Maternal descent of Ashkenazi Jews is European, not Levantine
The ruins of the oldest stone synagogue discovered so far in Europe, at Ostia, Italy. It is dated to the reign of Roman emperor Claudius, 41-54 CE. If, as the authors of the new study suggest, the first emigrants to Europe 2000 years ago were men who married native Europeans, Jews would not have established synagogues until the wholesale emigration to Italy in the first century.
PM Netanyahu, beginning his speech to the UN General Assembly this year.
We are an ancient people. We date back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have journeyed through time. We’ve overcome the greatest of adversities.
And we re-established our sovereign state in our ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.
By Melissa Hogenboom, Science reporter, BBC News
October 09, 2013
A new genetics study has challenged previous theories about the maternal ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews.
The study suggests that most female ancestors came from southern and western Europe, not the Middle East as some authors assume.
The new work in Nature Communications indicates that Jewish groups could have absorbed European converts about 2,000 years ago.
However, others working in the field are not convinced by the findings.
“The origins of the [Ashkenazi Jews] is one of the big questions that people have pursued again and again and never really come to a conclusive view on,” said Martin Richards from the University of Huddersfield, UK, one of the authors on the new paper.
The team studied mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the genetic information in the cell’s “batteries”, which is passed on only via women. It can be used to probe a population’s maternal history.
The researchers used mtDNA lineages from Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Their conclusions were that Ashkenazi maternal lines were most closely related to those from southern and western Europe.
“This suggests that, even though Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from [the Levant] around 2,000 years ago, they seem to have married European women,” explained Prof Richards.
He added that women could have been among early European converts to Judaism.
“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.
“It’s a very exciting time for the prehistory of Europe. There will be work coming out in the next few years that will really give us a good picture of what happened over the last 30,000-40,000 years.”
Ashkenazi Jews are thought to have migrated from the Levant to Italy in the first or second centuries, and then moved to western and then eastern Europe, where populations expanded in number during the 13th Century.
An unusually sympathetic portrait of Shylock, the Venetian Jew; for Shakespeare, the association in 1598 between an Italian port, a long-established Jewish family and inter-marriage was unexceptionable. (In this case, it is the Jewish woman, Jessica, who marries a European.) The port cities of Ostia and Venice were primary destinations for Jews migrating from Israel. Painting by Polish-Jewish Maurycy Gottlieb, 1876.
This new study makes the suggestion that more than 80% of Ashkenazi Jews can trace their ultimate maternal ancestry to prehistoric Europe. But studies looking at the Y chromosome (which is passed down from father to son only) have shown that the male line of descent does trace back to the Middle East.
Harry Ostrer at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University in New York, US, told BBC News the latest study was an “interesting paper”.
He added: “It’s not terribly surprising that there are mitochondrial genomes that coalesce to a long time ago in Europe because that is representative of the first founding event of Ashkenazi Jewry in Europe.
“The genetic, historical and the archaeological records are pretty clear. What we see in the genomes of contemporary Ashkenazi Jews is that they are the descendants of people who have gone through a ‘bottleneck’ of moving from western to eastern Europe.”
As for the debate over geographic origins, Prof Ostrer said there was a belief that most of Jewish history happened in the Levant region but, in his view, “it didn’t necessarily; it was happening all over the western world”.
However, Karl Skorecki, at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said that in his view the new work contained serious flaws at the level of phylogenetic analysis – the study of where a lineage sits on a family tree.
“While Costa et al have re-opened the question of the maternal origins of Ashkenazi Jewry, the phylogenetic analysis in the manuscript does not ‘settle’ the question,” he told BBC News.
Doron Behar, a geneticist at Gene by Gene in Houston, US, was also unconvinced by the findings, but said he would prefer “to first address this issue in a scientific journal”.
Another point to note, according to David Goldstein at Duke University in North Carolina, US, was that “the genetic composition of populations changes from generation to generation”.
He said that the paper “could be right but we have no way of really knowing” because of these changes – what researchers call “genetic drift”.
“It really is the fundamental framework for analysing the data that is at issue here. A framework that ignores real population genetics just doesn’t work,” Prof Goldstein added.
Notes and links
Tracing mitochondrial DNA
Mitochondrial DNA is passed down, almost unchanged, from a mother to her children and allows any person’s genetic profile to be traced back to a common ancestor.
By studying the mutations, or changes, in mtDNA sequences, researchers are able to probe the maternal histories of different human populations.
It has enabled them to build a “family tree” of maternal ancestry, and group different mtDNA lineages together based on shared mutation.
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.
NY Times, June 2010
One of the surveys was conducted by Gil Atzmon of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Harry Ostrer of New York University and appears in the current American Journal of Human Genetics. The other, led by Doron M. Behar of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa and Richard Villems of the University of Tartu in Estonia, is published in Thursday’s edition of Nature.
Dr. Atzmon and Dr. Ostrer have developed a way of timing demographic events from the genetic elements shared by different Jewish communities. Their calculations show that Iraqi and Iranian Jews separated from other Jewish communities about 2,500 years ago. This genetic finding presumably reflects a historical event, the destruction of the First Temple at Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. and the exile of many Jews there to his capital at Babylon.
The shared genetic elements suggest that members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins in a large population, which is about 10 times higher than the relationship between two people chosen at random off the streets of New York City, Dr. Atzmon said.
Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East, the two surveys find. The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long.
One explanation is that they come from the same Jewish source population in Europe. The Atzmon-Ostrer team found that the genomic signature of Ashkenazim and Sephardim was very similar to that of Italian Jews, suggesting that an ancient population in northern Italy of Jews intermarried with Italians could have been the common origin. The Ashkenazim first appear in Northern Europe around A.D. 800, but historians suspect that they arrived there from Italy.
Another explanation, which may be complementary to the first, is that there was far more interchange and intermarriage than expected between the two communities in medieval times.
The genetics confirms a trend noticed by historians: that there was more contact between Ashkenazim and Sephardim than suspected, with Italy as the linchpin of interchange, said Aron Rodrigue, a Stanford University historian.