The “mystery” of Ashkenazic origins
In this post I comment on a genetic review by Ellen Levy-Coffman titled “A mosaic of people: The Jewish story and a reassessment of the DNA evidence.”
In general, I find the paper interesting and thought-provoking. I do think that, most probably, its basic conclusions are correct in the essentials. But I find fault with the “spin” the author puts on the data, and I disagree with her interpretations. I also regret that virtually all of the work on this subject has been done with single-locus, gender-specific genetic markers that are of limited utility. That second point is no fault of the author (although she could have pointed it out); nonetheless, the conclusions that can be made of the data are constrained by the nature of the data themselves.
So, my specific points are:-
The focus of the present study is to analyse and reassess Ashkenazi results obtained by DNA researchers and synthesize them into a coherent picture of Jewish genetics …
Well, if you want such a coherent picture, Ellen, I would advise you to encourage researchers to do at least SOME autosomal multiple loci DNA studies.
Thus, Judaism is a mosaic of culture, religion, ethnicity, and for some, a way of life. It is an identity that is not quite a nationality, but neither is it a simple ethnic or cultural phenomenon either. This unusual combination of characteristics, coupled with Jewish resistance over the centuries to assimilation and strong adherence to their religious faith, has contributed to the intense feelings of curiosity, hatred, admiration, attraction and hostility by the rest of the world.
It may make the author feel better to believe that these particular aspects of Jewish identity, coupled with a resistance to assimilation (more on that later), are the reasons for the hostility by “the rest of the world.” A reading of the works of Dr Kevin MacDonald may suggest other reasons as well. It is extremely important for any group that suffers from the “hatred” and “hostility” of “the rest of the world” to fully understand the reasons behind said animus – for only when it is understood, when all the facts are know, can things ever change.
Early on, the unique history of the Jews attracted DNA researchers who sought to solve the mystery of the origins of the Jewish people.
Are the origins of the English, for example, as mysterious? Why not? Why should the origins of a historically important ethnie be inflated into a “mystery”?
The new analysis shows that Jewish ancestry reflects a mosaic of genetic sources. While earlier studies focused on the Middle Eastern component of Jewish DNA, new research has revealed that both Europeans and Central Asians also made significant genetic contributions to Jewish ancestry. Moreover, while the DNA studies have confirmed the close genetic interrelatedness of many Jewish communities, they have also confirmed what many suspected all along: Jews do not constitute a single group distinct from all others.
The last sentence is an opinion, a certain “spin” put on the data. Even if a degree of genetic diversity exists within the worldwide Jewish population, that does not logically imply that this diverse group cannot be more similar to themselves than to the even more genetically distinct gentile populations of the world. Jews may be both distinct and internally diverse. After all, doesn’t “close genetic interrelatedness” suggest that at least the major Jewish populations constitute such a distinct entity? Certainly, I’ll agree that outliers like the Ethiopian and Chinese Jews do not fall within this distinct group, but these outliers are a small minority of the overall Jewish population.
In examining Y chromosomal diversity in this review, two types of data are considered: Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), and Short Tandem Repeat Loci (STRs). STR markers are characterized by mutation rates much higher than those seen with SNPs. SNPs, on the other hand, are derived from rare nucleotide changes along the Y chromosome, so-called unique event polymorphisms (UEP). These UEPs represent a single historical mutational event, occurring only once in the course of human evolution. UEPs have been given a unified nomenclature system by the Y Chromosome Consortium (2002), resulting in the identification of each UEP with a particular haplogroup.
Halfway through this author’s breathless account of all the “haplotypes”, “haplogroups” and “sub-clades”, I wondered whether she really understands that the NRY (as well as mtDNA) behaves as a single locus, and that all the SNPs and STRs in question are being co-inherited as a single bloc? The way this essay is written, someone may get the mistaken impression that all the SNPs and STRs analysed constitute different, independently inherited, alleles of multiple loci, which they do not.
