Ancient Origins| A new study published in the leading journal Nature Communications has discovered that Ashkenazi Jews, a Jewish ethnic group who trace their origins to the indigenous tribes of early Israel, have a maternal lineage that comes largely from Europe.
According to the mainstream hypothesis, Jews arrived in central Europe following the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, and began settling in Germany during the early Middle Ages. Today, “Ashkenazi Jews” is a descriptive term for descendants of these Jews, including those who established communities in Central and Eastern Europe centuries later. With them, they took and diversified Yiddish, a High German language written using the Hebrew alphabet, and heavily influenced by classical Hebrew and Aramaic.
Though the Ashkenazi Jews have lived in Europe for many centuries, the study’s analysis of DNA samples contradict the belief that most European Jews descend from people who left Israel and the Middle East around 2,000 years ago. Instead, a substantial proportion of the population originates from local Europeans who converted to Judaism, said study co-author Martin Richards, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Huddersfield in England.
A 2006 study found Ashkenazi Jews to be a clear, homogeneous genetic subgroup. Strikingly, regardless of the place of origin, Ashkenazi Jews can be grouped in the same genetic cohort — that is, regardless of whether an Ashkenazi Jew’s ancestors came from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, or any other place with a historical Jewish population, they belong to the same ethnic group. This is because for roughly a thousand years, the Ashkenazim were a reproductively isolated population in Europe, despite living in many countries, with little inflow or outflow from migration, conversion, or intermarriage with other groups, including other Jews.
For many centuries it has been thought that this ethnic cohort had its origins in Israel and the Near East and some studies seemed to have confirmed this to be true – past research found that 50 to 80% of DNA from the male lineage, originated in the Near East. However, the current study examined maternal DNA which produced a very different result, showing that more than 80 percent of the maternal lineages of Ashkenazi Jews could be traced to Europe, with only a few lineages originating in the Near East.
“This suggests that, even though Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from Palestine around 2000 years ago, they seem to have married European women,” states Professor Richards.
In the early years of the Diaspora, it seems that 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 to southern and western Europe.
“The origins of the Ashkenazim is one of the big questions that people have pursued again and again and never really come to a conclusive view,” said Prof Richards, who has described the new data as “compelling.”