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September 27, 2003

Armenians may like it.

"52 percent of Levites of Ashkenazi origin have a particular genetic signature that originated in Central Asia, although it is also found less frequently in the Middle East," according to a new report. "The ancestor who introduced it into the Ashkenazi Levites could perhaps have been from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe whose king converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century."
I remember Arthur Koestler asserting this in The Thirteenth Tribe. Apparently, the potentate was trying to split the difference between the Christian west and the Moslem east, and made his kingdom jewish by fiat.

See extended entry for the full report.

Geneticists Report Finding Central Asian Link to Levites
New York Times: Published: September 27, 2003

A team of geneticists studying the ancestry of Jewish communities has found an unusual genetic signature that occurs in more than half the Levites of Ashkenazi descent. The signature is thought to have originated in Central Asia, not the Near East, which is the ancestral home of Jews. The finding raises the question of how the signature became so widespread among the Levites, an ancient caste of hereditary Jewish priests.

The genetic signature occurs on the male or Y chromosome and comes from a few men, or perhaps a single ancestor, who lived about 1,000 years ago, just as the Ashkenazim were beginning to be established in Europe. Ashkenazim, from whom most American Jews descend, are one of the two main branches of Jews, the other being the Sephardim, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain.

The new report, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, was prepared by population geneticists in Israel, the United States and England, who have been studying the genetics of Jewish communities for the last six years.

They say that 52 percent of Levites of Ashkenazi origin have a particular genetic signature that originated in Central Asia, although it is also found less frequently in the Middle East. The ancestor who introduced it into the Ashkenazi Levites could perhaps have been from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe whose king converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century, the researchers suggest.

Their reasoning is that the signature, a set of DNA variations known as R1a1, is common in the region north of Georgia that was once occupied by the Khazar kingdom. The signature did reach the Near East, probably before the founding of the Jewish community, but it is still rare there. The scholars say they cannot exclude the possibility that a Jewish founder brought the signature on his Y chromosome to the Ashkenazi population, but they consider that a less likely explanation.

The present descendants of the Khazars have not been identified. Dr. Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona, one of the authors of the report, said he was looking among the Chuvash, a Turkic-speaking people of the Volga Valley, to see if they might have contributed the R1a1 signature.

Dr. Shaye Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, said he could see no problem with outsiders being converted to the Jewish community. He said he considered it less probable, however, that outsiders would become Levites, let alone founding members of the Levite community in Europe. The connection with the Khazars is "all hypothesis," he said.

Even if the Khazar hypothesis is correct, it would have no practical effect on who is a Levite today. "Genetics is not a reality under rabbinic law," Dr. Cohen said. "Second, the function of Levites is so minimal it doesn't mean anything."

Six years ago Dr. Hammer and Dr. Karl Skorecki, of the Technion and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, looked at the Y chromosomes of both Levites and Cohanim. Both are hereditary priesthoods passed from father to son. They were important in ancient Israel, but sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500 their functions were taken over by rabbis, and Jewish status came to be defined by the biologically more reliable standard of maternal descent.

If the patrilineal descent of the two priestly castes had indeed been followed as tradition describes, then all Cohanim should be descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and all Levites from Levi, the third son of the patriarch Jacob. Dr. Hammer and Dr. Skorecki found that more than half the Cohanim, in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, did indeed carry the same genetic signature on their Y chromosome. Their ancestor lived some 3,000 years ago, based on genetic calculations, and may indeed have been Aaron, Dr. Skorecki said.

But the picture among the Levites was less clear, suggesting that they had a mixed ancestry. Dr. Hammer and Dr. Skorecki returned to the puzzle for their new report, based on data gathered from nearly 1,000 men of Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin and neighboring non-Jewish populations.

They found that the dominant signature among the Levites was the R1a1 signature, which is different from the Cohanim signature. The paternal ancestry of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Levites is different, unlike the Cohanim from the two branches, who resemble each other and presumably originated before the two branches split. And the ancestor of the R1a1 signature apparently lived 2,000 years more recently than the founder of the Cohanim signature.