While the Jews of today are connected historically and religiously to the Jews of ancient Israel, the DNA evidence also indicates that a significant amount of Jewish ancestry can be traced directly back to their Israelite/Middle Eastern ancestors…..Not only did the genetic researchers corroborate the oral history of an ancient Jewish priestly caste, but they also confirmed the genetic link between both Sephardic and Ashkenazi populations, indicating that before the two populations separated, those who shared the CMH also shared common Israelite ancestry.
That is a crucial point, one that cannot be “spun” out of existence.
The misinterpretation of the Cohanim results was damaging in some ways to the wider understanding of Jewish genetic ancestry. For example, one widely published media quote went like this: “This genetic research has clearly refuted the once-current libel that Ashkenazi Jews are not related to the ancient Hebrews, but are descendants of the Kuzar (sic) tribe – a pre-10th century Turko-Asian empire which reportedly converted en masse to Judaism.” Further, it was claimed that “[r]esearchers compared the DNA signature of the Ashkenazi Jews against those of Turkish-derived people, and found no correspondence” (Kleinman 1999).
Yes, but there was, and continues to be, a school of thought that says that the Ashkenazim are pure Khazars, with no Middle Eastern/Israelite blood at all. The author should be honest enough to admit that the Khazar enthusiasts often promoted such an extreme doctrine and that the genetic data does refute that particular hypothesis. The idea that some Khazar ancestry is found in the Ashkenazim is, in contrast, a reasonable assumption.
The rationale behind such conversion continues to both puzzle and fascinate historians – why would a people, despite political pressure from two great powers, chose a religion which had no support from any political power, but was rather persecuted by all?
Again, why was this group “persecuted by all”? Facile comments and self-serving explanations are not going to solve this problem.
The Khazars are often described as “a people of Turkish stock”, although such description is misleading (Koestler 1976, p. 13).
Why is it misleading? Because Koestler didn’t like the idea of Jews being derived from Turkic stock?
However, Koestler (1976, p. 22) cautions the reader not to place too much weight on this description, since it was customary among Turkish peoples to refer to the ruling classes as “white” and the lower clans as “black”.
Again, Koestler puts his “spin” on the facts. I wonder, do Koestler and the author of this essay believe that the “fair complexion” Khazar description is accurate, but that the “black” Khazar description is such that we shouldn’t put “too much weight” on it? Where do opinions end and facts begin?
It is clear that the Khazars were closely connected to the Huns, who themselves are an ethnic mystery.
JWH: Well, here, we can read:-
A comparison of haplogroup Q among Altaians and Ashkenazi Jews was undertaken by Dienekes Pontikos (2004), who operates a respected website dedicated to the examination of anthropological, archaeological and genetic research.
This is an opinion. “Respected?” By whom? The author? Is MajorityRights a “respected” website? Why or why not?
However, the very frequency and repetitiousness of the promulgation of such laws are … indications of their ineffectiveness” (Patai 1989, p. 105). Unfor-tunately, we do not have an accurate picture of the frequency of such sexual contact between Jews and Christians, since only those relatively few cases which led to criminal prosecution are known. How-ever, Patai believes the number was significantly higher than that reported by the authorities.
Evidence? Because Patai says so, so there! “Patai believes…” – why that is clear evidence right there! For some reason, the author has no problem in accepting these opinions along with the author’s statement above about the Jews resisting assimilation and the comment below concerning 500 years of endogamy. I wonder - does the author consider a book entitled “The Myth of the Jewish Race” to be a dispassionate objective study of Jewish origins, rather than obfuscatory apologia?
Such prohibitions did not prevent such sexual contact among Christians and Jews; nor did it prevent Christians from converting to Judaism, individually and in groups, though it was probably much more common for Jews to convert or simply leave the Jewish community, given the significant oppression they faced in Europe.
And that “significant oppression” is due to what?
Frankly, the fact that Jews have substantial European ancestry is obvious to most onlookers – many Jews look like Europeans.
And many Jews do not. And, what does the author mean by “… look like Europeans?” Is this author – gasp! – implying that European-derived peoples have a distinctive look that separates them from other peoples? Can’t have it both ways.
The question for DNA researchers was: How much of that European appearance actually translates into European genetic ancestry?
That question cannot be answered with the methodologies and studies discussed in this essay.
