Ashkenazi is an Ashkenazi Jewish family name

Genetics: where did the Ashkenazim come from? From Rome?

A new analysis of the mitochondrial genes - those that only come from the mothers - suggests that the female origins, which were crucial for Judaism, lay in Italy.

There is little in genealogy as controversial - and laden with emotion - as the origin of the Ashkenazim, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. With their eight million heads, they made up about 90 percent of the world's Jews at the beginning of the 20th century, and that leads to a hypothesis for their origin in the problems of the Rhineland. She believes that Jews fled the Holy Land in the 7th century when it was overrun by Muslims. They settled on the Rhine, from there around 50,000 moved to Eastern Europe in the 15th century, they were welcome, there were no pogroms there at that time.

That fits with the self-image - according to him, the origins lie in the Holy Land - and there are genetic analyzes that confirm this belief: Doron Behar (Haifa), for example, found the Ashkenazim - and the other two main groups, the Sephardim and the Oriental Jews - the same genetic roots, they sprouted 3000 to 4000 years ago in the Middle East (Nature, 422, p.328). However, the database was thin, and to get to the eight million, the Jews in Central / Eastern Europe would have had to multiply ten times as quickly as their non-Jewish neighbors.

Then where did they come from? From the Caucasus, from the Khazar Turkic people, whose members converted to Judaism in the 8th century. They fled west when the Mongols overran their empire in the 13th century. This hypothesis was advocated by the writer Arthur Koestler (“The Thirteenth Tribe”, 1976), who wanted to cut the Jews off from Semitic origins - and thus remove the ground from anti-Semitism. It was bad for him, the Jew Koestler himself was drawn to anti-Semitism.


Middle East? Caucasus? Southern Europe?

His advance was later supported by a genetic analysis, Eran Ehaik (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) saw traces of the Khazars (Genome Biology and Evolution, 5, p.61). However, his data was also rather thin, and they pointed not only to the Caucasus, but also to southern Europe. The third hypothesis has been based on this origin for some time and has now been confirmed by Martin Richards (Leeds). He proceeded in a more targeted manner in his analysis: while the other parts of either the large genome were in the cell nucleus or the small ones in the mitochondria - the cell power plants - he concentrated on the mitochondrial genes (mt-DNA), but not on individual ones, but to their entirety, the mt-DNA genomes.

They are interesting for genetics because they are only inherited from the mothers, and this also makes them interesting for the origin of the Ashkenazim: In the case of Jews, this runs through the maternal line. And its origin was in Italy: 80 percent of the mt-DNA of the Ashkenazim can be traced back to this area, over 8000 years, to pre-biblical times (Nature Communications, October 8).

These women were apparently converts - there was a wave in the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period, from around 300-30 B.C. - and some of them partnered with Jewish traders from the Middle East, earlier analyzes of the male Y suggest -Chromosome. That's how Richards sees it. However, he reaps violent opposition from Behar, he insists on the Semitic roots.

("Die Presse", print edition, October 11, 2013)