Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The complex ancestry of European Jews

A clearer picture is finally emerging of the ethnic origins of European Jewish populations. And it seems that the connections to the Near East are more tenuous than previously thought.

An important new study examining Ashkenazi lineages by decoding and analyzing entire mitochondrial genomes has found that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations.* The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Y-chromosome analysis has, on the other hand, revealed distinctive patterns which suggest that male European Jewish lineages may trace back to the large Jewish population of ancient Rome, though complicating the picture is the fact that large numbers of those practising Judaism in the ancient world were converts. Interestingly, of all general present-day European populations, Northern Italians exhibit the greatest proximity to Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations on the basis of whole-genome analysis.

So the story that seems to be emerging is that single males traveled (as traders?) from Italy and adjacent areas (as well as from the Levant, presumably) deep into various parts of Europe and married and converted local women. And it was basically from this process that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations of Europe arose.

A simplification, no doubt. But, if the broad outlines of this view are confirmed by future research, the myth of a clearcut racially-based Jewish identity – still entertained by certain Jewish as well as anti-Semitic groups – will be further undermined.

Social myths can be benign. But the myths associated with Jewish origins and identity have been – and unfortunately still are – being used to foment fear, hatred and division.

For example, Islamist groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood draw on traditional European as well as non-European sources which impute demonic powers to Jews whom they define as much by race as by religion.

This sort of medieval thinking has no place in the modern world, and it a great pity that some Jewish groups seem to draw on similarly implausible myths to define themselves and to justify territorial claims and political strategies.

I don't want to get involved in a discussion about Israel and its neighbours – I have never lived there and don't know enough about it. But, like many other Western observers, I regret the fact that Israeli moderates and secularists have in recent years apparently lost ground to Jewish religious groupings whose views seem at times to have more in common with their despised Islamic fundamentalist neighbours than with their moderate and secular brethren.

* See also Nicholas Wade's New York Times article.


  1. very interesting. i always saw very different jews, some are just like caucasians, some more like arabians. the history around mediterranean has been so rich that races were all mixed. how silly people are still fighting under the name of "race".

    1. Nice to hear from you, Yun Yi. Your comment fits in well with this observation (from the linked research paper):

      "... The Ashkenazim therefore resemble Jewish communities in Eastern Africa and India, and possibly also others across the Near East, Caucasus and Central Asia, which also carry a substantial fraction of maternal lineages from their ‘host’ communities..."

      But, like you, I am particularly interested in social and political implications. One of the things I like about science is its myth-destroying powers.

  2. "One of the things I like about science is its myth-destroying powers."

    On this hangs all our hope. The religious impulse is an evolved trait, but it can be developed in more or less harmful directions. Similarly, the trait for language per se is universal, but the specific language one ultimately speaks depends on circumstances. So, since we cannot plausibly abolish religion, we may yet be able to tame it. I cannot help but think the evidence from science will assist this effort.

    1. I see the 'religious impulse' not so much as a single thing but rather as a set of more or less interrelated patterns of thinking which predispose us to having certain kinds of (religious or religious-like) beliefs and engaging in certain kinds of practices and behaviors. But, as you suggest, there is a lot of scope for us to manage these patterns of thinking etc.

  3. Let's not forget that the most ancient roots of religion are animistic/pantheistic -- everything has a spirit and nature itself is "god" (the word itself being a later development of the original "spirit" idea). The psychological underpinnings of this are 1) the unique human ability to ask "why" and attempt to answer, 2) a tendency to anthropomorphize nature (the mountain is angry) and 3) an ability to believe anything, as long as it sounds plausible. Which, taken together, mean that "religion," as we call it off-hand, is a malleable idea. And, if you look at it just so, science comes full circle, back to nature as the only "god." Making science the religion of the age, I always say.

    1. Funnily enough, I was just thinking about animism and the issues you raise here. (See new post on LL&L).

      Though some people do make a cult of science and try to make it do more than it can, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is the religion of the age.

  4. Every time I say that, people get upset. LOL.
    But show me your cosmology ("where we come from, why we're here") and I'll show you your religion.