Thursday 6 September 2018

DNA Is Showing Ashkenazi Origins

Khazar Khaganate, 650–850
Ashkenazic Jews' mysterious origins unravelled by scientists thanks to ancient DNA

An item of news out today falls into three main categories I normally write about in this blog - anthropology, religion and politics.

It is news that Eran Elhaik, a lecturer in population, medical and evolutionary genomics at the University of Sheffield, UK, has written an article in the The Conversation on the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews. The Conversation describes itself as combining journalistic flair with academic rigour.

Firstly, I have to admit to some trepidation in tackling this subject, not so much because the political question of the State of Israel, it's legitimacy and its policies towards the Palestinian Arabs have been the subject of a summer-long controversy in the UK about where criticism of the Israeli government becomes antisemitic, but because of the vicious campaign of abuse I was subjected to some 25 years ago when I raised the subject of the origins of the Ashkenazim in an old CompuServe debate forum. I was accused of being a racist, a Fascist apologist, a Holocaust denier and worse, and even received veiled threats of violence.

The question I had raised was that raised by Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler had argued that the Ashkenazim were actually Turkic people from Central Asia who had settled near the Black Sea in the Early Middle Ages and had founded a state known as Khazaria, converted to Judaism, adopted Yiddish, a language with very many Low German and Slavonic words (but with few if any Hebrew words) with a Slavonic grammar. When Khazaria was overthrown and absorbed into Russia, the Ashkenazim had migrated into Eastern and Central Europe, especially Poland, Ukraine and Germany. Koestler, of German Jewish origins himself, was subjected to abuse and vilification at the time.

The reason this is a political issue with perceived overtones of antisemitism is because it questions the legitimacy of the claim by European Jews to a 'God-given' historical homeland in Palestine, from which they traditionally believe they were expelled by the Romans in or around 66 CE following the Jewish Revolt. Quite why is is perceived as racist is beyond me. One Rabbi with whom I had previously been on very friendly online terms, could not explain how suggesting that the Ashkenazim could be Turkic, not Hebrew was racist unless one assumes the Turks are inferior people - which is itself racist, and nonsensical.

The strength of feelings and emotions that colour and cloud the debate can be see in the comments to Eran Elhaik's article.

Given that background, it is interesting that this open access article in The Conversation gives considerable support to Koestler's proposition, based on genetic analysis.

...recent DNA analysis of Ashkenazic Jews – a Jewish ethnic group – revealed that their maternal line is European1. It has also been found that their DNA only has 3% ancient ancestry2 which links them with the Eastern Mediterranean (also known as the Middle East) – namely Israel, Lebanon, parts of Syria, and western Jordan. This is the part of the world Jewish people are said to have originally come from – according to the Old Testament. But 3% is a minuscule amount, and similar to what modern Europeans as a whole share with Neanderthals. So given that the genetic ancestry link is so low, Ashkenazic Jews most recent ancestors must be from elsewhere.

To understand why this is the case, we need to go back in time, to look at where these other ancestors came from. It starts in Persia (modern-day Iran) during the sixth century. This is where most of the world’s Jews were living at this time3.

The tolerance of the Persians encouraged the Jews to adopt Persian names, words, traditions, and religious practices, and climb up the social ladder gaining a monopoly on trade4. They also converted other people5 who were living along the Black Sea, to their Jewish faith. This helped to expand their global network6.

Among these converts were the Alans (Iranian nomadic pastoral people), Greeks, and Slavs who resided along the southern shores of the Black Sea. Upon conversion, they translated the Old Testament into Greek, built synagogues, and continued expanding the Jewish trade network.

DNA of Yiddish speakers could have originated from four ancient villages in northwest Turkey.
These Jews adopted the name Ashkenaz, and the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews can be traced to “Ancient Ashkenaz”4 – an intersection of trade routes in eastern Turkey.

We now know that at the time these Jews adopted the name Ashkenaz, they also acquired unique Asian mutations7 on their Y chromosome. This is where another important group of people in our story come into play – and they are called the Gok-Turks.

During the sixth century8, these nomadic people were ruled by a Siberian Turkic tribe called the Ashina. They were forced by the Chinese Tang Empire – who were in power in China at the time – to migrate westwards toward the Black Sea.

Thanks to their organisational and military skills, the Ashina united many tribes in this area – and a new empire called the “Khazar Khaganate” was born. Offering freedom of worship and taxing trade, these people quickly rose to power.

The Asian group of these DNA mutations9, found in Ashkenazic Jews, likely originated from the Ashina elite and other Khazar clans, who converted from Shamanism to Judaism. This means that the Ashina and core Khazar clans were absorbed by the Ashkenazic Jews.

It was also around this time that the Jewish elite adopted many Slavic customs. And based on my previous research, I would suggest that Yiddish was developed as a secret language to assist in trade4.

