Lost Tribes in Africa

Jun 4, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting, I described a recent genetic study that confirms that Ashkenazi Jews come from the same general genetic pool as other Jewish groups: Sephardi and Oriental Jews. But what about other groups that claim to be Jewish? What does genetics have to say about them? Today we will look at one such group in Africa and future postings will focus on allegedly Jewish groups elsewhere. But first a quick reminder about the concept of the Ten Lost Tribes.

According to the Jewish tradition, there were twelve tribes of Israelites who settled in the Land of Canaan, each named after (and descendent from) one of the twelve sons of Jacob: Gad, Asher, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali (later, Joseph splits into Manasseh and Ephraim, but Levi is absorbed into other tribes — we can discuss the genetics of Levites later). Different tribes settle in different parts of the land and eventually two kingdoms were established: the northern Kingdom of Israel comprises the tribes of Reuben, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Manasseh (and most of Levi), while the southern Kingdom of Judah comprises the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin. After the northern Kindom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, its inhabitants were deported and dispersed, hence the Ten Lost Tribes. Today, many groups claim descent from these Ten Lost Tribes: Samaritans in Israel and West Bank, Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia, Bnei Menashe in India, Cochin Jews in India, Bnai Israel in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Lemba in southern Africa, to name just a few.

Probably the best-known among them is Beta Israel (Falasha) of Ethiopia. This community is more than 130,000 people strong and claims descent from the tribe of Dan. By now, nearly 85% of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community have emigrated to Israel, most of them during two rescue operations: Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Falasha are not to be confused with Falasha Mura, who are the descendants of Beta Israel who converted to Christianity. Some of them are now returning to the practices of Judaism, but their status is still very controversial in Israel today. Some even doubt that Falasha are truly Jewish.

Unsurprisingly, quite a number of genetic studies have been conducted to clarify the status of Falasha people. Already in the early 1990s, a study of Y-DNA and mtDNA of Ethiopian Jews has been conducted and reported in Zoossmann-Disken et al. (1991) who found that

“Ethiopian Jews cluster with other Ethiopian tribes and occupy a central position on a principal component map between African and Asian populations.”

A further study by Lucotte & Smets (1999) came to a similar conclusion: although they do not doubt the Jewish practices of Falasha, their claim to a descent from the tribe of Dan is shown to be wrong:

“… the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism.”

Similarly, Hammer et al. (2000) treat the Beta Israel as an exception to the general commonality of the “paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population…” — the Falasha are “affiliated more closely with non-Jewish Ethiopians and other North Africans.”

But a year later, an interesting twist appeared in the story of the Falasha: a study conducted in 2001 by the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University found a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews. So are Ethiopian Jews related to other Jewish groups worldwide by blood after all? Probably not: the more likely explanation proposed by the Stanford researchers is that there existed a gene flow between Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations, or perhaps even between Jewish and non-Jewish populations of both regions. Thus, it is not that the 11 Ethiopian Jews studied are related to other Jews by blood, but rather the four Yemenite Jews are related to Ethiopians (perhaps they are descendents of reverse migrants of African origin who crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen).

Note that these earlier studies typically focused on Y-DNA, which traces paternal descent. But what about women and maternal descent? After all, for many strands of Judaism today it is the mother’s lineage that is important in determining whether a person is Jewish or not.

A more recent study, reported in Thomas et al. (2002) looked specifically at the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) of Ehtiopian Jews. According to their results, the most common mtDNA type found among the Ethiopian Jewish sample was present only in Somalia, which further supports the view that most Ethiopian Jews are of local, Ethiopian origin.

Zoossmann-Diskin A, Ticher A, Hakim I, Goldwitch Z, Rubinstein A, Bonne-Tamir B. (1991) “Genetic affinities of Ethiopian Jews.”, Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 27(5):245-51.

Lucotte G, Smets P. (1999) “Origins of Falasha Jews studied by haplotypes of the Y chromosome.”, Human Biology 71(6): 989-93.

Hammer M. F., Redd A. J., Wood E. T., Bonner M. R., Jarjanazi H., Karafet T., Santachiara-Benerecetti S., Oppenheim A., Jobling M. A., Jenkins T., Ostrer H., Bonné-Tamir B. (2000) “Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 97 no. 12, pp. 6769-6774.

Thomas, Mark G.; Michael E. Weale, Abigail L. Jones, Martin Richards, Alice Smith, Nicola Redhead, Antonio Torroni, Rosaria Scozzari, Fiona Gratrix, Ayele Tarekegn, James F. Wilson, Cristian Capelli, Neil Bradman, and David B. Goldstein. (2002) “Founding Mothers of Jewish Communities: Geographically Separated Jewish Groups Were Independently Founded by Very Few Female Ancestors”, Am J Hum Genet. 70(6): 1411-1420.

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