The Tribe
February 14, 2005 12:44 AM   Subscribe

Genes and Jews. And you thought Spock came up with that part of the shtick. It turns out that despite the racial and ethnic diversity of the Tribe, there are genetic markers that identify Cohanim, or the priestly descendants of Aaron (know any Cohens?). These markers help identify jewish identity in the most distant reaches of the diaspora. The fascinating intersection of anthropology, genetics, and religion. (btw first fpp)
posted by Kifer85 (26 comments total)
It is not surprising they have taken science, combined it with religion, an come out with an answer they would like to hear. As soon as you abandon reason, anything goes.

Their science adds up to the fact that people who are related to a common ancestor are related to each other.

Add to this the power of wishful thinking, they have managed to construe this a proof that they are related to a famous (probably mythical) Jewish priest.

Ignore the fact that anybody can find a group of people, often with the same last name, who are descended from a single ancestor 100 (or whatever) generations ago.
posted by Osmanthus at 1:12 AM on February 14, 2005

Er..that is,practically anybody can find a large group relatives to themselves, often with the same last name, who are descended from a single ancestor 100 generations ago.
posted by Osmanthus at 1:18 AM on February 14, 2005

Everybody wants to be special.
posted by nightchrome at 1:20 AM on February 14, 2005

And the Kurds.

Which is good, because that means Dubya's sent our army to the right place to trigger Armageddon and the return of Jesus!
posted by orthogonality at 1:50 AM on February 14, 2005

It is not surprising they have taken science, combined it with religion, an come out with an answer they would like to hear. As soon as you abandon reason, anything goes.

I feel I have to apologize to Kifer85 for the knee-jerk reactions around here.

Here's a well-balanced look at the whole thing from an article on Slate. The author, a Cohen, discovered that he had less of the genetic markers than that of a Lemba tribesman and points out the various assertions that can and cant be made about the Cohen modal haplotype as it has worked its way down generations. Interesting stuff though.
posted by vacapinta at 2:17 AM on February 14, 2005

So how come this guy is not listed here?
posted by sour cream at 5:30 AM on February 14, 2005

Sasha (Ali) B Cohen is actually the son of a Rabbi in London.
posted by zpousman at 6:17 AM on February 14, 2005

Representin' wif da priestly gang sign. Now that's old school, no diggity.
posted by Toecutter at 6:19 AM on February 14, 2005

Connecting blood to identity seems to get bad results, like oppression and spilling lots of that precious blood.

Come; join us in a new land, where the aristocracy of the old world will no longer oppress you and you'll be judged for what you do, not for who your ancestors are!

My family begins with me, your family ends with you.
-- Iphicrates, Athenian general, son of a shoemaker.

"Keep your ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she,
With silent lips, "Give me your tired, your poor ...

-- "The New Colossus"
posted by guanxi at 8:04 AM on February 14, 2005

I guarantee a Star Trek fan came up with that first link.

Yes, what guanxi said.

-- speaking as a jew
posted by inksyndicate at 8:08 AM on February 14, 2005

If they're right though then maybe the Baltimore Jews who moved from Park Circle to Upper Park Heights, then on to Pikesville and beyond, "to get away from the schvartzes", made a mistake. Who knows who might be a Jew, and an uber-Jew at that!
posted by davy at 9:35 AM on February 14, 2005

Ignore the fact that anybody can find a group of people, often with the same last name, who are descended from a single ancestor 100 (or whatever) generations ago.

No, not really. If you take a look at some of the surname projects currently undergoing DNA testing, you'll see that even having the same surname and coming from the same ancestral country (or U.S. state) are absolutely no guarantee that you'll find a DNA match. Look at, say, the Rose DNA study (223 people tested so far and counting), one of the biggest surnanme studies in the world testing people from the exact same areas and eras, and yet there are at least 23 distinctly different genetic lines identified there so far.

