Genetics has proven that modern Jewish populations carry their Israelite ancestors’ ancient Middle Eastern DNA. Jews’ unbroken patrilineal descent displays a continuous chain from the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Additionally, the DNA of the Jewish people dates even further back to the Canaanites of the southern Levant.
Although we now associate normative Judaism with the traditional halacha (religious law) of matrilineal descent, its origins are disputed and genetics research provides a more complicated picture. Patrilineal descent is more definitive in terms of its Israelite origins; thus, it is the main focus of this article. Before the rise of Talmudic Judaism, our Israelite forbearers were tribally patrilineal—from Abraham to Isaac and the prophetic Biblical lineages.
“Advances in Next-Generation Sequencing of Y-DNA have shown that the widespread Jewish communities around the world share a degree of common ancestry dating back 2,900 years to the formation of the dynasties of Israel and Judah,” Adam Brown, director of the academic Avotaynu DNA Project, reported at the recent 15th International Conference on Genetic Genealogy in Houston. The Avotaynu DNA Project, a global collaboration of scientists, genealogists, and historians, collects and analyzes DNA data from Jewish populations worldwide. By examining the autosomal DNA (all 22 chromosomes), mtDNA (maternal line, obtained from mitochondrial DNA), and Y-DNA (paternal line), they can trace the shared origins of the Jewish people and provide valuable insights into their ancient ancestry.
Brown elaborated on these findings in a lengthy phone interview with White Rose Magazine from his home in New Jersey, confirming that the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe are among the more than 700 different Y-DNA lineages found among Jewish men of mainly Middle Eastern origin.
“The Y chromosomes of the Ashkenazim are overwhelmingly from the Mediterranean; for the most part, [from] the Middle East,” Brown said. “Some of these Ashkenazi paternal lineages are shared with Jewish populations as far away as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Morocco. Using advanced testing methods that have only become available in the last few years, we have dated the common genetic ancestor of these distant Jewish populations back to the dawn of the Iron Age.”
Furthermore, Brown addressed the absence of non-Jewish Y-DNA haplogroups among Ashkenazi Jews, underscoring the genetic closeness of Ashkenazi Jews to other Jewish groups. “Non-Jewish Y-DNA haplogroups dating from the Common Era are rarely found among Ashkenazi Jews,” Brown continued. “Nor have we found a shred of Khazari ancestry,” corroborating a 2013 genome-wide study led by Israeli geneticist Doron Behar, which concluded that there is no genetic evidence for a Khazar origin for Ashkenazi Jews. Instead, Ashkenazi Jews are genetically closest to other Jewish groups and derive most of their genetic ancestry from Middle Eastern and European populations.
Numerous peer-reviewed studies in recent decades have confirmed the Middle Eastern and European ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews, and the genetics community is well aware of this unique admixture, as well as the relatedness of Ashkenazi Jews to other Jewish diaspora groups from the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, research on Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews highlights their shared Middle Eastern ancestry and close relatedness. The DNA of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Moroccan Jews is incredibly close, with similar Southern European admixture and Middle Eastern and North African ancestry. According to the book DNA & Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews by Yaakov Kleiman, “although the Ashkenazi (European) community separated from their Mediterranean ancestors some 1,200 years ago and lived among Central and Eastern European gentiles, their paternal gene pool still resembles that of other Jewish and Semitic groups, originating in the Middle East” (p. 30). Additionally, the book draws attention to the genetic similarities between Ashkenazi Jews, Italian Jews, and Sephardic Jews, underscoring the shared heritage and ancestry among these different Jewish communities.
