Ashkenazi Jewish women descended mostly from Italian converts, new study asserts

| October 8, 2013 |
via Forbes via Forbes

Are most modern Jews primarily of European or Middle and Near Eastern ancestry? That controversial subject—at the heart of the debate over the historical ‘right of return’ claimed by many religious Jews—is back in the headlines with the release of a massive new study published in Nature Communications challenging some established views of the origins of European Jewry.

The total Ashkenazi population is estimated at around 8 million people. The estimated world Jewish population is about 13 million.

Before the advent of advanced DNA research, it had been thought by some historians that European Jewry traced to the largely pagan population of ancient Khazaria in the Caucuses, whose leadership was believed to have converted to Judaism beginning around 700 AD. But that theory—known as the Khazarian hypothesis—has been largely discredited by DNA research. One geneticist, Eran Elhaik, has recently attempted to revive the theory, but his research has been sharply challenged.

A groundbreaking paper published in 2000 by Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer showed that most modern Jews are descended on their male side from a core population of approximately 20,000 Jews who migrated from Italy over the first millennium and eventually settled in Eastern Europe.

“All European [Ashkenazi] Jews seem connected on the order of fourth or fifth cousins,” Ostrer has said.

Known as the so-called “Rhineland hypothesis,” the consensus research holds that most Ashkenazi Jews, as well as many Jews tracing their lineage to Italy, North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Kurdish regions and Yemen, share common paternal haplotypes also found among many Arabs from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Only a small percentage of the Y-DNA of Ashkenazi Jews—less than 25 percent—originated outside of the Near East, presumably as converts.

This historical and genetic mosaic has provided support for the controversial concept of a “Jewish people.” The Law of Return, the Israeli law that established the right of Jews around the world to settle in Israel and which remains in force today, was a central tenet of Zionism. It is invoked by some religious Jews to support territorial claims (even though, based on this research, many Arabs, including Palestinians, where therefore also have a genetic ‘right of return’).

But what about the female lineage? That history is more obscure and contentiously debated. Duke University’s David Goldstein and Mark Thomas of the Center for Genetic Anthropology in London reported in 2002 that much of the mitochondrial DNA of women in Jewish communities around the world that they examined did not seem to be of Middle or Near Eastern origin, and indeed each community had its own genetic pattern. This suggested that migrating Jewish men might have taken on local wives, who converted to Judaism. The estimates of the percentage of Ashkenazi women of European image was probably more than 50 percent, they estimated, but the data was too murky to come up with a firm estimate.

But a subsequent and more extensive study in 2006 by a team based at Technion and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa suggested that Ashkenazi women—40 percent or more—may indeed have had ancient Near and Middle Eastern roots, and may have accompanied their husbands as part of families migrating together.

The new study published in Nature Communications aligns itself more closely with the 2002 hypothesis, although there are differences. Professor Martin Richards, who heads the University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group (and who participated in the 2002 study), and colleagues sequenced 74 mitochondrial genomes and analyzed more than 3,500 mitochondrial genomes – far more data than the 2006 survey, which reviewed only a short length of the mitochondrial DNA, containing just 1,000 or so of its 16,600 DNA units, in all their subjects.

Richards and his team claim that maternal lineages did not originate in the Near or Middle East or the Khazarian Caucasus but rather, for the most part, within Mediterranean Europe. Another twist in the findings: Jewish women may have been assimilated in Europe as far back as 2,000 years ago—earlier than most other studies have projected. The researchers believe the DNA could trace back to the early Roman Empire, when as much as 10 percent of the population practiced Judaism, many of them converts. Overall, they claim, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe while 8 percent originated in the Near East, with the rest uncertain.

According to Nicholas Wade of the New York Times, Doron Behar, one of the key authors of the 2006 analysis, said he disagreed with the conclusions, but has provided no detailed critique as yet.

Wade also talked to David Goldstein, who said he believed the estimate that 80 percent of Ashkenazi Jewry originated in Europe was too high considering the unpredictability of mitochondrial DNA data.

The new research underscores an emerging consensus that wandering Jewish men, from the Near East, established a mosaic of small Jewish communities—first in Italy and then scattered throughout Europe, often taking on local gentile wives and raising their children as Jews.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

Additional Resource:

Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People, Jon Entine

  • August Pamplona

    Where do Sephardic Jews fit into this (if at all)?

