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The Knanaya of Kerala do seem a bit more Near Eastern than other St. Thomas Christians

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Last year I was approached by someone from the Knanaya community of South India as to their genetics. The Knanaya believe themselves to be descendants of later Near Eastern migrants than the other Nasrani St. Thomas Christians (both communities seem to believe in some connection to Near Eastern Jews). The history of these communities is complex, but they are rooted in the Oriental Orthodox Christianity of Iraq and the Levant. You might be curious to note that the largest number of individuals associated with the Syrian Orthodox Church are South Indians.

For some context, I’d recommend The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins.

With some preliminary analysis, it did seem like the Knanaya community was enriched for Near Eastern ancestry, even compared to the other Nasrani samples I had. Recently I’ve been given a total of 11 samples of Knanaya, so I decided to do some further analysis (2 of the individuals seem somewhat related, so they are not independent data points).

If you look at the plot above, you can see that the y-axis is PC 3. This separates Northern European samples (Belorussians and Lithuanians) at one end and Yemeni Jews at the other. Groups such as Armenians are in the middle. You can see that some groups, such as the Mumbai Jews (Bene Israel), Cochin Jews, and, the Knanaya, do seem shifted toward the Yemeni Jews. Groups in the Levant and minorities like Assyrians are usually about 2/3 “northern” and 1/3 “southern” in ancestry.

To get a better sense of that, take a look at the Admixture barplot below.

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This is a supervised run with several reference populations. The light blue are Yemeni Jews, and you can see quite clearly that the Knanaya show evidence of this ancestry, while most other Indian populations do not.

To get a sense of the ratio of northern Middle Eastern vs. southern Middle Eastern, here are the results for the Druze:

TreeMix is a little more ambivalent:

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The flow to the Cochin and Mumbai Jewish groups is clearer (or from in the latter case). I think the history of the Kerala Christians, and the Knanaya in particular, is more complex.

I’ll probably run some more stats tomorrow to see what the best donor population is…

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14 thoughts on “The Knanaya of Kerala do seem a bit more Near Eastern than other St. Thomas Christians

  1. Razib, might this be better explained by the fact that their adoption/retention of another religion isolated them from other Malabar populations? This area had always been a centre for traders, so it may be that the solidification of later religious divisions meant that their “Hindu” neighbours saw such influence diluted by later intermarriage with other communities.

    I wish to cause no offence, but the semi-hagiographic history of a long standing Christian community of Jewish does not match up with textual or archaeological evidence.

    Would you be able to figure out the date of this admixture?

  2. Razib, might this be better explained by the fact that their adoption/retention of another religion isolated them from other Malabar populations? This area had always been a centre for traders, so it may be that the solidification of later religious divisions meant that their “Hindu” neighbours saw such influence diluted by later intermarriage with other communities.

    i don’t think so. i mean we need to think these models deeply…but endogamy is really strong in india. so it’s not like gene flow would do the dilution.

    I wish to cause no offence, but the semi-hagiographic history of a long standing Christian community of Jewish does not match up with textual or archaeological evidence.

    i’m not convinced they are/were jews at all. the issue is that mizrahi jews are pretty generic near easterners in a lot of ways. the signal of mizrahi vs. christian merchants might be impossible to differentiate. at least with the data/methods i have.

    that being said, i got some more jewish groups in my dataset. i’ll try and see if i can tell

  3. I am Nasrani(not Knanaya however) affiliated with the Syriac Orthodox Church. Regarding our origins, my father and the other older people told me that Saint Thomas converted 7 Brahmin families, and all the Nasranis descend from them. This is the traditional view though almost certainly completely false. The Jewish/ Middle Eastern origins view has only gained popularity in recent years and is primarily found online.

    This is my hypothesis regarding our origins. Some Middle Eastern traders came to the Kerala region and converted some locals to Nestorian Christianity. The timeline is hard to establish but the earliest archaeological evidence(Quilon Syrian copper plates) is from the 9th century. The traders most likely didn’t have any genetic impact The Nasranis are physically indistinguishable from the Malayali Hindus or Muslims.

    I hope genetics can shed some light on my community’s history. I am so jealous of Europeans/Chinese/Middle Easterners, even North Indians who have such a detailed written history while Kerala seems to have been stuck in an eternal dark age.

  4. there is definitely a detectable middle eastern signal IMO. i need more non-nasrani samples, but it’s different from hindu malayali. most of the ancestry is similar. kind of like nair.

  5. I just got back from a trip to India a week ago, and one of my traveling companions was a St. Thomas Christian from Kerala, and her skin color seemed a lot lighter than most other people I saw in Kerala. So I think you may be onto something here.

  6. @Razib,

    Kerala has been an exception. The Nairs were a rather broad grouping of various castes, and the boundaries have never been strongly settled. Also, due to their matrilineal customs, the women were often hypergamous with Brahmins.

    My Great-Great-Grandfather was a Palakkad Iyer with a Brahmin wife and a Nair Sambandhi. To the Brahmins, she was a mistress, and to the Nairs she was a secondary consort. Their children were raise and accepted as Nairs, and this was not unusual. I remember that you mentioning a similar genetic profile in some St. Thomas Christians.

    The Nairs were more fluid as a group, and there may well have been wider intermarriage in the Classical era. At some point, some chose a harder ‘Christian’ identity cutting themselves off from other Nair castes, and maintaining the Near Eastern marriage profile.

  7. ” and one of my traveling companions was a St. Thomas Christian from Kerala, and her skin color seemed a lot lighter than most other people I saw in Kerala.”

    South Indians, in general, are darkest south Asians, but their extra melanin could be due to the region being more closer to the equator. Also, the common folk you’ve seen in the street usually get more sun exposure than people who stay more at home or office. Of course, Indian people are not homogeneous, so some groups naturally have more dark-skinned individuals due to elevated AASI DNA. Still, overall the little near eastern genes are not going to change that much of their traits. No doubt that people from the same caste group getting more sun exposure are darker than their less sun-exposed counterparts.

  8. Do we have any uniparental markers from the Cochin or Mumbai jews? I’ve been about to find some info on mtDNA but haven’t been able to find anything on Cochin jew Y-DNA

  9. 62% Southern Indian
    27% Northern Indian
    7% Asia Minor

    Meanwhile this is what the results came out for a Knanaya Christian sample tested with Genographic 2.0

  10. Hello,

    I think I am a fairly typical St. Thomas/Nasrani christian from Kerala, this is my genetic profile created at 23&me, Mostly just a typical malayalee christian (68.1%) there might be some truth to some of the origin traditions/stories, there is 8.4% of my genetic profile (southern indian subgroup) that matches tamil brahmins (at least the ones settled in the USA) and this might just be “noise” as they say, but there is 0.2% Broadly Western Asian & North African which might point to a very distant nestorian/west asian christian trader ancestor according to some of our other traditions. All in all points to a mixed ancestry of all groups from kerala and south india.

    Central & South Asian 99.5%

    Southern South Asian 83.8%

    Malayali Subgroup 68.1%

    Karnataka, India (southern regions)
    +2 regions
    Southern Indian & Sri Lankan 12.0%

    Broadly Southern South Asian 3.7%

    Southern Indian Subgroup 8.4%

    Central Asian, Northern Indian & Pakistani 0.9%

    Broadly Central Asian, Northern Indian & Pakistani 0.9%

    Broadly Central & South Asian 6.4%

    Trace Ancestry 0.2%
    We detected traces of the following populations in your DNA. Read more about trace ancestry in the FAQ.

    Broadly Western Asian & North African 0.2%

    Unassigned 0.3%

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