In my journey for a deeper understanding of autosomal ancestry and its implications for global Jewish groups, I reached out to autosomal ancestry researcher and co-creator of the Humanitas DNA Project, Nicola Capelli. Based in Italy, Capelli has studied the autosomal profile of Ashkenazi Jews and many Jewish and non-Jewish populations worldwide, providing valuable insights into the Jewish genome. “The genetic roots of Ashkenazi Jews can be traced back to Jewish communities in the Middle East, including the region of Israel. Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Jewish populations that existed in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions before their migration to Central and Eastern Europe during the medieval period,” Capelli wrote in a response to White Rose Magazine. “Historical and genetic research suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have Middle Eastern ancestry, with genetic contributions from the indigenous Jewish populations of the Levant and surrounding areas. This indicates a genetic connection to Israel and the broader region,” Capelli continued. “However, it’s important to note that over time, Ashkenazi Jews have also incorporated genetic material from the non-Jewish populations with whom they lived in Europe. This led to a significant genetic admixture, resulting in their distinct genetic profile, which is a combination of Middle Eastern and European genetic components. Therefore, while the genetic roots of Ashkenazi Jews trace back to the Middle East, their genetic makeup also reflects the historical migrations and intermingling with European populations during their time in Europe.”
Given that most Jews can trace their paternal ancestry to the Hebraic period of the eastern Mediterranean, it is fair to ask who these ancient ancestors of modern Jews were.
According to Biblical accounts, the Iron Age Israelites led by Joshua conquered the land of Canaan following their exodus from Egypt, providing the historical backdrop for the origins of the Kingdom of Judah.
Jews come from the tribes that inhabited the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem—Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and Levi. On the other hand, the Samaritans claim descent from the remaining members of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, and Levi, whom the Assyrians did not deport after the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 B.C.E. Many Israelites took sanctuary in the Kingdom of Judah after the collapse of the northern kingdom and the Assyrian exile.
The discovery of the Nimrud Tablet in modern Iraq provides archaeological evidence for the existence of the Kingdom of Judah during the eighth century B.C.E. An inscription on the clay tablet dated to c. 733 B.C.E., discovered in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in 1873, marks the first archaeological reference to the Kingdom of Judah. The Nimrud Tablet (K.3751), also known as Kalhu Palace Summary Inscription 7, confirms the Biblical story of King Jehoahaz (Achaz) of Judah paying tribute to the Neo-Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser III. The Hebrew Bible’s Second Book of Kings (II Kings 16:2) details the reign of Achaz during this period: “In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years.” This section of the Biblical passage corroborates the Nimrud inscription:
Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria.
These historical and biblical sources provide a deeper understanding of the Kingdom of Judah and its role in the ancient Near East.
It is also important to understand the modern Jewish connection to the ancient Judeans in terms of genetics and as a unifying identifier that has withstood thousands of years. Judah (יְהוּדָה, Yehudah) was the fourth of 12 sons of Jacob, the patriarch of the Israelites, whom God later renamed Israel. The tribe of Judah was the first to receive their land (Joshua 15:1), residing in the southern part of the territory. King David belonged to the tribe of Judah. Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) means “from the Kingdom of Judah” and is where modern Jews derive their name. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible mentions this name 74 times. All Israelites were called Yehudi following the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria). Judah lasted 350 years after the division of the Kingdom of Israel. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. The Jewish elites experienced a series of deportations to Babylon before the Israelite exiles were invited back to Judah in 538 B.C.E. by Cyrus the Great to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple with the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
The Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a long and tumultuous history under various ruling powers. Under the Babylonians and Persians, Judah was called the Yehud province; under the Greeks, the Hasmonean Kingdom; and under the Romans, the Herodian Kingdom and the province of Judaea.
The Roman occupation was ruthless, culminating in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 C.E. when the Romans crushed the rebellion of the Jews of Judaea with devastating results. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that “Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate…” Some scholars describe the impact of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third and last of the Jewish-Roman wars, as a genocide. In the aftermath, the Romans renamed Judaea “Syria-Palaestina.” Despite the devastation in their ancient homeland at the hands of foreign powers, however, the Jews maintained their ethnic identity in the diaspora.
The Greek term Ioudaios (Jew) originally referred to members of the tribe of Judah. The Jewish diaspora used this term to identify themselves as followers of the God of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. Brown explained to White Rose Magazine that historical population booms and busts (bottlenecks) are evident in the DNA of the Jewish people, particularly the sudden growth among the Ashkenazim around 800 and 1600 C.E. respectively, and the collapse following the Holocaust. This supports the idea that genetic bottlenecks can be linked to specific historical events and population shifts.