    • Jon Entine

      Good question. From a genetic perspective, Sephardim are not as distinct a group, as there has been more intermarriage with non Jews over the centuries…so the data is harder to isolate. This particular study suggests that the common markers for Ashkenazi women are from the Near East and from Roman Jews…those populations preceded the founding of what became Sephardic Jewry. Many of these same markers are in Sephardic Jews as well.

      • L.M.

        I am one of the Ashkenazi Jews(100%) and I agree with this research,as we are different from Sephardic mentally and visually. We are more close to Italian or Roman people.
        It is absolutely incredible, how we are survive against assimilation !!! Believe me it was mostly from mother’s side – not to assimilate. Family pressure on kids to choose suppose from Ashkenazi Jews transferred with blood. It is even more important than keeping traditions.
        You can eat what you want , you can dress up how you want, we will prefer , if you remember at least some of Jewish Holidays(no pressure), but you must to marry to same, as you are. You are growing up with it and just believe in you hard that you will be more happy with suppose from same kind, as you are. The funny thing that I became same, as I became a mother…
        It doesn’t matter how many researches will be done in the world , we are here, we are existing, we are surviving and it is making us unique…..

  • hwshy

    Hitler didnt seem to mind where a “Jew” came from, going after even those with only one Jewish grandparent. In this aim, he had a deep complicity and working relationship with the leader of the Muslims in Palestine (the region in question where no Jews apparently ever came from), known as the Mufti of Jerusalem, who was also a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Now if we didn’t come from Palestine, why does my European Jewish granddaddy bear a certain resemblance to this Mufti?!!! And why do I get mistakenly asked if I am Arab every time I choose to grow a beard? :)

    • Jon Entine

      First, this study is contested by others. If it is accurate, it refers only to Ashkenazi women (again, other scientists dispute these findings, say the data suggests that 50% or more of Ashkenazi Jewish women do have Near East ancestry). No one that I know of disputes that most Jewish men–upwards of 75%–have Near East ancestral roots. So that could explain your Semitic looks!

    • American Firster

      Doesnt Israel also practice the “one grandparent policy”?

      • Jon Entine

        The Law of Return was modified in 1970 to extend the right of return to non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent.

      • Casey

        That’s a ridiculous comparison; the Nazis used it to make sure they could murder as many Jews as possible, Israel uses it to make sure everyone (whether they are Jewish or just descended from a Jew) is safe from antisemitism.

        • American Firster

          So much myth and hyperbole in your statement, but of course myth and hyperbole is the flavor of the day.

  • Greek food enthusiast

    How come the DNA says the Ashkenazi are 54% Greek and 21% Iranian, using the new Genochip 2.0, and the Greek DNA has the same percentages as the Tuscan. Would the mtDNA actually be Tuscan Italian, which actually is Bronze-age Greek, since old Etruscan/Tuscan language is similar to Greek spoken prior to 1,500 BCE? Why Italian rather than Greek, when the Italians marrying the Middle-Eastern men most likely were Greek speaking, with the majority of synagogues in ancient Rome being Greek speaking and only 23 Latin speaking? Any ideas? Thanks.

  • Kenneth C.

    80% does not seem to be a rational or accurate estimate,I’ve read studies that have stated that a little more than half of Ashkenazi Jewish people do have levantine Mtdna from the near east…Why are they saying that it’s European and who came up with this supposed “conclusion”?

    • Jon Entine

      Kenneth, some geneticists dispute the conclusions by the Richards’ team. Talked with Martin, and he’s very confident that the maternal line of about 65-80% of today’s Ashkenazi Jews has ancient European roots. Others say it could be as low as 40%, but it is sizable regardless. I’m working on a mega story analyzing the claims and counter claims, but it won’t be out for a month or so. Stay tuned!!


    The problem here is that, the human genome is 99.9% identical between all humans, and that more variation is apparent in cellular process then racial indication. Syrians and Jewish DNA are more similar as they share a semetic background, Arabs are more Assyrian-Persian in nature, but they both share the same ancestor which is the Sumerian. The Sumerian is the common ancestor, but all humans originated in AFRICA 150,000 Years ago. And were all 99.9 similar, we should stop focusing on roots and racial identification and more on how we are all human. Not hes this type of jew, and hes this type of jew, and hes african and this guys arab. But hes a human being, and shes a human being, and I am a human being. JUST SAYING!!!

  • xi557xi

    John, typo: in paragraph 9 you say Ramban Medical Center. It’s Rambam.

    • Jon Entine


  • Joel Davidi

    Jersey Shore, Five Towns Edition, coming up?

  • James

    Hi! Where is the follow up article on this topic? I can’t find it.