In contrast, the Cohen DNA project tested people from a ton of countries and three continents (and both Ashkenazim and Sephardim) and still found a very high genetic correlation among them. In genetic genealogy terms, that's unusual. A lot of the people heading up surname projects wish they had that kind of matching.

By the way, here's a copy of Hammer's original article from Nature.

(...said the boring garden-variety non-Cohen non-Levite Israelite)
posted by Asparagirl at 9:48 AM on February 14, 2005

A correction to my last comment: the men actually tested in the study were from Britain, North America, and Israel; the "ton of countries" is where their ancestors were from within the past 50-100 years.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:52 AM on February 14, 2005

Sounds like BS to me.
posted by delmoi at 12:17 PM on February 14, 2005

A previous study by Ariella Oppenheim and her colleagues, published in Human Genetics in December 2000, showed that about 70 percent of Jewish paternal ancestries and about 82 percent of Palestinian Arabs share the same chromosomal pool. The geneticists asserted that this might support the claim that Palestinian Arabs descend in part from Judeans who converted to Islam. With their closer relationship to Jews, the Palestinian Arabs are distinctive from other Arab groups, such as Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis, and Iraqis, who have less of a connection to Jews.
(from Ortho's link)

Thats what its all worth in practical application.
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:49 PM on February 14, 2005

Why would it need to have any practical application?

I think it's just wonderful that there's this group in southern Africa with a wild, crazy story about their heritage that seems completely implausible, but there's evidence that it's actually true, at least in part.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:15 PM on February 14, 2005

Where do I sign up to take the test?
posted by bingo at 5:43 PM on February 14, 2005

My mother's parents emigrated to America around the beginning of the 20th Century. When interviewed at Ellis Island they were asked their name. Since neither of them spoke more than a couple of words of English they were asked to write it. Neither of them could read or write so the immigration guy simply wrote Cohn on the form and that became their legal name. This it seems was common practice at the time. As a result of this their four sons each took their own surname - Cohn, King, Cowan and Malen after the real name of their parents which was something like Malendovitch. The spelling Cohn without the E was the work of the immigration officer.
posted by donfactor at 8:32 PM on February 14, 2005

Interesting story, donfactor. One would think that they don't have to know much English to tell the immigration officer their name. Maybe the immigration officer got confused by the complicated name, or maybe it was just a general breakdown of communication.
posted by sour cream at 10:32 PM on February 14, 2005

This will be a helpful retort when i try to tell people that I'm a non-religious jew, and then they say that means i'm not a jew at all, because its a religion, and i say its also a culture and an ethinicity, and they say no its not an ethnicity, because there are blond/redhead/brunette light/dark/medium-skinned jews and so how can we be one ethinicity, and then I don't have a response to that.
posted by Kololo at 3:57 AM on February 15, 2005

Well, that's the weird thing to us goys, Kololo. From the outside it seems like the tribe wants it both ways. In other words, how can you convert to an ethnicity?
posted by lumpenprole at 7:12 AM on February 15, 2005

In other words, how can you convert to an ethnicity?

I once heard a religious Jew compare it to a sex change operation. Just like some people that are born as one gender see themselves as the other gender, some people that are born as gentiles see themselves as jews. It is for these people's sake that conversion is allowed. Pretty sure that argument wasn't in the Talmud. ;)
posted by boaz at 7:36 AM on February 15, 2005

Doctor finds fault in the contentions that the "Cohen modal haplotype" designates Israelites and that most Jewish priests have a common ancestor:
"...Careful examination of their [Skorecki's and Thomas's] works reveals many faults that lead to the inevitable conclusion that their claim [that most Cohenim share a common origin] has not been proven. The faults are: the definition of the studied communities, significant differences between three samples of Jewish priests, failure to use enough suitable markers to construct the Unique-Event-polymorphisms haplotypes, problematic method of calculating coalescence time and underestimating the mutation rate of Y chromosome microsatellites. The suggestion that the 'Cohen modal haplotype' is a signature haplotype for the ancient Hebrew population is also not supported by data from other populations..."
posted by talos at 8:06 AM on February 15, 2005

... or, if you prefer, a softer rebuke:
...Does this mean that Jews, or the kohanim, form a genetically distinct group? Hardly. For a start, only half of kohanim are related to the putative Aaron. Moreover, the number of mutations that distinguish the Cohen Modal Haplotype from other haplotypes comprise only a small part of an individual's genome. And, in any case, the Cohen Modal Haplotype is found in all Middle Eastern populations, Jewish and non-Jewish.

