Ancient DNA from medieval Germany tells the origin story of Ashkenazi Jews

Date:

Share post:

Excavating ancient DNA from teeth, an international group of scientists led by Shai Carmi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and David Reich of Harvard University peered into the lives of a once thriving medieval Ashkenazi Jewish community in Erfurt, Germany. The team, including ancient DNA researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found that the Erfurt Jewish community was more genetically diverse than modern day Ashkenazi Jews.

“Today, if you compare Ashkenazi Jews from the United States and Israel, they’re very similar genetically, almost like the same population regardless of where they live,” says geneticist Shai Carmi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But unlike today’s genetic uniformity, it turns out that the community was more diverse 600 years ago.

A tooth collected from the medieval Jewish cemetery in Erfurt, Germany. Researchers collected 38 teeth from the excavation site, from which they extracted ancient DNA from 33 individuals [Credit: David Reich, Harvard University]

Digging into the ancient DNA of 33 Ashkenazi Jews from medieval Erfurt, the team discovered that the community can be categorized into what seems like two groups. One relates more to individuals from Middle Eastern populations and the other to European populations, possibly including migrants to Erfurt from the East. The findings suggest that there were at least two genetically distinct groups in medieval Erfurt. However, that genetic variety and variability no longer exists in modern Ashkenazi Jews.

“Our goal was to fill the gaps in our understanding of Ashkenazi Jewish early history through ancient DNA data,” says Carmi. While ancient DNA data is a powerful tool to infer historical demographics, ancient Jewish DNA data is hard to come by, as Jewish law prohibits the disturbance of the dead in most circumstances. With the approval of the local Jewish community in Germany, the research team collected detached teeth from remains found in a 14th-century Jewish cemetery in Erfurt that underwent a rescue excavation.

The researchers also discovered that the founder event, which makes all Ashkenazi Jews today descendants of a small population, happened before the 14th century. For example, teasing through mitochondrial DNA, genetic materials we inherit from our mothers, they discovered that a third of the sampled Erfurt individuals share one specific sequence. The findings indicate that the early Ashkenazi Jewish population was so small that a third of Erfurt individuals descended from a single woman through their maternal lines. At least eight of the Erfurt individuals also carried disease-causing genetic mutations common in modern-day Ashkenazi Jews but rare in other populations—a hallmark of the Ashkenazi Jewish founder event.

While converting a15th century granary (large brown building) into a parking garage in Erfurt, Germany, graves from the Jewish cemetery underneath were uncovered. During a rescue excavation, the remains were moved to a 19th century Jewish cemetery nearby where they were reburied [Credit: Shai Carmi, Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

“Jews in Europe were a religious minority that was socially segregated, and they experienced periodic persecution,” says geneticist David Reich of Harvard University. Although antisemitic violence virtually wiped out Erfurt’s Jewish community in 1349, Jews returned five years later and flourished into one of the largest in Germany. “Our work gives us direct insight into the structure of this community”, adds Reich.

The team believes the current study helps to establish an ethical basis for studies of ancient Jewish DNA. Many questions remain unanswered, such as how medieval Ashkenazi Jewish communities became genetically differentiated, how early Ashkenazi Jews related to Sephardi Jews, and how modern Jews relate to ones from ancient Judea. “This work also provides a template for how a co-analysis of modern and ancient DNA data can shed light on the past,” says Reich. “Studies like this hold great promise not only for understanding Jewish history, but also that of any population.”

The findings are published in Cell.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft [November 30, 2022]

ADVERTISEMENT

spot_img

Related articles

Seeking the origin of Indigenous languages in South America

A new study indicates that one of the largest of the indigenous language families in Latin America originated...

Harmful mutations have accumulated during early human migrations out of Africa

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are thought to have first emerged in Africa about 150,000 years ago. 100,000 years...

Ancient bone carving could change the way we think about Neanderthals

The design may be simple, but a chevron pattern etched onto a deer bone more than 50,000 years...

Insects were major food source of early man around 1.8 million years ago

Insects could have accounted for almost half of the daily diet of early man millions of years ago,...

New linguistic analysis finds Dravidian language family is approximately 4,500 years old

The origin of the Dravidian language family, consisting of about 80 varieties spoken by 220 million people across...

Prehistoric roots of ‘cold sore’ virus traced through ancient herpes DNA

Ancient genomes from the herpes virus that commonly causes lip sores—and currently infects some 3.7 billion people globally—have...

Scientists reveal sub-Saharan Africa’s legacy of past migrations over last 4,000 years

Researchers from the University of Oxford have revealed that the genetic ancestries of many of sub-Saharan Africa's populations...

Bone study sheds new light on the history of Britain’s weaning habits

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have led a significant new study on the history of Britain's weaning...