What happened next was that the Jewish empire began to collapse. By the tenth century, the Jews on the Black Sea migrated to Ukraine and Italy. Yiddish became the lingua franca of these Ashkenazic Jews and absorbed German words while maintaining the Slavic grammar10. And as global trade moved to the hands of the Italians, Dutch and English, the Jews were pushed aside.

What this all shows is that by using modern genetic technology – that enables scientists to track the past of modern-day people – a new appreciation for Jewish ancestry can be discovered.

It has meant a greater understanding of the journeys these people took to arrive in Europe. It has also allowed for increased knowledge as to the significant role the Ashina and the Khazar clans – from which some of the real Jewish patriarchs actually came from – played.

Eran Elhaik;
Ashkenazic Jews’ mysterious origins unravelled by scientists thanks to ancient DNA
The Conversation September 5, 2018

Copyright: © 2018 The Author
Published Open Access
Reprinted under the terms of a Creative Commons licence.

Genetic evidence is providing the definitive answer to these questions of origins, not cultural tradition and myths. Many of the facts such as the linguistic mixture of Slavonic and Low German and absence of Hebrew in Yiddish, and the distribution of the Ashkenazim (and the Sephardim) across Europe are meshing with the emerging genetic evidence of a Turkic and Persian component.

That this subject is even controversial when there is objective evidence on which to decide differences of opinion highlights the problems that arise when religion and politics enter the fray and objectivity is waved aside when it conflicts with dogma and vested interests. The argument then becomes not what is right but what is convenient and fits with a desired narrative.

  1. Costa, M.D., Pereira, J.B., Pala, M., Fernandes, V., Olivieri, A., Achilli, A., Perego, U.A., Rychkov, S., Naumova, O., Hatina, J., et al. (2013).
    A substantial prehistoric european ancestry amongst ashkenazi maternal lineages.
    Nature Communications 4.
  2. Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M., & Elhaik, E. (2017).
    The origins of Ashkenaz, Ashkenazic Jews, and Yiddish.
    Frontiers in Genetics
    , 8 (JUN).
  3. Shlomo Sand, The Origin of the Jewish People, Verso, 2010 ISBN 978-1844676231
  4. Elhaik, Eran; Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz – the birthplace of Yiddish speakers, The Conversation.
  5. Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M., & Elhaik, E. (2016).
    Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz.
    Genome Biology and Evolution,
    8(4), 1132–1149.
  6. Rabinowitz, Louis Isaac; Jewish Merchant Adventures: A Study of the Radanites (1948).
  7. Balanovsky, O., Gurianov, V., Zaporozhchenko, V., Balaganskaya, O., Urasin, V., Zhabagin, M., Grugni, V., Canada, R., Al-Zahery, N., Raveane, A., et al. (2017).
    Phylogeography of human Y-chromosome haplogroup Q3-L275 from an academic/citizen science collaboration.
    BMC Evolutionary Biology 17
    , 1–15.
  8. Golden, Peter B.; Turks and Khazars. Ashgate/Variorum, 2010
  9. Rootsi, S., Behar, D.M., Järve, M., Lin, A.A., Myres, N.M., Passarelli, B., Poznik, G.D., Tzur, S., Sahakyan, H., Pathak, A.K., et al. (2013).
    Phylogenetic applications of whole y-chromosome sequences and the near eastern origin of ashkenazi levites.
    Nature Communications 4.
  10. Wexler, Paul; The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, Slavica Publishers, 1993 ISBN: 978-0893572419

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1 comment :

  1. Very interesting, Rosa! Do you know that already in 2012 Eran Elhaik wrote another paper on this same topic, The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses. See .

    In the abstract you can read: The question of Jewish ancestry has been the subject of controversy for over two centuries and has yet to be resolved. The "Rhineland Hypothesis" proposes that Eastern European Jews emerged from a small group of German Jews who migrated eastward and expanded rapidly. Alternatively, the "Khazarian Hypothesis" suggests that Eastern European descended from Judean tribes who joined the Khazars, an amalgam of Turkic clans that settled the Caucasus in the early centuries CE and converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The Judaized Empire was continuously reinforced with Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman Jews until the 13th century. Following the collapse of their empire, the Judeo-Khazars fled to Eastern Europe. The rise of European Jewry is therefore explained by the contribution of the Judeo-Khazars. Thus far, however, their contribution has been estimated only empirically; the absence of genome-wide data from Caucasus populations precluded testing the Khazarian Hypothesis. Recent sequencing of modern Caucasus populations prompted us to revisit the Khazarian Hypothesis and compare it with the Rhineland Hypothesis. We applied a wide range of population genetic analyses - including principal component, biogeographical origin, admixture, identity by descent, allele sharing distance, and uniparental analyses - to compare these two hypotheses. Our findings support the Khazarian Hypothesis and portray the European Jewish genome as a mosaic of Caucasus, European, and Semitic ancestries, thereby consolidating previous contradictory reports of Jewish ancestry.


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