Nearly Half Of Ashkenazi Jews Descended From Four 'Founding Mothers'


Aug 19, 2003
: American Technion Society
Date: 2006-01-17 ... 083446.htm


Nearly Half Of Ashkenazi Jews Descended From Four 'Founding Mothers'

Some 3.5 million or 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four “founding mothers” who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago. The mothers were part of a small group who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community, which was established in Europe as a result of migration from the Near East.

The studies that led to these findings were performed by Dr. Doron Behar as part of his doctoral thesis, and were done under the supervision of Prof. Karl Skorecki of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Prof. Skorecki is best known for his 1997 discovery of genetic evidence indicating that the majority of modern-day Jewish priests (Kohanim) are descendants of a single common male ancestor, consistent with the Biblical high priest, Aaron.

Researchers from other universities around the world contributed to the study, which was published online January 11 by the “American Journal of Human Genetics” and will appear in print in a forthcoming issue of the Journal.

The researchers’ conclusions are based on detailed comparative analysis of DNA sequence variation in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) region of the human genome. mtDNA is transmitted to descendants by the mother only.

The researchers found that the mtDNA of some 3.5 of the 8 million Ashkenazi Jews in the world can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNA of a type virtually absent in other populations. Non-Ashkenazi Jews also carry low frequencies of these distinct mtDNA types, providing evidence of shared maternal ancestry of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews. This is consistent with previous findings based on studies of the Y-chromosome, pointing to a similar pattern of shared paternal ancestry of global Jewish populations, originating in the Near East. The researchers concluded that the four founding mtDNA – likely of Middle Eastern origin – underwent a major overall expansion in Europe during the last millennium.

The Ashkenazi Jewish population has been the subject of numerous studies of human genetics because of the accumulation of some 20 recessive hereditary disorders that are concentrated in this population.

The human genome project has enabled mapping of human DNA sequence variation, which enables not only the prediction of certain genetic diseases, but also the identification of family and genealogical relationships (e.g. shared ancestries) among individuals. The human genome includes some 3 billion chemical letters, known as nucleotides – which comprise the sequence of nucleic acids in DNA in almost every cell of the human body.

Most of the human genome is diploid, containing representation of both parents. The Y-chromosome and mitochondria DNA are haploid, containing DNA transmitted from only one parent. Thus, the Y-chromosome provides information about paternal ancestry while mtDNA provides information about maternal ancestry. As a result, DNA sequence analyses of these two regions of the human genome are important tools in phylogenetics – the study of global populations through genetic analysis.

The discoveries of Dr. Behar, Prof. Skorecki and their research colleagues have significant implications beyond their inherent interest and relevance to human history; they are vital to understanding the mechanisms of genetic health and disease in human populations.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university. Home to the country’s winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with 17 offices around the country.
More on Ashkenazi origins.

... For 100 years, Erfurt’s Jews flourished. They bathed in a ritual bath, or mikvah, on the banks of the Gera River and buried their dead in a large cemetery just outside the city walls. Then it all came to an end, again. In 1454, the town council revoked the rights of Erfurt’s Jewish population, forcing them to leave town. The city built a granary on top of their cemetery, destroying hundreds of graves and repurposing Jewish tombstones to build its stout stone walls.

On a sunny fall day, Sczech points out a 192-square-meter plot she and a team of other archaeologists excavated on the former cemetery’s grounds a decade ago. With a municipal construction project about to start on the site, their goal was to save, study, and rebury any human remains uncovered by the building work. The local Jewish community was closely involved, and “their wish was to do as little excavation as possible,” Sczech says.

A meter or two under the ground, in the shadow of the 500-year-old granary, the team found the remains of more than 60 people, almost all of them oriented with their legs pointed east—toward Jerusalem. Their skeletons were well-preserved, along with traces of wooden coffins and nails.

Before the remains were reburied last year at a nearby cemetery, they yielded a gift: DNA that is shedding light on the origins of the Ashkenazim, the major Jewish population that emerged in Germany in the Middle Ages and later expanded into central and Eastern Europe. Together with a smaller scale study published in September that looked at DNA from six individuals from the Middle Ages unearthed in Norwich, England, the Erfurt analysis offers clues to where the Ashkenazim came from centuries earlier, and what happened along the way. The studies also confirm other evidence that today’s Ashkenazi Jewish population, which numbers more than 10 million people spread around the world, has roots in a band of no more than a few hundred who survived a population bottleneck in Europe more than 1000 years ago.

The Erfurt study, which appears today in Cell, is the first major study of a medieval Jewish population from a genetic perspective. “We just got a really nice angle from genetic resources that we didn’t have before,” says Elisheva Baumgarten, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was not involved with the study. “The cumulative evidence can tell us more than history alone—that to me is the really exciting part.”

Perhaps equally important, the archaeological effort was made possible by a rabbinical ruling that may establish a precedent for future studies of ancient Jewish remains that yield precious insights without violating religious sensibilities.

