A recently published study in Nature reveals that most members of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora can trace their roots to ancestors who lived in the Near East more than 2,000 years ago. The new research, based on recent advances in genome technology, was spearheaded by scientists from Technion’s Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Rappaport Family Institute for Research in Medical Sciences and the affiliated Rambam Health Care Campus, who, along with an international team, have illuminated the genetic structure of the Jewish people at the level of the entire genome.
Researchers from eight countries examined 600,000 genomic markers, distributed over the entire genome, comparing the descendents of 14 Diaspora Jewish communities with 69 non-Jewish populations around the world. Their findings provide an integrated picture of the genetic structure of the Jewish people and reveal that most of the Jewish communities showed genetic links to each other by virtue of shared Near East origins.
Now, the genetic evidence supporting Jewish roots in the Levant, followed by migration and varying degrees of assimilation with local non-Jewish populations among diverse Diaspora Jewish communities, concurs with the traditional narrative of the origins and demographic history of the Jewish people.
“Contemporary Jewry is made up of a collection of communities whose members around the world identify with one another by virtue of common religious tradition, history, and culture,” explains Dr Doron Behar. “Historical evidence suggests a common origin in the Middle East, followed by multiple migrations that led to the creation of Jewish communities in Europe, Africa, and Asia - what we call the Jewish Diaspora. Previous genetic research showed a common patriarchal dynasty with multiple establishing events for a matriarchal dynasty - but did not examine the origin of Jews on the overall genome level and across the wide spectrum of the Jewish Diaspora.”
Behar’s co-authors include Director of the Rappaport Family Institute for Research in Medical Sciences and Director of Medical and Research Development, Rambam Health Care Campus, Prof. Karl Skorecki, and Prof. Richard Villems, who heads the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and is director of the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu and serves as president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.
Skorecki presented the findings for the first time at the Rambam Summit in June 2010. His research group has studied many other Near Eastern and global populations, including the Druze communities of northern Israel. Skorecki says, “Genome-wide analysis has proven extensive sharing of DNA sequences among geographically and temporally widely separated Diaspora Jewish communities - most of whom bear a Levantine Near East signature.”
The samples in this pioneering genome-level study were carefully chosen to provide comprehensive comparisons between Jewish and non-Jewish populations in the Diaspora, as well as with non-Jewish populations from the Middle East and North Africa. The results cast light on the variegated genetic architecture of the Middle East, and trace the origins of most Jewish Diaspora communities to the Levant. Jewish communities from Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus all have substantial genetic ancestry that traces back to the Levant. In contrast, Ethiopian Jews and two Judaic communities in India are genetically much closer to their non-Jewish host populations.
Villems said, “There are loose ends but the message is honest and true.” He predicted, “It needs more hard work but we can probably eventually understand, ‘who are the Ashkenazim?’”