Patai (1989, pp. 16-17) argues that the Jews had never lived in sufficient reproductive isolation to have developed distinctive genetic features.
Apparently then, Tay Sachs and other Jewish genetic diseases are simply a figment of our imaginations. As well, the specific Ashkenazi profile of verbal intelligence, so often discussed recently at Steve Sailer’s site, is another figment of our imagination.
Rather, he states that “all the available evidence indicates that throughout their history the Jews continually received an inflow of genes from neighboring populations as a result of proselytism, intermarriage, rape, the birth of illegitimate children fathered by Gentiles, and so on.
“..and so on.” Very comprehensive and scientific, that.
There are clearly some problems with Patai’s hypothetical scenario.
Probably, the most reasonable and accurate sentence in the entire essay.
He cites various authors, including Cavalli-Sforza and Carmelli, who estimate such admixture rates to be approximately 40% for Ashkenazi Jews.
Right. If the 40% gentile European admixture is accepted, that means that the Ashkenazim are 60% non-European. In contrast, current estimates for the European genetic component for Puerto Ricans and Mexicans is higher than 40%. In any case, we need more data before accepting the 40% figure as being either too high or too low.
In the second Ashkenazi mtDNA study, Behar (2004a) attempted to answer the question of founder events among Ashkenazim posed by Thomas. Unfortunately, it could be argued that this entire study is directed at convincing the reader that “Ashkenazi populations as a whole are genetically more similar to Near Eastern non-Jewish populations than to European non-Jewish populations…In order to prove this, a complex analysis regarding “mismatch distributions” between Jewish and non-Jewish populations is performed. A careful reading, however, indicates that these mismatch calculations are based on a number of unfounded assumptions.
Why is “unfortunately” used in the second sentence above? Why does the author think it “unfortunate” that a researcher, based on evidence, concludes that the Ashkenazim are more similar to Near Easterners than to Europeans? Here, the author’s prejudices in favor of “Europeanized” Ashkenazim are on full display, and her bashing of the Behar work must be considered in this context. In addition, she should concentrate her problems with “unfounded assumptions” on work other than that of Behar.
In regards to H1, Pereira (2005) states the following: H1 is almost exclusively European, with its only incursion into the Near East being a few Palestinian individuals bearing the most common
However, given that H1 does not occur in other reported Middle Eastern groups (Gulf States, Kurds) and in only low percentages in the Caucasus, a European origin for Ashkenazi H1 seems probable (Pereira et al. 2005)… As to H3 among Ashkenazim, its provenance is almost certainly European, given that it occurs in none of the Middle Eastern groups, including Palestinians. In fact, Pereira (2005) deemed H3 “exclusively European.
Gee…first we hear of people “looking like Europeans”, and now we hear of “exclusively European” genetic markers. Interesting.
Thus, it appears that Ashkenazim obtained their H6 ancestry from European maternal founders, possibly Slavic or Khazarian in origin.
And now the Khazars are “European”?
The DNA studies have revealed a high degree of genetic interrelatedness among Ashkenazi groups, particularly among those of Eastern Europe. This common ancestry can be attributed to a small founding population, coupled with rapid population growth and a high rate of endogamy over the past 500 years.
Hmmm … first a resistance to assimilation and now “... a high rate of endogamy over the past 500 years.” But, according to Levy-Coffman and her hero Patai, the Ashkenazim are highly admixed with the Europeans they have been living amongst for the past 500 years, and earlier! So which is it? Resistance to assimilation and a half-millennium of endogamy, or all sorts of intermarriage and conversions and “so on?” Or, does the author want us to believe that 500 years ago the Ashkenazim decided, “hey, we’ve been – contrary to our laws – mixing it up with the gentiles and intermarrying and so forth, but now let’s suddenly become endogamous.” Is there any historical evidence of a sudden change from exogamy to endogamy 500 years
“DNA research has also revealed significant genetic links between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish populations, despite their separation for generations. With the Cohanim study, researchers found a clear genetic connection between the Jewish priests and a shared Israelite ancestor from the past. Additional genetic results suggest that the Ashkenazim can trace at least part of their ancestry to their Israelite forbearers.
Well, that at least is the one conclusion most consistent with all available data.
