Lost Tribes in Africa — part 2

Jun 7, 2010 by

In the last posting, I discussed Ethiopian Jews; here we will look at two other groups in Africa that claim to be Jewish (and in some cases claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes).

First, let’s look at the Yemenite Jews. At the beginning of the 19th century, they numbered 30,000 and lived principally in Aden, Sana, Sada, Dhamar, and the desert of Beda. Between June 1949 and September 1950 virtually the entire Jewish population emigrated from Yemen in what was called the Operation Magic Carpet. Yemenite Jews are a very distinct community, with a unique religious tradition that marks them out as separate from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other Jewish groups; they are especially known for their unique marriage traditions (see the picture below of a Yemenite Jewish bride in a traditional bridal costume). What about their genes?

DNA testing between Yemenite Jews and various other of the world’s Jewish communities shows a common link, with most communities sharing similar paternal genetic profiles. Furthermore, the Y-chromosome signatures of the Yemenite Jews are also similar to those of other Semitic populations. One point in which Yemenite Jews appear to differ from Ashkenazi Jews and most Near Eastern Jewish communities is in the proportion of sub-Saharan African gene types which have entered their gene pools. For example, Richards et al. (2003) showed that some Arabic-speaking populations — Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Bedouins — have what appears to be substantial gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa, amounting to 10-15% of lineages within the past three millennia. In the case of Yemenites, the average is actually higher at 35%.

Another interesting Jewish group in Africa is the Lemba or Lembaa who number 50,000-70,000 in Malawi, Zimbabwe and the South African region of Venda. According to their legends, their ancestors came by boat from a northern town called Sena (there are towns with similar names in Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia and Yemen!). Unlike Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews who speak Semitic languages distantly related to Hebrew, the Lemba are speakers of Bantu languages related to those spoken by their geographic neighbors. Lemba have various religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism, which have been remembered and transmitted orally through the generations. Today, many Lemba are Christians, though they seem to maintain several Jewish practices. Among these Jewish-like beliefs and practices: monotheism (the Lemba believe in one God “Nwali”); they hold a day of the week to be holy (similar to the Jewish Shabbat); they consider themselves a chosen people; they teach their children to honor their mothers and fathers; they refrain from eating pork or other foods forbidden by the Torah, or forbidden combinations of permitted foods; they practice a form of animal slaughter, which makes meats fit for their consumption (resembling the Jewish Shechita) and male circumcision; they place a Star of David on their tombstones; and are discouraged from marrying non-Lembas (as Jews are discouraged from marrying non-Jews). There are also specific conversion practices for non-Lembas.

Although the Lemba claim direct descent from one of the Lost Tribes, there are two alternative explanations for their adherence to these Jewish practices: first, the Lemba might have read parts of the Hebrew Bible and adopted some of the practices; second, they may have absorbed Jewish traditions from traders on the east coast of Africa. So what does genetics say about all this?

A number of genetic studies have been conducted with the Lemba. In 1996, Spurdle & Jenkins showed that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are Semitic in origin, approximately 40% are Negroid, and the ancestry of the remainder cannot be resolved. Perhaps surprisingly, a parallel study of maternal DNA (mtDNA) exhibited a very different pattern: there is practically no evidence of female ancestors from the Middle East; the female ancestors of the Lemba are overwhelmingly African. This means that the Lemba descend from the intermarriage of Semitic males (but not necessarily Jewish!) and local African women.

A further study by Thomas et al. (2000) showed that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular polymorphism on the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). This genetic signature is associated with men in those Jewish lineages who trace their descent from the Hebrew priests (called “cohanim” in Hebrew); according to the Jewish tradition, these men are direct male descendants of the Biblical Aaron, the younger brother of Moses. (Note that many of the Cohanim bear last names like Cohen, Kogan, and Katz, but there is no 100% correlation between the last name and whether a given man is a Cohen).

In an interesting twist to the story, one particular sub-clan within the Lemba, the Buba clan, considered by the Lemba to be their priestly clan (like the Jewish Cohanim) carries most of the Cohen Modal Haplotypes found in the Lemba. But things are not as straightforward as they seem: another study has shown that 34.2% of men in Yemen also exhibit close similarity to CMH, despite being found not to be closely related when more microsatellite markers are taken into account. Therefore, more microsatellite markers would need to be tested in order to verify the reality of whether the Lemba Y-chromosomes are indeed more closely related to Jewish Cohens rather than other possible Semitic ancestors such as the Yemenis.

In tomorrow’s posting, we will continue our worldwind tour of Jewish communities and their genetics.

Richards, Martin; Chiara Rengo, Fulvio Cruciani, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Rosaria Scozzari, Vincent Macaulay, and Antonio Torroni (April 2003). “Extensive female-mediated gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa into near eastern Arab populations” American Journal of Human Genetics 72 (4): 1058–1064

Thomas et al. (2000) “Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba—the “Black Jews of Southern Africa””, American Journal of Human Genetics 66 (2): 674

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