A new study has uncovered new information about how Ashkenazi Jewish men moved into Europe from the Middle East and married European women. The origins of Ashkenazi Jews – that is, Jews with recent ancestry in central and Eastern Europe – is a long-standing controversy. Sephardim are Jews who trace their ancestry to Spain and to countries in North Africa, Turkey and the Mideast to which they fled upon their forced exodus from the Iberian Peninsula.
It is usually assumed that the ancestors of the Ashkenazim migrated into Europe from Palestine in the first century AD, following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. The Ashkenazim then intermarried with Europeans later on. But some have argued that they have a mainly European ancestry, and arose by conversion to Judaism of indigenous Europeans, especially in Italy. Others have even argued that they were largely assimilated in the North Caucasus during the time of the Khazar Empire, whose rulers turned to Judaism around of the tenth century AD.
Professor Martin Richards, of the Archaeogenetics Research Group at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, has published a paper that seeks to shed light on the origins of the Ashkenazim. According to a news release from the university, archaeogenetics can help to resolve this dispute. The paper says that Y-chromosome studies “have shown that the male line of descent does indeed seem to trace back to the Middle East. But the female line, which can be illuminated by studies of mitochondrial DNA has until now proved more difficult to interpret. This would be especially intriguing because Judaism has been inherited maternally for about 2000 years.”
According to the release, the study has settled the controversy “by looking at large numbers of whole mitochondrial genomes – sequencing the full 16,568 bases of the molecule – in many people from across Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. We have found that, in the vast majority of cases, Ashkenazi lineages are most closely related to southern and western European lineages – and that these lineages have been present in Europe for many thousands of years.”
The results of the study show that even though Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from Palestine around 2000 years ago, they brought few or no wives with them. They seem to have married with European women, firstly along the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, and later (but probably to a lesser extent) in western and central Europe. This suggests that, in the early years of the Diaspora (the Roman dispersal of Palestinian Jews) Judaism took in many converts from amongst the European population, but they were mainly recruited from amongst women. “Thus, on the female line of descent, the Ashkenazim primarily trace their ancestry neither to Palestine nor to Khazaria, but to southern and western Europe,” concluded the statement from the university.
Another study on the origins of Ashkenazim, published in Nature Communications in July 2013, is entitled "A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages." The authors of the study are: Marta D. Costa, Joana B. Pereira,Maria Pala,Verónica Fernandes,Anna Olivieri,Alessandro Achilli,Ugo A. Perego,Sergei Rychkov,Oksana Naumova,Jiři Hatina,Scott R. Woodward,Ken Khong Eng,Vincent Macaulay,Martin Carr,Pedro Soares,Luísa Pereira and Martin B. Richards.
According to the abstract of the study in Nature Communications, "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," concluded the study, "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."
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.