Brown and his team pinpointed evidence of the original Judaean population by focusing on Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia. “Another Jewish population collapse appears to have occurred at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, during which some historians believe 500,000 Jewish men were killed,” he said. “To find evidence of the original Judaean population, we therefore intensively searched for participants in Jewish communities where pre-Bar Kochba Judaean settlement is known, such as in North Africa and Mesopotamia.”
Nevertheless, Jews are not the only modern population with a direct line to the ancient Israelites. The Samaritans are genetic cousins of Jews, with a shared heritage and similar customs.
The word Samaritans (שׁוֹמְרוֹנִים) means “keepers/guardians/watchers” of the Torah. The ethno-religious group has its own version of the Torah, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, which closely resembles the Jewish Torah but contains some variations in the text.
Despite these religious differences, DNA analysis proves the genetic connection between Jews and Samaritans. A 2004 study comparing Samaritans to Jewish and non-Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, Iraqi Jews, Libyan Jews, Moroccan Jews, and Yemenite Jews found that
the principal components analysis suggested a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. Most of the former may be traced back to a common ancestor in what is today identified as the paternally inherited Israelite high priesthood (Cohanim), with a common ancestor projected to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel.
Therefore, Jews and Samaritans share a common ancestry going even further back than the Israelite period, to the Canaanite tribes from which the Israelites descend.
Modern archaeology and genetics are challenging the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, making it increasingly clear that the Israelites arose directly from the indigenous Canaanite culture. This new understanding has significant ramifications for the historical and cultural connections of the Jewish and Samaritan people to the land of Israel, demonstrating that rather than being outsiders, they are descendants of ancient Canaanites who inhabited the region for millennia. Therefore, while Jews and Samaritans trace their ancestry to the ancient Israelites, their connection to the land dates back to the Bronze Age and beyond. Genetic studies have also shown that modern Lebanese directly descend from the Phoenicians (a Greek word), a people like the Israelites who developed in situ from the Canaanite culture. Other Levantine populations also share this Canaanite ancestry.
“There is enough evidence today from material culture, traditional archaeology, and ancient DNA to show that the population of the two Hebrew kingdoms was basically local, or most of it was local,” Israeli archaeologist and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University Israel Finkelstein told White Rose in a phone interview. “[W]e’re speaking about local ‘Canaanites’ who became ‘Israelites’ in a cultural process over a period of several centuries. The population of the two kingdoms was local. Autochthonous (indigenous) to the Levant. I cannot tell you that there were no groups—small groups—that came from outside, but the majority of the population was local.”
The Iron Age Israelites and Judeans lived in the highlands around the Samarian capital of Shechem and the Judean capital of Jerusalem. At the same time, the Canaanites resided in the lowlands of the coastal plain and northern valleys, as Finkelstein explained, emphasizing that both the Israelites and the Canaanites came from the same population pool.
Finkelstein found time to speak with this journalist during a break from his work at the Biblical settlement of Kiryat Ye’arim, some 9 miles west of Jerusalem, where he was the lead archaeologist on a groundbreaking study of extracted DNA from a family of 10 buried in an Iron Age tomb from the Late First Temple period, which was in use in the years 750–650 B.C.E. based on pottery typology used in the funerary offerings. This study is getting attention because researchers extracted DNA from ancient Hebrews of the First Temple period for the first time. The Harvard geneticist Prof. David Reich’s lab, which specializes in ancient DNA, conducted the analysis. Reich and his team have not yet submitted the final paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. However, an advanced copy shows that the first two sampled individuals—a male and female—carry the Y-DNA haplogroup J2 and the mtDNA haplogroups T1a and H87 (males contain both Y-DNA and mtDNA while females only carry mtDNA).
Regardless of the conclusions, the early results from Kiryat Ye’arim synchronize with the Avotaynu DNA Project’s research into the paternal lineages of modern Jewish groups. “We have thus far found approximately 159 different J2 haplogroups among the Jewish men in our study. These represent 159 ‘Abrahams’ carrying the J2 marker who introduced their own genetic ancestry into the Jewish population during its 3,000-year history,” Brown said. Further evidence comes from a 2019 research article Brown co-authored, which examined the Y-DNA haplogroup J-Z640. Jews, Samaritans, Druze, and Armenians share this haplogroup, which “originated during the Bronze Age, most likely in the Levant,” with the “founder population most likely belonging to Canaanites found in the Levant.”
