From Volume 1, Spring 2009, pages 156-157. DNA is a major emerging area of research for descendants of crypto-Jews...
Recent Research Articles: From Roth to DNA
Cecil Roth’s A History of the Marranos in 1932 can be considered the beginning of the modern study of marranos, and his The History of the Jews in Italy was the first book to discuss at length the secret Jews of Italy. He relied on historical records including limited records from the Inquisition period, folk legends, anecdotes, tombstone inscriptions, rabbinical responses, decisions of civil courts, interviews, and other material. Other researchers also have justly relied on a variety of sources, and as noted by articles in this issue of the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews, Inquisition records, more available than they were in the 1930s and 1940s, have a very special importance. Nothing can replace the rich original Inquisition records with their painful details. The fact that inquisitors recorded their actions in such detail is an interesting commentary on human behavior, but at the same time their records provide much historical and genealogical information. But, especially since the 1990s, DNA research also has been able to add more information to crypto-Judaic studies. As has been noted, DNA research frequently cannot provide definitive answers about a specific individual’s possible secret Jewish ancestry, but it can provide insightful information about history.
There are many articles on Sephardic DNA, but the purpose of this brief discussion is to describe three recent research projects about crypto-Jewish DNA:
(1) “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.” The American Journal of Human Genetics, 83, 725-736, December 12, 2008, Susan M. Adams and others. This article is based on analyses of the Y chromosome (male) DNA of 1,140 males from the Iberian Peninsula and Balearic Islands (Spain, n=849; Portugal, n=138; islands=153). Following the male line backwards, 19.8% of these males in contemporary Iberia, mostly Catholic today, have a Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Another 10.6% have a North African (mostly Berber or Arabic) ancestry.
This is the article of which Michael Freund wrote that “a team of biologists dropped a DNA bombshell,” and that these “are not the wild-eyed speculations of a newspaper columnist, but rather cold, hard results straight out of a petri dish in a laboratory” (2009, p. 10).
There are some regional variations within Iberia. For example, in Asturias (with a small sample) 45.2% of the men had a Jewish DNA pattern, in southern Portugal, 36.3%, Aragon, 35.8%, Ibiza, 33.0%, and Extremadura, 28.7%. On the other hand, northeastern Castile, Catalonia, Gascony, and Minorca had low percentages, under 10%. Other examples, close to the overall average, include Majorca, 21.5%, northern Portugal, 23.6%, and Andalucia, 23.6%. Other results were eastern Andalucia, 17.6%, Castilla la Mancha, 18.0%, northwestern Castile, 12.9%, Galicia, 16.9%, and Valencia, 15.1%. Future research will find even more variations in different locations both in and outside Iberian, but the overall conclusion is that one in five Hispanic males is from a Jewish ancestry on the direct male line. Some of these genetic findings resulted from voluntary interactions, but undoubtedly many (and probably most) are the result of the forced assimilation during the Inquisitions.
It also should be noted that much less, but still a noticeable amount, of assimilation went the other way, i.e., that men of originally non-Semitic ancestry and their descendants also became Jewish. During parts of convivencia, with “a mixture of Islam, Mesopotamian Sufi mysticism, and a healthy dose of syncretism in harmony with Christian and Jewish spirituality,” interactions went both ways (Juan Garcia Atienza, The Knights Templar in the Golden Age of Spain: Their Hidden History on the Iberian Peninsula, 2001, p. 69).
(2) “Counting the Founders: The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora.” Online at http://www.plosone.org/article (or google important words), published April 30, 2008, Doron M. Behar and others. This research project analyzed 1,142 female DNA samples from fourteen different non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Two samples from the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic Diaspora were included (Bulgaria, n=71, and Turkey, n=123), but of special importance to crypto-Judaic studies is the sample of 30 women from Belmonte, Portugal. Of the thirty women, 93.3% (28) were attributed to one founding mother, thereby suggesting that the crypto-Jewish community in Belmonte is “one endogamously expanding family, at least on the maternal side.”
(3) “Crypto-Jews From Tras-os-Montes, Portugal: A History Told by the Y Chromosome.” HaLapid: Journal of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, XVI, 22-31, Spring 2009, Inês Nogueiro, Leonor Gusmão, and António Amorim. This research analyzed DNA samples “from sixty unrelated self-designated Jewish males from several villages” in Tras-os-Montes and also from Belmonte. The researchers found a “rather surprising” degree of diversity for a “demographically small and inbred community,” but the research showed that Jews of Tras-os-Montes are more similar genetically with European and Middle Eastern Jews, particularly Sephardim, than with non-Jewish Portuguese (p. 27).
For a sociological explanation of similarities and differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi genetics, including medical issues, see my article “DNA Origins and Current Consequences for Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Males and Females.” Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, 2008-2009, 2, 2, online at Sephardic.fiu.edu/journal. — adl