The Levites' pedigree does not seem to accord with tradition as well as the Cohanim one does but is venerable nonetheless. "How many people can trace their ancestry back to the 17th century, let alone a thousand years?" Dr. Hammer said.

Posted by martin at 11:02 AM

The Khazar thesis is controversial and last I saw was being downgraded. Maybe this evidence will upgrade it again. There's no doubt that the Khazars' ruling group adopted Judaism, but their importance for Ashkenazi origins is uncertain. (Koestler's books are always interesting but very eccentric too).

I once wandered onto a neo-Nazi site which went on at great length about the Turkish origins of the Jews, except he mistook the Khazars for the Khazaks.

Posted by: Zizka at September 27, 2003 12:07 PM

interesting--paul wexler's theories may yet be proven correct, see:



Posted by: Diana at September 27, 2003 01:35 PM

jah jah city jah jah town me turn it to a cowboy town

Posted by: fredrik at September 27, 2003 06:50 PM

this is very weird. who would have predicted that the levites & kohanim would have different genetic histories? as greg cochran pointed out-the levite effective population is so tiny that genetic drift could have done bizarro wonders with them. on the other hand-the kohanim haplotype shows up in places like india & zimbabwe as well as among traditional sephardic & ashkenazi jews....

anyway, this is real weird.

Posted by: razib at September 28, 2003 11:26 AM

Could it be that somewhere along the line, a travelling Khazar "playa" had his way with some Levite's wife, thereby breaking the line of succession? It might have been that the son that resulted inherited his father's "playa" genes, and saturated the community with his own seed, so to speak. A wild-assed theory, I know, but hey, it's a possibility, right?

Posted by: Hanno Buddenbrook at September 28, 2003 11:40 AM

wexler thinks ashk jews aren't khazars but sorbs:



"In Wexler's view, the Ashkenazic Jews most likely descend from a minority ethnic Palestinian Jewish emigre population that intermarried with a much larger heterogeneous population of converts to Judaism from Asia Minor, the Balkans and the Germano-Sorb lands (the Sorbs are a West Slavic population that still numbers about 70,000 in the former German Democratic Republic). Widespread conversions to Judaism that began in Asia Minor in the Christian era and ended with the institutionalization of Christianity among the Western Slavs in the beginning of the second millennium saved the tiny ethnic Palestinian Jewish population in the diaspora from total extinction. The major non-Jewish contributors to the ethnogenesis of the Ashkenazic Jews were Slavs, though there was probably also a minor Turkic strain -- both in the Caspian-Black Sea area (the descendants of the Khazars, a mainly Turkic group that converted to Judaism in the eighth century) and in the Balkans and Hungary. In all of these areas, the Turkic population early became submerged with the coterritorial Slavs."

Now how does this fit in w/the data??

I'm having trouble ab-sorbing this :)

Posted by: diana at September 28, 2003 02:18 PM

So the two most evil groups in the history of the World are one and the same? personally i don't believe it. genetic typing is (i suspect) a pretty tricky technology even for a country at the forefront of World like the United States. i certainly don't trust results coming from a backward country like Israel. my own theory (supported by evidence) is that Jews are at least along the male line descendanded from a brother group of the ancient Hittites. They probably entered Palestine in the wake of the Hykso invasion and learnt to speak a bastardized version of proto-Arabic. The route of the Jews is probably: Asia Minor > Palestine > Mesopotamia > Eastern Mediterranean > Western Europe > Eastern Europe > America > Palestine

Posted by: Acheson at September 28, 2003 10:45 PM

I don't think Jews and Armenians, Hittites, etc, were ever originally the same people. The only true 'Armenoid' element in Jews comes from autochthonous Jewish communities in the Caucasus, who may have racially influenced Ashkenazim in Southern Russia to a certain extent.

The reasoning behind this is simple - classic Armenoids tend to have large, broad faces, while proto-typical Ashkenazic Jews have narrow faces.

Posted by: Melnorme at September 30, 2003 06:29 AM


Unfortunately but not surprisingly most of the research done on Jews is done by Jews and therefore suspect.

