The DNA of Abraham’s Children

Analysis of Jewish genomes refutes the Khazar claim.

Jews have historically considered themselves “people of the book” (am hasefer in Hebrew), referring to sacred tomes, but the phrase is turning out to have an equally powerful, if unintended, meaning: scientists are able to read Jewish genomes like a history book. The latest DNA volume weighs in on the controversial, centuries-old (and now revived in a 2008 book) claim that European Jews are all the descendants of Khazars, a Turkic group of the north Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the late eighth and early ninth century. The DNA has spoken: no.

In the wake of studies in the 1990s that supported biblically based notions of a priestly caste descended from Aaron, brother of Moses, an ambitious new project to analyze genomes collected from Jewish volunteers has yielded its first discoveries. In a paper with the kind of catchy title you rarely see in science journals—“Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era”—scientists report that the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history. In addition to the age-old question of whether Jews are simply people who share a religion or are a distinct population, the scientific verdict is settling on the latter.

Although the origin of the Jews has been traced, archeologically, to the Middle East in the second millennium B.C.E., what happened next has been more opaque. To sort it out, researchers collected DNA from Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Ashkenazi Jews around New York City; Turkish Sephardic Jews in Seattle; Greek Sephardic Jews in Thessaloniki and Athens; and Italian Jews in Rome as part of the Jewish HapMap Project. (All four grandparents of each participant had to have come from the same community.) As the scientists will report in the next issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, the analysis shows that “each of the Jewish populations formed its own distinctive cluster, indicating the shared ancestry and relative genetic isolation of the members of each of those groups.”

Jewish populations, that is, have retained their genetic coherence just as they have retained their cultural and religious traditions, despite migrations from the Middle East into Europe, North Africa, and beyond over the centuries, says geneticist Harry Ostrer of NYU Langone Medical Center, who led the study. Each Diaspora group has distinctive genetic features “representative of each group’s genetic history,” he says, but each also “shares a set of common genetic threads” dating back to their common origin in the Middle East. “Each of the Jewish populations formed its own distinctive cluster, indicating the shared ancestry and relative genetic isolation of the members of each of those groups.”

Read the rest of article at: www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/06/03/the-dna-of-abraham-s-children.html

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