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Ashkenazi Jews trace their maternal lineage to southern and western Europe, rather than the Near East or Caucasus as many Jews believe, according to a study published on Tuesday.
The ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews -- Jews who dispersed into central and eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages -- is a hotly debated topic.
There are competing schools of thought but general agreement that their ancestors migrated from Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.
Researchers led by Martin Richards at the University of Huddersfield in northern England analysed mitochondrial DNA -- genetic signatures handed down only by the maternal line -- from people across Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
"We have found that, in the vast majority of cases, Ashkenazi lineages are most closely related to southern and western European lineages, and that these lineages have been present in Europe for many thousands of years," they said in a press release.
This meant that the Jews who originally left Palestine for Europe around 2,000 years ago were predominantly men, and they brought few or no wives with them, the scientists suggested.
"They seem to have married with European women, firstly along the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, and later (but probably to a lesser extent) in western central Europe," the investigators said.
In the early years of the European diaspora, Judaism thus expanded through local converts, particularly among women, they said.
The discovery runs counter to the argument that Ashkenazi Jews had a purely Middle Eastern ancestry, or alternatively -- and more controversially -- were converts in the North Caucasus during the time of the Khazar empire, whose rulers turned to Judaism around the 10th century AD.
"The great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant, as commonly supposed, nor recruited in the Caucasus, as sometimes suggested, but assimilated within Europe," according to the study published in Nature Communications.
"These results point to a significant role for the conversion of women in the formation of Ashkenazi communities, and provide the foundation for a detailed reconstruction of Ashkenazi genealogical history."