The examination of only a single component of Jewish ancestry has resulted in an incomplete and, to a certain extent, distorted presentation of the Jewish genetic picture.
Better to reword this and say that examination of single-locus markers have led to an incomplete and distorted view of the Jewish genetic picture. Endlessly picking apart more and more data on these single loci is not going to answer the questions; it seems like researchers are approaching diminishing returns with such studies.
Diversity was present from Jewish beginnings, when various Semitic and Mediterranean peoples came together to form the Israelites of long ago. The genetic picture was clearly enriched during the Diaspora, when Jews spread far and wide across Europe, attracting converts and intermarrying over time with their European hosts. The most recent DNA evidence indicates that from this blending of Middle Eastern and European ancestors, the diverse DNA ancestry of the Ashkenazi Jews emerged.
There it is – enrichment by diversity. That’s why Patai is embraced with only one minor critique, while Behar is viewed negatively.
Genetic studies of the future will hopefully clarify many of the remaining mysteries surrounding the origins and formation of the Ashkenazi communities. For instance, the origins and distribution of the most common mtDNA haplogroup among Ashkenazim – haplogroup K – remains unexplored. Additionally, tantalizing differences in the genetic makeup of western and eastern Ashkenazi populations remain to be fully investigated by DNA researchers.
That’s the problem. More and more studies of singe locus haplogroups is not going to clarify anything. Population geneticists have been endlessly mining the NRY and mtDNA to the exclusion of the rest of the genome for so long, some of them probably have forgotten that humans have gene sequences outside the Y chromosome and the mitochondria. One day, population geneticists will rediscover the autosomal nuclear genome and that day will come none too soon.
Despite all the weaknesses of the extant genetic information on the Ashkenazim and other Jewish populations, and despite the problems with the Levy-Coffman review, I believe that the core, basic conclusion of the review – once all the “spin” is ignored – is essentially correct.
The core conclusion is that the Ashkenazim are a genetic mix of Middle Eastern, Asiatic, and European ancestries – and that the European component of this mixture is a decided minority (probably no more than 40%), although better and more thorough genetic testing is needed to actually quantify these ancestral proportions. Thus, the so-called “European” Jews are a group quite distinct from, and quite unlike, the various indigenous (gentile) peoples of Europe. Indeed, the Ashkenazim share with other major Jewish populations a significant, common Middle Eastern ancestry.
In some ways one can make an analogy between Jews and Hispanics. Both groups have some degree of internal genetic (and phenotypic) variability, yet both groups, when viewed as an averaged entity, are distinct from other groups, and show important internal similarities as well as differences. Just like different Hispanic groups share with each other a common foundation of Iberian ancestry, which is then, in the different groups admixed with varying proportions of Amerindian and/or African ancestries; so too do the different Jewish groups share amongst themselves a common foundation of a Middle Eastern/Israelite ancestry, which is then modified in the different groups by varying input of Central Asian, European, African/North African and other ancestries. In addition, both Jews and Hispanics, despite the internal differences of each group, are also held together by cultural bonds. For the Jews, it is their history as a people and their laws and religion; for the Hispanics it is the Spanish language and the melding of Old World and New World experiences and cultures.
In summary, it is wrong to say that the Jews are not a distinct people. The Ashkenazim definitely are, with their unique history, origin from a small founding population, close genetic relatedness, and long period of endogamy. They then also share with the Sephardim and other major Jewish populations a significant fraction of Middle Eastern/ Israelite ancestry, coupled with common traditions, culture, religious beliefs, etc. Certainly, there are internal differences, but are these greater than that which unites them?
As a postscript I find it an interesting “coincidence” that the major conclusion here – that the Ashkenazim are a mix of Middle Eastern, Asiatic, and European stocks - “just happens” to match preliminary data produced by a certain “wrong” and “lousy” autosomal DNA test, that “just happened to” find the same ancestral components in a small sample of Ashkenazim. Of course, perhaps – just perhaps – it is not a coincidence and the test is not “wrong” and “lousy.” But this, as with many other things, will be revealed in the not too distant future, by the continued development of genetic assays and the data produced by them.
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