In 2020, Finkelstein co-authored the study “The Genomic History of the Bronze Age Southern Levant,” which compared modern Jewish and non-Jewish populations to the average of 22 individuals from the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age period discovered at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, referred to in the study as “Megiddo_MLBA.” When modeling ancient admixture in these modern populations, the researchers selected Megiddo_MLBA to represent ancient Levantine ancestry. The results for modeling the archaic admixture of Ashkenazi Jews show that their autosomal genomic profile is around 50 percent Megiddo_MLBA, representing Canaanite ancestry, and about 10 percent Chalcolithic Iranian for 60 percent broader Middle Eastern DNA. The rest is about 40 percent European (Late Neolithic and Bronze Age).
“We found that most Jewish populations, but also all modern Levant populations, have some ancestry shared in common with the Canaanites. But it’s very difficult to say anything more specific,” one of the study’s co-authors, Hebrew University of Jerusalem genetics researcher Prof. Shai Carmi, said in a written comment to White Rose Magazine. The study found that these Canaanite Bronze Age and Iron Age southern Levant populations exhibit ancestry from earlier Neolithic populations. In addition, there was gene flow from the Chalcolithic Zagros Mountains, located in present-day Iran, and from the Bronze Age Caucasus region. Overall, these studies shed light on the ancient Levantine origins of modern Jewish populations and the admixture picked up from local populations in the diaspora.
I contacted another Israel-based archaeologist for this article, and her views align with Finkelstein’s assertion that the Israelites and Canaanites were the same people. “In Iron Age IA (1200–1150 B.C.E.), you can’t tell the difference between Israelites and Canaanites. Archaeologically, they are the same, which argues for the Israelites having a Canaanite origin. The genetics backs that up,” said Linda Olsvig-Whittaker, an archaeobotany researcher at the Archaeology Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The characteristics that mark Israelite culture evolved gradually. We see a gradual differentiation of Israelite culture, but nothing indicates a sudden replacement of people by another group of people. It’s gradual. Israelites evolved in situ from Canaanites. The Canaanites were the ancestors of the Israelites. There was no population replacement in the southern Levant. The Jews did not come from Mesopotamia. They evolved in place here.”
Modern Jewish DNA reveals this indigenous Israelite/Canaanite ancestry. “No matter where Jews are coming from, whether it is Iraq or Russia,” Olsvig-Whittaker continued, “there is still this strong genetic connection with ancient Canaanites.”
Therefore, the Jewish historical connection to the Middle East region has deep roots regardless of the exilic pathways.
Jews + the Middle East
Judaism predates Islam by thousands of years, and Jews were part of the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years before Islam.
“Arabs and Jews are distant cousins who shared common ancestry at the time of the founding of Judaism 3,000 years ago,” Brown remarked. “The Jewish populations we have tested originate, for the most part, in enormously diverse populations of the Late Bronze Age Middle East. At that time, before the establishment of tribal identities such as the Israelites, the paternal origins of Jews and non-Jews of the Middle East were indistinguishable from one another,” he continued. “There is a core of Y chromosome ancestry that traces right back to the beginning of Israelite identity.”
According to Brown, advanced testing of paternal lineages shows an unbroken Jewish thread that dates back to the Israelites 3,000 years ago. “Mizrahi, North African, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or in the Jewish population of India, we are finding common ancestry among them,” he said. “While portions of Jewish paternal lineages were picked up from pagan populations in host countries over the centuries, we have found little evidence of pagan lineages entering the Jewish population since the rise of Christianity and Islam.”
This author and Brown share the same Ashkenazi R1b haplogroup subclade that was possibly a man from England who settled in Roman-ruled Iberia and contributed his Y chromosome to the Jewish population, then living in exile in the territory that would become Spain and Portugal. This man’s descendants migrated to Central and Eastern Europe, becoming re-identified as members of the Ashkenazi population during the following two millennia.
While this article has focused primarily on the Y-DNA Middle Eastern lineages of modern Jews, I would be remiss not to include a section on matrilineal descent, which has played a significant role in the history of Rabbinic Judaism. What does the mtDNA say about the origins of modern Jews?
