Jewish DNA Markers

The human genome can be decoded to tell us not only what genetic mutations might impact our health, but also who our ancestors were. The inimitable Albert Einstein (1921) observed, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith.” Since “being Jewish” is properly defined in this way, i.e. ethnoreligiously, it is incontrovertible that we would have some unique genetic markers in our DNA sequencing.

Jewish Ethnicity gas been found to divide genetically into several genome branches, though all are proven to begin in the Levant, specifically in historic Israel, i.e. the region spanning from the Nile River across Goshen and eastward to the Euphrates River (Genesis 23:31). These are Syro-European Mizrahim, Teimani (Yemenite Jewry), North African Mizrahim, Eastern Mizrahim, Asiatic Jewry, Sepharadim, and Ashkenazim. Some of these bifurcate further (Ostrer, Skorecki, et al., 2013). The genetic haplogroups signalling Jewish ethnicity are Y-chromosome branches E3b, G, J1, J2, Q, R1a1, and R1b (Behar et al., 2004).

Levite Cohen Markers

The easiest Jewish tribal markers to identify would be the least diluted, i.e. the Levite Cohen haplogroup. Jewish Cohanim were not permitted to marry non-Levites from at least as early as Moshe’s time (he lived from 1527 to 1407 BCE), so a set of dominant DNA markers developed. Cohen and Levite Modal Haplotypes in their classical 6 STR marker format or in the extended 12 STR format can easily be detected in any DNA test. The YAP-/DYS19 B haplotype is recognized as the founding haplotype of the Jewish priesthood (Skorecki, et al., 1997).

A family in Albuquerque, New Mexico received DNA test results revealing that they had the Levite Cohen gene. This prompted a study of other Latinos in the area with the result that nearly 40% all had the same Levite Cohen DNA markers.

Sepharadi Markers

It has long been asserted that Spanish surnames ending in -ez are Sepharadi Jewish names, -ez being truncated from Eretz (Israel). We are now seeing DNA evidence of this. DNA analysis has recently (in 2011 and 2018) been instrumental in proving the Sepharadi heritage of many Latin Americans who descend from Jewish families who fled Spain and Portugal during the tragic Spanish Inquisition. The Roman Catholic Church Iberian Diocese was burning people at the stake for the “sin” of practicing Judaism. Zhang (2018) speaks of this: “The stories have always persisted – of people across Latin America who didn’t eat pork, of candles lit on Friday nights, of mirrors covered for mourning.”

Juan-Camilo Chacón-Duque, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum in London, spearheaded an extensive study involving thousands of subjects to study the DNA structure of these individuals. Chacón-Duque and his team sampled DNA from 6,500 subjects in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to DNA data from 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly 25% of the Latin American specimens proved to be ethnically Jewish at levels exceeding 5% inherited DNA. This is consistent with having fully Jewish ancestors in the late 15th Century.

Geneticist Harry Ostrer, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (2011), observed that rare genetic diseases prevalent in Jews were presenting in small pockets in Latin America. His 2011 study comparing subjects in Ecuador with Sepharadi Jewish subjects in Colorado found that both subject sets had the same Jewish markers responsible for two specific rare conditions: BRCA1 c.185delAG gene mutation and Laron Syndrome (a rare type of dwarfism affecting gene GHR c.E180).

Family Tree DNA reports, “We are finding between 10% and 15% of men living in New Mexico or south Texas or northern Mexico have a Y chromosome that tracks back to the Middle East.”

Ashkenazic Markers

Though situated in Europe for many centuries, “it’s clear from numerous studies that people of Ashkenazi ancestry are distinct from the European population at large” (Hromatka, 2012). The Elimear Kenny study affirms that “people with Ashkenazi ancestry… form a unique cluster that is largely distinct from Caucasian.” The study, involving 6,347 subjects is that it is irrefutable that the Ashkenazim are of the same Middle Eastern/Levantine Jewish origin as Sepharadim, Mizrahim, and Iranian/Sassonian Jews (solidly debunking the racist Khazar Theory). These findings are corraborated in an additional 971 independent studies.

Among these is the Behar study (2013), conducted by an Arab researcher at Southeast Michigan’s Wayne State University, which examined genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphisms in 1,774 samples from 106 Jewish and non-Jewish populations that span the possible regions of potential Ashkenazi ancestry: Europe, the Middle East, and the region historically associated with the Khazar Khaganate. The data set includes 261 samples from 15 populations from the Caucasus (Khazar Khaganate) region and the region directly to its north, samples that have not previously been included alongside Ashkenazi Jewish samples in genomic studies. The study was able to conclude with absolute certainty that Ashkenaz Jews derive their ancestry primarily from populations of the Middle East, that they possess considerable shared ancestry with other Jewish populations, and that there is no indication of a genetic contribution either from within or from north of the Khazarian Khaganate region.

The Need, Kasperavičiūtė, et al. Study examined 611 white or white-passing Americans. Of these, 55 self-identified as having at least one Jewish grandparent. All individuals were genotyped for approximately 550,000 polymorphic markers. It was determined that even subjects with only one Jewish grandparent can be genetically distinguished from those without Jewish ancestry with 100% accuracy. Ashkenazim were found to be more heterozygous than non-Jewish Europeans, suggesting that the genetic distinction between Jews and non-Jews is attributable to a Near-Eastern origin.

