SOAS University of London

'Nature' Article Digs into Judaism's Roots

9 June 2010
The Gogodala people of Papua New Guinea believe they are descended from the lost tribes of Israel

Most Jewish communities around the world, with the notable exception of the one in Ethiopia, can trace their genetic lineage back to the Levant.

That is the central conclusion of an article in this week's edition of the journal Nature

SOAS Professor of Modern Jewish Studies Tudor Parfitt co-authored the article, which represents years of research by a score of collaborators.

'Even Jewish historians were convinced there could be no homogeneity of Jewish worldwide samples,' said Parfitt in a recent interview. 

Parfitt consulted several historians across Europe as part of his research. They insisted that pogroms and conquests over the centuries, and conversions to Judaism in late antiquity, would necessarily have led to a diverse gene pool among modern Jewish communities.  

'However, the study suggests that only early conversions to Judaism in the Levant area, which would not be genetically visible, could have played any major role,' he said.

The journal authors collected DNA samples from 14 Jewish Diaspora communities and compared these with the genetic makeup to 69 non-Jewish populations from the same or neighbouring regions. 

Parfitt himself collected DNA from individuals in Israel, India, Australia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Yemen, Morocco, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Papua New Guinea.

The researchers' analysis revealed 'a close relationship between most of today’s Jews and non-Jewish populations from the Levant,' according to a statement from Nature. 'This fits with the idea that most contemporary Jews have descended from ancient Hebrew and Israelite residents of the Levant.

'In contrast, Ethiopian and Indian Jewish communities cluster with neighbouring non-Jewish populations in Ethiopia and western India, respectively. This may be partly because a greater degree of genetic, religious and cultural crossover took place when the Jewish communities in these areas became established.'

Parfitt said the report's findings seem to confirm that the Beta Israel (Falasha) community in Ethiopia did not have Israelite roots.

'It seems certain that their form of Judaism was one which developed in Ethiopia partly for political reasons,' he said. 'In other words, Jews did not go to Ethiopia in ancient times–but Judaism did.'  

photo credit: Kevin Evans

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William Friar
Communications Officer
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
tel. (0)20 7898 4135