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.


Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


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: 142

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


Posts: 8

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...



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


Posts: 48

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


Posts: 8

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


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


Posts: 32

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: 10

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.

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


Posts: 40

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: 10

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


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


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. 

Avatar of: King Bulan

King Bulan

Posts: 1

May 28, 2014

What the DNA Science says now as demonstrated by the research of Dr. Dan Graur, Dr. Ariella Oppenheim and recently by Dr. Eran Elhaik (all Jews) is that, Modern Jews are actually of Khazarians Origin and they have nothing to do with Palestine! Nothing, Zero, not an iota!! and furthermore, they proved that the Palestinians are the actual descendants of the Israelites tribe and what we have in Israel now are the AshkeNazi tribe from Southern Russia that had been converted to Judea in the 8th century after the Russians had kicked them out and moved them to Poland! and that’s why we see all of the Israeli Prime Minsters where AshkeNazis and of a Polish Origin!! Now, the worst part is that, the West had been pumping trillions of dollars to these AshkeNazi to murder the real Semites the "Palestinians” for close to 70 years!!! this got to be the crime of the Millennium!

Avatar of: Joy2014


Posts: 4

Replied to a comment from tstag made on February 1, 2014

June 8, 2014

It is clear to me you've not lived in the Middle East by saying ashkenazi jews look European and not arab. This is certainly true of some ashkenazi but what I think you are missing is that not all levant people are dark skinned. I've met many Arabs from Lebanon and Jordan who look European themselves with light eyes and skin. I've met jews from Iran in Israel with blue eyes whom looked so much like ashkenazi jews I didn't know they were from Iran until they told me so. I met one Iranian Jew who looked exactly like the journalist Daniel pearl who was murdered in Pakistan. There is a Lebanese family here in New York that owns a pizzeria and everyone thinks they are italian until I tell them they are actually from Beirut because people think all Arabs are very dark and this simply is not true. Further I have a light skinned green eyed italian friend who is married to a palestinian man who could as easily pass for greek or italian as he could arab and their children are completely white. They have green eyes and blonde hair like their mother. Ashkenazi people have undoubtedly mixed with europeans and I think if you were to mix arabs with europeans for a few generations those kids would also look mostly European too. Some jews like the guy in 'borat' are ashkenazi and could easily pass as an arab. My great grandfather could also have passed for an arab while my great grandmother was lighter. I agree with you on one point though: both sides twist genetics for their own purpose. I do believe ashkenazi people are mixed with middle eastern and European background this does not however in my mind mean that they have a right to push out other populations who've been living there. Many British people have Scandinavian roots this doesn't mean they can take over Stockholm. Just one jews opinion.

Avatar of: Joy2014


Posts: 4

Replied to a comment from King Bulan made on May 28, 2014

June 8, 2014

You are truly delusional. I'm jewish and very much against Zionism but I must say after having lived in the Middle East for years myself most palestinians will tell you themselves they have not been in Israel long enough to be Israelites. Some say they have only been there for a few hundred years and others say up to 1500. So they actually have no clue how long they have been there but none I've ever met have claimed to be there 2,000 years or more. Further genetic studies trace the Palestinians roots to the Arabian peninsula. 

Lastly, this old and racist khazer theory is ridiculous due to some very clear facts: there was already a very large jewish population in Europe for CENTURIES before any khazer conversions. The khazer conversion was so small it left NO cultural or linguistic imprint on jewish culture in Europe. It took place in the 9th century long after jews had beeniving in Europe. Obviously ashkenazi people have mixed with europeans but quite clearly also have middle eastern roots. This was clearly established through genetic tests like the 'kohen' gene which is in my famil as well. It does not mean palestinians should be pushed out of their land but don't rewrite history for your own biases. Facts are facts. Period.

Avatar of: Joy2014


Posts: 4

June 8, 2014

No offense but the reactions to this are absurd. My father is from Sicily. My mother is an ashkenazi Jew. Jews, like Arabs and italians are in origin Mediterranean people's. of course they are all intermarried! My last name is sicilian-Arabic! Mediterranean people have mixed for thousands of years and can look like ANYTHING. People have this perception that all Arabs are dark and all ashkenazi are light and that all southern italians have olive skin. These stereotypes simply do not hold water. I know sicilians who are pale with blonde hair and blue eyes and I know sicilians who look like Arabs! I know Arabs who look like they could easily be europeans. I know ashkenazi who look Russian and ashkenazi who look arab themselves. People migrate, they take over other people, they intermix, especially in a place like the Mediterranean! Some use studies like this to prove some sort of political point which it does not. My great grandfather was a Russian Jew with the last name Cohen. My brothers have the 'kohen' gene which is in fact middle eastern. How people make the leap that ashkenazi jews being mixed with europeans or with middle eastern (which they are cleat both) somehow justifies or demonizes Zionism is ridiculous! Just because you have ancient middle eastern roots doesn't give you automatic ownership of a modern country. And just because you don'tike jews for whatever reason or want to prove Zionism is wrong doesn't make ashkenazi all white either. Zionism is wrong because its wrong not because of anyone's ancestry. It is so odd to me that people need to make this political when it is not. It is history and genetics! The fact that Arabs ruled Sicily for hundreds of years and my last name is of Arabic origins doesn't mean I have the right to take an arab country nor does it mean because I look italian I don't have arab roots! If people could stop being jewish, arab or whatever and be human beings first and admit that most people are mixed of many things maybe this world would be a better place!

Avatar of: Kesler


Posts: 1

July 30, 2014

One must be careful to seperate the traditional religion of the group of people who find their identity the Judiac religion with the notion that there is a race of people called the Jews.

The finding that the majority of those who identify themselves as "Jewish" in fact have European mitochondrial DNA is absolutely significant.  Acording to the traditions of the Judaic religion "Jewishness" is a trait passed down exclusively through the mother.  Acording to Jewish law, if your mother is a Jew, you're a Jew no matter whether or not you follow the traditional faith.  Similarly, if your mother isn't a Jew, then you're not a Jew, no matter how devoted you are to the religion itself.

This finding means that most who identify as Jews can not possibly be Jews as defined by the religion of Judaism.

This fact then makes being "Jewish" no more significant than being a member of the Elks Club.

Accordingly, this means that the whole notion of a Biblical land grant based on genetics crumples under the weight of this new evidence.  Given the significance of this finding, I would expect to see tremendous hooting and hollering among those who benifit from the continuounce of the notion that there is a "chosen people."

It seems that the evidence now says that the "chosen people" chose themselves.

Avatar of: Joy2014


Posts: 4

Replied to a comment from Kesler made on July 30, 2014

January 24, 2015


First of all if they converted they were jews. Even Moses married a woman not born jewish.


second your misunderstanding of the term 'chosen' and what it actually means in Judaism, while common, is pure ignorance.

Please take your veiled Jew hating elsewhere.

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Biology Research
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science