Gil Azmon led a study comparing and contrasting DNA markers from subjects across the Jewish sub-ethnicities, i.e. Perso-Iranian, Babylonian Mizrahi (Iraqi), Syro-Mizrahi, Italian Sepharadi, Yevanic-Sepharadi (Greek), Romaniote (Turkic), Teimani (Yemenite), and Ashkenazic. A non-Jewish control cluster was also incorporated. Surprisingly, of the eight Jewish sub-ethnicities, the one genetically closest to European DNA was the Syro-Mizrahi cohort (exhibiting a 30-60% European admixture), not the Ashkenazic.

Other Branches

The discoveries of Jewish communities in remote and unexpected places was at first approached with skepticism, but DNA evidence has confirmed Jewish ancestry for most of these.

The first untraditional branch to be DNA-validated was the North African cohort, beginning with a study on Libyan Jewry in the 1970s (Bonné-Tamir et al., 1977). Studies on other Jewish communities across North Africa followed, and it soon became clear that though all had Jewish ancestry, those in Morocco were the most homozygous, i.e. exhibiting the least amount of intermarriage with non-Jews among the North African cohort (Bonné-Tamir et al., 1978). Following much later would be genetic verification of the Jewish ancestry of the Lemba and Beta Israel communities (WJC, 2010).

In India, the Cochin Jews and the Bene Israel (Calcutta and Mumbai) Jews have both been verified as having Jewish DNA (Behar et al., 2010; Ostrer, Skorecki, et al, 2013). This recent confirmation provides some resolution to the queries of the physical anthropologists, Maurice Fishberg and Joseph Jacobs as to “why Indian Jews and Ethiopian Jews bear a physical resemblance” to one another (Fishberg 1911; Jacobs 1899).

There are also Jewish communities in Kaifeng, China and Western Province, Papua New Guinea… DNA studies yet pending.

Works Referenced

  • Gil Atzmon, et al., “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” American Journal of Human Genetics (2010).
  • A Beck and P Havas, eds., The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
  • Doron M Behar, et al., “Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome variation in Ashkenazi Jewish and host non-Jewish European populations.” Human Genetics 114 (2004):354–365.
  • Doron M Behar, et al., “No Evidence from Genome-Wide Data of a Khazar Origin for Ashkenazi Jews,” Human Biology (Dec 2013).
  • Batsheva Bonné-Tamir, Sarah Ashbel, and J Modai, “Genetic Markers in Libyan Jews,” Human Genetics 37 (1977): 319–328.
  • Batsheva Bonné‐Tamir, Sarah Ashbel, and Shulamit Bar‐Shani, “Ethnic Communities in Israel: The Genetic Blood Markers of the Moroccan Jews,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 49, no. 4 (1978): 465-471.
  • Batsheva Bonné-Tamir, Sarah Ashbel, and Shulamit Bar-Shani, “Ethnic Communities in Israel: The Genetic Blood Markers of the Babylonian Jews,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 49, no. 4, (1978): 457.
  • Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, Harry Ostrer, et al., “The Impact of Converso Jews on the Genomes of Modern Latin Americans,” Human Genetics 131, no. 2 (26 Jul 2011; online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51521540_The_impact_of_Converso_Jews_on_the_genomes_of_modern_Latin_Americans).
  • Bethany Hromatka, “The Uniqueness of Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestry is Important for Health,” 23andMe (22 May 2012; online: https://blog.23andme.com/ancestry-reports/ashkenazi-ancestry-and-health/).
  • S Karlin, R Kenett, and Barsheva Bonné-Tamir, “Analysis of Biochemical Genetic Data on Jewish Populations: Results and Interpretations of Heterogeneity Indices and Distance Measures with Respect to Standards,” American Journal of Human Genetetics 31, no. 3 (May 1979): 341-65. 
  • Alla Katsnelson, “Jews Worldwide Share Genetic Ties,” Nature (3 Jun 2010).
  • David Kelly, “DNA Clears the Fog over Latino Links to Judaism in New Mexico,” Los Angeles Times (5 Dec 2004; online: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-dec-05-na-heritage5-story.html).
  • Elimear E Kenny, Itzik Pe’er, Amir Karban, Laurie Ozelius, Adele A Mitchell, Sok Meng Ng, Inga Peter, et al., “A Genome-Wide Scan of Ashkenazi Jewish Crohn’s Disease Suggests Novel Susceptibility Loci.” PLOS Genetics 8, no. 3 (2012; online: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1002559).
  • “Lemba Tribe in Southern Africa has Jewish Roots, Genetic Tests Reveal,” World Jewish Congress (8 Mar 2010; online: https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/news/lemba-tribe-in-southern-africa-has-jewish-roots-genetic-tests-reveal).
  • Anna C Need, Dalia Kasperavičiūtė, E T Cirulli, et al., “A genome-wide Genetic Signature of Jewish Ancestry Perfectly Separates Individuals with and without Full Jewish Ancestry in a Large Random Sample of European Americans,” Genome Biology 10R7 (Oct 2009; online: https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2009-10-1-r7).
  • Harry Ostrer, Karl Skorecki, et al., “The population genetics of the Jewish people”. Human Genetics 132, no. 2 (Feb 2013): 119–27.
  • Karl Skorecki, Sara Selig, Shraga Blazer, Bruce Rappaport, Robert Bradman, Neil Bradman, P J Waburton, Monic Ismajlowicz, and Michael F Hammer, “Y Chromosomes of Jewish Priests,” Nature 385 (2 Jan 1997): 32.
  • Sarah Zhang, “DNA Reveals the Hidden Jewish Ancestry of Latin Americans,” The Atlantic (21 Dec 2018; online: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/dna-reveals-the-hidden-jewish-ancestry-of-latin-americans/578509/).