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Genetics: A Middle Eastern origin for Ashkenazi Levites

Nature Communications

December 18, 2013

High coverage sequencing of whole Y-chromosomes from Jewish individuals suggests that Ashkenazi Levites may have originated in the Middle East. The work, published in Nature Communications, reconstructs the evolutionary history of Ashkenazi Levites and provides a comprehensive analysis of the geographic origins of this group.

The origins of Ashkenazi Levites, members of a paternally inherited Jewish priestly class, remain controversial. Previous studies have reported a distinct genetic region on the Y-chromosome, known as R1a, which defines the Ashkenazi lineage. However, population based genetic analysis of this region has revealed conflicting results in regards to the location of its origin.

Doron Behar and colleagues sequenced the Y-chromosomes of 8 Jewish and 5 non-Jewish individuals and identified a new genetic marker within R1a. They then examined this marker in a further 2,834 individuals, both Jewish andnon-Jewish, from various populations across Europe, North Africa, different regions of Asia and South Siberia.

They analyze the evolutionary relationships between these individuals and suggest that the genetic marker originated in the Middle East, ruling out an Eastern European origin for Ashkenazi Levites. The authors propose that Jewish migrants carried this marker into Europe where it expanded amongst Ashkenazi Levites during their subsequent dispersion in the region. This study demonstrates the power of genetic studies to refine genealogical relationships and trace gene flow between populations.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms3928

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