For 500 years, a granary has stood on top of an old Jewish cemetery in Erfurt, Germany (first image). When the granary was turned into a parking garage, part of the cemetery had to be excavated to make room for the access ramp (second image). STEFANIE LOOS
ARCHAEOLOGISTS HAVE UNCOVERED evidence of Jewish communities in Germanic provinces of the Roman Empire as early as the 300s C.E., particularly in what is today the city of Cologne. During the medieval period, a trio of German cities—Worms, Mainz, and Speyer—was known as the cradle of Ashkenazi culture, with records of Jewish life going back to about 900 C.E.

But the period in between largely remains a mystery. Were the Jews of Erfurt and other medieval cities tenacious holdovers from the Roman era, as some have proposed? Or were they the descendants of more recent pioneers who crossed the Alps around 800 C.E. to found tight-knit communities along the Rhine, near modern-day Frankfurt? “Ashkenazi Jews emerge in the Rhineland as migrants,” says Leonard Rutgers, a historian at Utrecht University and a co-author on the Cell paper. “But if they came from elsewhere, where did they come from?”

To find out, geneticists have tried to work backward from modern DNA. Today’s Ashkenazi populations have high rates of certain genetic diseases because many individuals carry identical mutations, increasing the risks to their offspring. Those mutations, along with other shared DNA sequences, are clues to an early population bottleneck that drastically reduced Jewish genetic diversity. “Whether they’re from Israel or New York, the Ashkenazi population today is homogenous genetically,” says Hebrew University geneticist Shai Carmi.

Some ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi communities today regularly administer genetic compatibility tests during matchmaking to limit the risk that children will inherit genetic diseases, and pre-conception testing is common in other Ashkenazim. But even though modern Ashkenazi genomes have been closely scrutinized, they can’t give a clear picture of events 1000 or more years ago. “It helps to have data from the past,” Carmi says. ...
I heard about a Jewish family who lost their daughter to Tay Sacks disease, and it was described to me as a horrible death.

I know that Jewish people try to marry Jewish people if it is possible.

I assume this is true with all ethnic groups for example our Chinese restaurant people made sure their children married Chinese.
The jewish rules are; if the mother isn't jewish, the children aren't jewish.
If the mum is a gentile when she gives birth, but converts to Judaism later, does that kid automatically become a Jew?

Religion is complicated.

maximus otter
Wouldn't we all have common ancestors if we went back far enough? I know I'm allegedly descended from the Stuarts, but I suspect (for example) that pretty much anyone has a monarch of somewhere in their ancestry if they trace it back far enough.
Wouldn't we all have common ancestors if we went back far enough? I know I'm allegedly descended from the Stuarts, but I suspect (for example) that pretty much anyone has a monarch of somewhere in their ancestry if they trace it back far enough.

“A genetic survey concludes that all Europeans living today are related to the same set of ancestors who lived 1,000 years ago. And you wouldn't have to go back much further to find that everyone in the world is related to each other.”

maximus otter
If the mum is a gentile when she gives birth, but converts to Judaism later, does that kid automatically become a Jew?

Religion is complicated.

maximus otter
It is - and different sects will interpret it in different ways. Some will say that it can depend on how old the children are when she converts- ie pre teen or over -others that it doesn't matter and yet others will say that converts will never be 'proper' Jews anyway.

Victory will be able to tell us in more detail.

(Shabbat Shalom Victory).
Wouldn't we all have common ancestors if we went back far enough? I know I'm allegedly descended from the Stuarts, but I suspect (for example) that pretty much anyone has a monarch of somewhere in their ancestry if they trace it back far enough.

Yes. I think that the problem with marrying into the same small gene pool over generations is that the bad traits have a greater chance of being expressed. Double recessive. The cultural-religious groups around the world who have strict rules about marrying only a member of that group have clear genetic problems. The smaller the group, the greater the problem. This potential problem is so clear in all animal species that it is called the coefficient of inbreeding: COI. I casually follow the research about the COI problems in doberman dogs: poor blood coagulation, heart disease, spinal malformations.

In the US, the groups I am aware of who have this problem are Amish, renegade Mormons such as the Warren Jeffs group, and the Ashkenazi. I am sure there are more. I have read about this same problem in UK-based Pakistani communities.

Years ago, I attended a wedding between a convert to Judaism and a Reformed Jew. An Ashkenazi family, who were related to the Jew-by-birth, attended. I remember they had 5-6 children. ALL the children were in wheelchairs, had mental deficiencies, etc. It was explained to me that the mother and father had accepted God's will, and would not use birth control. I was horrified. I do understand that these parents had an unusual view about “God’s will,” and that many Jews will use the genetic testing available before marrying to avoid these problems. In the US, I also remember the fascinating religious debates about this among the rabbinical interpreters of the will of the divine.
If the mum is a gentile when she gives birth, but converts to Judaism later, does that kid automatically become a Jew?

Religion is complicated.

maximus otter

To add to @Floyd1 point, a convert is a Jew in every way as someone born Jewish.
If someone does not regard them as a "proper Jew", then that opinion contravenes Judaism.

As for the genetic make-up of Ashkenazi Jews, we seem to have spent too long marrying within small village communities, and some cousins married cousins.
That needs more research on though.

We are somewhat mixed; the facial features of Jews from the different East European countries varying from country to country, attesting to rapes during pogroms.
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On this subject (and anyone interested in Israel, this guy has loads of videos), there's a few interviews here;