Rabbinic Judaism has followed the law of matrilineal descent since at least the compiling of the Mishnah, around 200 C.E. However, modern scholars dispute the origins, with some believing it could go back to the time of Ezra, c. 460 B.C.E. Orthodox Judaism maintains that matrilineal descent goes back to Mount Sinai, c. 1310 B.C.E. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, by Shaye J. D. Cohen, offers a comprehensive overview of these ancient matrilineal practices, and Dr. Henry Abramson, a lecturer on Jewish history at Touro College in New York, has made an excellent video on the subject as part of his YouTube “Jewish History Lab” series.
Interestingly, while Karaite Judaism and Samaritanism follow patrilineal descent, some modern liberal Jewish denominations, such as the Reform movement, also recognize paternal lineages.
Given the historical and religious perspectives on matrilineal descent in Judaism, what does the DNA say about the maternal origins of modern Jews since it is clear that the paternal line traces back to the time of the Israelites? Like the origins of matrilineal descent, the mtDNA of modern Jews is still being debated and studied.
Research into the mtDNA (matrilineal line) of contemporary Jewish populations generally shows more diversity than the Y-DNA (patrilineal) and closer relatedness to local populations from antiquity, as the rise of Christianity and Islam sharply curtailed conversions. “Genetic variations in Y-DNA occur at a rate significantly faster than in the mitochondria, so the latter is a less precise tool for assessing the origins of Jewish women. But based on our observations thus far, the diversity of mitochondrial DNA in each Jewish population is much greater than that found in the Y-DNA and is typically more closely related to local populations than the men,” Brown explained. Conversion to Judaism is simpler for women than men—who must be circumcised—therefore, greater non-Jewish female ancestry in late antiquity follows.
Doron Behar, the Israeli geneticist, has studied the mtDNA of Ashkenazi Jews, and the results suggest that the maternal lineages are of mixed Middle Eastern and European origin. Middle Eastern founding lineages are prevalent in the population. He wrote in a 2004 study that “while several Ashkenazi Jewish mtDNA haplogroups appear to derive from the Near East, there is also evidence for a low level of introgression from host European non-Jewish populations.”
Additionally, a 2006 study by Behar analyzed the mtDNA haplogroups K and N1b in Ashkenazi Jews. It concluded that 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews descend maternally from four founding female lineages of Middle Eastern origin, “likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool.” The study also found an Ashkenazi sister lineage in Jews from Portugal, Italy, France, Morocco, and Tunisia.
An unbroken chain from the Land of Israel
The findings of Brown and his Avotaynu DNA team demonstrate the far-reaching impact of Jewish DNA dating back to the Israelites, showing that it can be found in unexpected places.
This was confirmed by a recent article that Brown and his Avotaynu DNA team published in the magazine American Ancestors. It summarizes their testing of the descendants of a colonial New Jersey family of likely French Huguenots who fought alongside and were friendly with George Washington.
Genetic genealogy revealed that the family patriarch Abraham Coryell descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish family with the surname Curiel. The Y-DNA variation E-BY145801 traces back to a Portuguese Jew who converted to Christianity by force in 1497. Some participants in the Curiel Avotaynu DNA study share a common ancestry dating back to the medieval era, including Sephardic families from Italy and Greece and a rabbinic dynasty from Morocco. “Matches with Jewish participants from Egypt, Syria, and Turkey reveal a common ancestor who lived at the time of the birth of apparent Israelite identity in the Early Iron Age,” the article states.
Brown summarized his research at the end of our interview: “For the most part, Jewish lineages are Middle Eastern, and there is no corollary. It is incontrovertible.”
In conclusion, scientific research strongly supports the idea that modern Jewish populations have a significant Middle Eastern genetic heritage. The Avotaynu DNA Project, which has documented over 700 Y-DNA lineages among Jewish men of primarily Middle Eastern origin, provides further evidence.
It is clear that while Ashkenazi Jews have a unique genetic makeup due to their interactions with European populations, their genetic roots can ultimately be traced back to the Middle East. The DNA evidence debunks the myth of a Khazar origin for Ashkenazi Jews and confirms their close relatedness to other Jewish diaspora groups from the Middle East and North Africa.