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The Samaritans are a group of some 750 indigenous Middle Eastern people, about half of whom live in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and the other half near Nablus. The Samaritan population is believed to have numbered more than a million in late Roman times but less than 150 in 1917. The ancestry of the Samaritans has been subject to controversy from late Biblical times to the present. In this study, liquid chromatography/electrospray ionization/quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometry was used to allelotype 13 Y-chromosomal and 15 autosomal microsatellites in a sample of 12 Samaritans chosen to have as low a level of relationship as possible, and 461 Jews and non-Jews. Estimation of genetic distances between the Samaritans and seven Jewish and three non-Jewish populations from Israel, as well as populations from Africa, Pakistan, Turkey, and Europe, revealed that the Samaritans were closely related to Cohanim. This result supports the position of the Samaritans that they are descendants from the tribes of Israel dating to before the Assyrian exile in 722–720 BCE. In concordance with previously published single-nucleotide polymorphism haplotypes, each Samaritan family, with the exception of the Samaritan Cohen lineage, was observed to carry a distinctive Y-chromosome short tandem repeat haplotype that was not more than one mutation removed from the six-marker Cohen modal haplotype.
The origin and history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population have long been of great interest, and advances in high-throughput genetic analysis have recently provided a new approach for investigating these topics. We and others have argued on the basis of genome-wide data that the Ashkenazi Jewish population derives its ancestry from a combination of sources tracing to both Europe and the Middle East. It has been claimed, however, through a reanalysis of some of our data, that a large part of the ancestry of the Ashkenazi population originates with the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking group that lived to the north of the Caucasus region ∼1,000 years ago. Because the Khazar population has left no obvious modern descendants that could enable a clear test for a contribution to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, the Khazar hypothesis has been difficult to examine using genetics. Furthermore, because only limited genetic data have been available from the Caucasus region, and because these data have been concentrated in populations that are genetically close to populations from the Middle East, the attribution of any signal of Ashkenazi-Caucasus genetic similarity to Khazar ancestry rather than shared ancestral Middle Eastern ancestry has been problematic. Here, through integration of genotypes from newly collected samples with data from several of our past studies, we have assembled the largest data set available to date for assessment of Ashkenazi Jewish genetic origins. This data set contains genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphisms in 1,774 samples from 106 Jewish and non-Jewish populations that span the possible regions of potential Ashkenazi ancestry: Europe, the Middle East, and the region historically associated with the Khazar Khaganate. The data set includes 261 samples from 15 populations from the Caucasus region and the region directly to its north, samples that have not previously been included alongside Ashkenazi Jewish samples in genomic studies. Employing a variety of standard techniques for the analysis of population-genetic structure, we found that Ashkenazi Jews share the greatest genetic ancestry with other Jewish populations and, among non-Jewish populations, with groups from Europe and the Middle East. No particular similarity of Ashkenazi Jews to populations from the Caucasus is evident, particularly populations that most closely represent the Khazar region. Thus, analysis of Ashkenazi Jews together with a large sample from the region of the Khazar Khaganate corroborates the earlier results that Ashkenazi Jews derive their ancestry primarily from populations of the Middle East and Europe, that they possess considerable shared ancestry with other Jewish populations, and that there is no indication of a significant genetic contribution either from within or from north of the Caucasus region.
The contemporary study of Jewish genetics has a long prehistory dating to the eighteenth century. Prior to the era of genetics, studies of the physical makeup of Jews were undertaken by comparative anatomists and physical anthropologists. In the nineteenth century the field was referred to as “race science.” Believed by many race scientists to be a homogeneous and pure race, Jews occupied a central position in the discourse of race science because they were seen as the control group par excellence to determine the relative primacy of nature or nurture in the development of racial characteristics. In the nineteenth century, claims of Jewish homogeneity prompted research that sought to explain morphological differences among Jews, chief among them the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. I examine some of these original debates here with a view to placing them in their historical and cultural contexts.
This letter is a call for DNA testing on ancient skeletal materials from the southern Levant to begin a database of genetic information of the inhabitants of this crossroads region. In this region, during the Iron I period traditionally dated to circa 1200-1000 BCE, archaeologists and biblical historians view the earliest presence of a group that called itself Israel. They lived in villages in the varied hill countries of the region, contemporary with urban settlements in the coastal plains, inland valleys, and central hill country attributed to varied indigenous groups collectively called Canaanite. The remnants of Egyptian imperial presence in the region lasted until around 1150 BCE, postdating the arrival of an immigrant group from the Aegean called the Philistines circa 1175 BCE. The period that follows in the southern Levant is marked by the development of territorial states throughout the region, circa 1000-800 BCE. These patrimonial kingdoms, including the United Kingdom of Israel and the divided kingdoms of northern Israel and Judah, coalesced varied peoples under central leadership and newly founded administrative and religious bureaucracies. Ancient DNA testing will give us a further refined understanding of the individuals who peopled the region of the southern Levant throughout its varied archaeological and historic periods and provide scientific data that will support, refute, or nuance our sociohistoric reconstruction of ancient group identities. These social identities may or may not map onto genetic data, but without sampling of ancient DNA we may never know. A database of ancient DNA will also allow for comparisons with modern DNA samples collected throughout the greater region and the Mediterranean littoral, giving a more robust understanding of the long historical trajectories of regional human genetics and the genetics of varied ancestral groups of today's Jewish populations and other cultural groups in the modern Middle East and Mediterranean.
This commentary contrasts two recent scholarly works on the possibility of a biological basis for “Jewishness.” Harry Ostrer's Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People claims a strong shared genetic component of Jewish ancestry tracing to the Levant, extending so far as to suggest a biological basis for Jewishness. Nadia Abu El-Haj's The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology adopts a skeptical perspective on contemporary genetics and claims that genetic studies of the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA cannot be viewed as supporting a common Jewish ancestry. The disagreement is consequential, and the arguments can be understood in terms of differences in the audiences, styles of reasoning, and social and political perspectives for the two works. A synthesis is proposed for helping to articulate a space between the two opposing views.