However according to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on carniometry http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=852&letter=C Ashkenazi Jews are brachycelphic (fat headed).

Arabs by the way are dolichocephalic.

Posted by: Acheson at September 30, 2003 07:57 AM

Incorrect. Syrians and Lebanese are brachycephalic, but not Armenoids. They are Asiatic Dinarics.

Posted by: Melnorme at September 30, 2003 08:12 AM

Oh, and I don't need to mention that the German Alpines that Jews mixed with are also brachycephalic. ;)

Posted by: Melnorme at September 30, 2003 08:20 AM


on what basis do you conclude that Jews are a mixture with German "Alpines". Germans are a very capable and intelligent people whereas Jews are not capable and intelligent at all (except in a way that no good person would want to be). more importantly the very low variation of cephalic index within the Ashkenazi population is not consistent with any mixture hypothesis except one involving two or more brachycephalic groups.

as for Syrians being brachycephalic I would like to see some evidence for this other than your word. either way it would not change the fact that the Arabs as a whole are dolichocephalic.

Posted by: Acheson at September 30, 2003 01:47 PM

Acheson -

Take a look at my e-mail address. ;) ;)

Webpage on Syrian/Lebanese genetics and physical anthropology -



Posted by: Melnorme at September 30, 2003 02:03 PM

So the two most evil groups in the history of the World . . . is done by Jews and therefore suspect. . . . whereas Jews are not capable and intelligent at all

Melnorme is more forgiving than I am Acheson. Stop trying to provoke.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at September 30, 2003 02:30 PM

stop this crap about "armenoids" & "alpines" and all that shit. take it Dienekes.

Posted by: razib at September 30, 2003 03:48 PM

OK, you're the boss. I know the discussion was off the mark for GNXP, but I felt I had to touch on the subject to explain my view of the origins of Jews. And it is a crucial point - the Caucasus and the Middle East are fairly close, but their peoples are quite different from each other, culturally and physically.

Posted by: Melnorme at September 30, 2003 04:00 PM

There is a mountain of info about the Khazar Kingdom on Khazaria.com, but I've no idea how reliable it is. I think the current historical consensus is that the rulers may have converted to Judaism (after an alleged competitive pitch against Christianity and Islam) but it never trickled down. The Khazars get little attention in the voluminous "Encyclopaedia Judaica".

Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe", one of his last works, is or was available in full on line. It contains a weird attempt to demonstrate that Jews don't have hooked but "fleshy" noses. But he winds up saying that wherever the Jews hailed from should not affect their title to Israel.

Posted by: WJ Phillips at October 1, 2003 08:31 AM

"Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe", one of his last works, is or was available in full on line. It contains a weird attempt to demonstrate that Jews don't have hooked but "fleshy" noses. But he winds up saying that wherever the Jews hailed from should not affect their title to Israel."

Hehe. The truth is that most Jews don't have true hooked noses, but most have prominent noses with a tendency to convexity. There *is* a difference.

Posted by: Melnorme at October 1, 2003 03:27 PM

The much cited article of Nicholas Wade contains several errors. For example: The region north of Georgia, which is seen by some as origin of the R1a1 type, is not a part of Central Asia, but belongs to East Europe. If the male ancestor of the majority of Ashkenazic Levites comes from this area, than these Levites have no Central Asian, but an East European origin. Second: The fact that the majority of the Levites belongs - contrary to most other Jews - to the R1a1 type is in no way a proof of a Khazaric origin. This gene type is found in very large percentages in many East European peoples and - to a lesser degreee - also in other regions, be it in Germany, Syria or elsewhere. What is important: The Hammer genetic study indicates that the belief of most Jews that the Levites are direct descendants - in the male line - from a biblical man "Levi" is unfounded. But we donīt know who instead of Levi was the common ancestor of so many Ashkenazic Levites. Maybe it was a Slavic man, a Germanic man, a Turk, a Khazar or ... - there remain many possibilities.

Posted by: Gregor Brand at October 1, 2003 04:15 PM