitive genetic resource that could point to the source of the Ashkaeazim, historical documents (namely letters) exist that point to the flight of Jews from the Levant to avoid Roman persecution in the 1st Century AD. We know they moved into the western end of the Mediterranean through Italy. It is reasonable to speculate that educated Jews plied culturally perscribed trade (law, medicine, banking and commerce, precious metals working) and a Jewish diaspora may have traveled to and between European cities seeking patrons and eventually settling in enclaves in certain European cities that would eventually develop permanent communes of Jews.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazi_Jews#History_of_Jews_in_Europe_before_the_Ashkenazim

There is certainly reasonable linguistic root evidence for a Middle Eastern and German basis for Yiddish (written and spoken).

Jews of Levantine origin that remained in the Middle East after the first century very probably worked as specialty merchants, as educator/scholars or in the advanced trades for caliphates in the Middle East. They would be forged alliances with European trade partners to the caliphates, and later, participated in the spread of science/medicine/math, technology and religion from the Middle Eastern Golden Age into Europe through Spain and Ialty.

Avatar of: Neurona

Neurona

Posts: 29

October 21, 2013

I have read that heteroplasmy happens; paternal mitochondria do sometimes survive and leave their mtDNA evidence in the offspring. I'm not sure how much this alters the conclusions from this study, but from what I've heard, purely maternal inheritance of mtDNA is no longer an accurate view.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 8

October 22, 2013

I remember getting a very stern look from a host when in Israel in the 1980s, when I suggested this (mitochondrial DNA sequencing) as a simple means of determining "Jewish" descent.  I can see why, in retrospect - because the evidence presented here suggests that most Jews may not be - matrilineally descended Jews, that is.

I wonder what Sephardis think of this?

Avatar of: johnlennz

johnlennz

Posts: 1

December 11, 2013

I go along with the theory that the ruler of that part of the world that is the Caucuses, saw thar the Jews were trading with both Muslims and Christians in the Crusade Wars and thought it wqs a god idea to become a Jew and declaied all his sujects to be Jews, my favourite account of Jesus is that he kicked out the Traders on the Temple Steps, they are good traders and here in lies most of the troulbles in the world, I can't except that Arab Jews were migrating to Europe especialy to Italy to get away from the Roman ocupation.

Avatar of: tstag

tstag

Posts: 1

February 1, 2014

The interpretation of genetics can differ significantly based on what statistical techniques are employed and what assumptions are made. In short, this makes it an area particularly vulnerable to selection bias. I find the interpretations of Jewish and Israeli geneticists are often suspiciously convenient for Jewish identity and Israeli politics  (e.g. all Jews are more closely related to each other than to non-Jews except Ethiopian and Indian Jews who of course are converts; all Jews are more Middle Eastern than anything else, etc.). It could very well be all correct but one has to be a tad suspicous as to whether some sort of bias, be it conscious or not, is at play here.

I realize appearances can be misleading, but nevertheless, the suggestion that the often pale skinned, fair haired and eyed Ashkenazi, who usually look substantially similar to the surrounding population, are more closely related to the much swarthier and exotic featured Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews than any of these groups are to surrounding populations, strikes me as rather dubious.

I have seen several instances (the article above being one) where different researchers looking atbthe same data come up with strikingly different conclusions.

I suspect that if one is predisposed to find a particular geneticrelationship (such as to see the story of Exodus corroborated in Jewish genes) they can find a legitimate means of interpreting the data to support that and if one is predisposed to see Jews as descended from Khazars they can find a legitimate way to interpret the data to support that. This is the essence of selection bias, which can be a conscious or unconscious bias. 

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