05 December 2008

DNA: New study reveals 20% of Iberians have Sephardic ancestry

Today's New York Times reported on a new DNA study in Spain and Portugal revealing that some 20% of the Iberian Peninsula's population has Sephardic ancestry and indicating a high level of conversion among Jews, as reported online in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

The study offers "new and explicit evidence of the mass conversions of Sephardic Jews and Muslims to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries." Nicholas Wade's story is here.

Of course, most Sephardim know this already and know that the events of 1391 and 1492 figure prominently in these mass conversions. Millions of Hispanics in the US and worldwide are descendants of those forcibly converted and many either know it or are learning about it. As one example, on one day in 1391, some 4,000 Jews were forcibly converted in Barcelona; others who resisted were murdered. Figures for other cities are available in the subject literature. Several books list the old Jewish family names of individuals and their "new" Catholic names. I have several of these lists and may devote a posting or two to this subject.

It is nice, however, to have scientific corroboration to what we've always known, and what has been supported by historical evidence over centuries.

However, I've been in communication with some people who have seen the actual text of the journal article. The markers used are not what are tested at FamilyTreeDNA.com and only a few were tested. It will be difficult to correlate with testing done at that company. I am attempting to get a full report so readers can understand what was exactly tested. Stay tuned for more.

Twenty percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11 percent have DNA reflecting Moorish ancestors, the geneticists have found. Historians have debated how many Jews converted and how many chose exile. “One wing grossly underestimates the number of conversions,” said Jane S. Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York.

The finding bears on two different views of Spanish history, said Jonathan S. Ray, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University. One, proposed by the 20th-century historian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, holds that Spanish civilization is Catholic and other influences are foreign; the other sees Spain as having been enriched by drawing from all three of its historical cultures, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.

The study, based on an analysis of Y chromosomes, was conducted by biologists led by Mark A. Jobling of the University of Leicester in England and Francesc Calafell of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. They developed a Y chromosome signature for Sephardic men by studying Sephardic Jewish communities in places where Jews migrated after being expelled from Spain in 1492 to 1496. They also characterized the Y chromosomes of the Arab and Berber army that invaded Spain in A.D. 711 from data on people living in Morocco and Western Sahara.

After a period of getting along under the Arab Umayyad rulers, Spain was the center of religious intolerance. Muslim Berbers forced Christians and Jews to convert to Islam, and the victorious Christians then expelled Jews and Muslims or forced them to convert.

Because most of the Y chromosome remains unchanged from father to son, the proportions of Sephardic and Moorish ancestry detected in the present population are probably the same as those just after the 1492 expulsions. A high proportion of people with Sephardic ancestry was to be expected, Dr. Ray said. “Jews formed a very large part of the urban population up until the great conversions,” he said.

Dr. Ray raised the question of what the DNA evidence might mean personally. “If four generations on I have no knowledge of my genetic past, how does that affect my understanding of my own religious association?”


Dr. Calafell, one of the study's authors, has confronted this himself. His Y-DNA may be Sephardic and his surname is that of a Catalunya town. Genealogists know that it is common for Jewish families to take geographic names.

The issue raised by Ray and by Calafell is another reason why more people of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry should be DNA tested. My hope is that they will test at FamilyTreeDNA.com which already has the largest DNA database of all companies in the field, and within that database, already has the largest Jewish DNA database. The more people who test, the more information can be gleaned and the more connection

Some historians believe that more than 24 million Hispanics - I have heard even larger numbers - in the US have Sephardic roots and were forcibly converted during either 1391 or 1492, when mass conversions were forced on the Jewish population. As an example, nearly all original settlers in New Mexico were of Converso ancestry.

The flip side, of course, is finding out that numbers of Sephardim escaped these mass pogroms in 1391 and left Iberia for Europe and Eastern Europe where they were absorbed into the larger Ashkenazi populations - some have only a family myth to sustain their research ("that was our name when we left Spain."). With some judicious research, it is becoming increasingly common to do successful research and locate documents in Spanish archives.

In our IberianAshkenaz DNA project at FamilyTreeDNA.com, we continue to find genetic matches among today's Conversos with ostensible Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe.

Additionally, here's another plea for removing the term marrano to describe those of converso ancestry. Conversos hate this pejorative, insulting term. If you hear someone using it, please explain to them that it is insulting and should not be used. Many conversos - with whom I am in frequent contact - continually tell me how angry and insulted they feel when the word is used, usually by people who do not know its meaning.

Education is key. I find that when I explain that the term is not nice ( in the same way that other epithets are aimed at various ethnic/religious communities), those individuals apologize and think before using it again. The Hebrew term for converso (Spanish) is bnai anousim (children of the forced) or simply anousim.

1 comment:

  1. Ric Cooper3:40 AM

    What is interesting is that, in the Middle Ages, only 7% of the Iberian population are reckoned to have been Jewish. So the male Anusim have been more successful in breeding and passing on their genetic inheritance than their Catholic masters.
    Furthermore, if at least as high a percentage of Jews figures among emigrants from Iberia to the New World, and if they have been as successful at breeding (likely, as they suffered fewer prejudices), then the number of Central and South Americans with Sephardi Y-DNA might today be as high as 110 million.

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