In other, words, the kohanim, and indeed Jews as a whole, are a group defined religiously and culturally, not genetically. As Steve Olson puts it in Mapping Human History, "If every male with the Cohen Modal Haplotype instantly converted to Judaism, the politics of the Middle East would be turned upside down..."
posted by talos at 8:14 AM on February 15, 2005

The issue isn't that many Italians and Kurds also have the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH), too--lots of people do, just as some Jews have the ubiquitous Atlantic Modal Haplotype (AMH) which is commonly found in Western Europe. But up til now there have only been family traditions and mangled surnames--or, in the case of the Lemba, blurry stories handed down through the years--designating Cohanim as a unique group with singular ancestry and stricter religious laws within the rest of the Jewish population.

In other words, the CMH is definitely not unique in Jews vs. the global population (though it is way more common in Jews), but it is statistically unique within the Cohanim vs. the rest of the Jewish population. And that distinction of Cohen vs. non-Cohen is there even in far-flung populations. Zoossmann-Diskin's point seems to be that which specific markers exactly constitutes that difference is somewhat different in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic population samples, but the statistical difference itself is not being challenged.

I agree with his point that the Sephardic communities are too diverse to be lumped together the way Hammer did (Yemeni Jews, for example, were almost totally religiously and genetically isolated until like 40 years ago). It would be nice if he broke out them out into Maghreb/Levant/Yemeni/post-Ottoman-Empire or some other method. I also agree that they should upgrade the testing to more markers; even consumer-oriented DNA testing companies, including one that Hammer later co-founded, are using upwards of 37 markers these days. Then again, no one complained that the AMH is defined by only six markers.

and then they say that means i'm not a jew at all, because its a religion, and i say its also a culture and an ethinicity, and they say no its not an ethnicity

Two words for them: Tay Sachs. Or Gaucher's Disease. Or BRCA1 and 2. Or a bunch of other nasty diseases left over from inbreeding too much over too many generations. Add in several Ashkenazic population bottlenecks (from the Middle Ages), and you've even got something of a founder effect in there. See also Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome variation in Ashkenazi Jewish and host non-Jewish European populations (PDF) for the Y chromosome (the male side) and MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population (PDF) for the mtDNA (female side). In short: there's no such thing as a solely-Jewish haplotype; lots of people married or converted both in and out of the tribe over thousands of years (famous case: Palestinians, who are more closely related to Jews than to Arabs). But there are haplotypes that are far more common in Jews than other groups and there are significant generalized differences between Jewish populations and the populations of the diaspora countries they live(d) in.

BTW, bingo and anyone else--FamilyTreeDNA is da bomb. I just recommended it in a thread on adoptees looking for genetic/medical knowledge of their birth families and would recommend it here too. It's not a substitute for paper-trail genealogy (census records, vital records, immigration records), but genealogy enthusiasts like me who have run into brick walls with our research (because there sometimes aren't any more paper records) are making huge progress with it. Sorenson will DNA test people for free (yay Mormons!) using special mouthwash (!), but the data is only available in the aggregate, not the individual level, for privacy reasons.

And just so's no one thinks all this talk of "Jewish DNA" is a sinister plot of some sort--because who doesn't like a good sinister plot now and again? I know I do!--I should point out that the main advocates and enthusiasts of genealogy-by-genetics are far and away people of British ancestry. Check out the map of the ancestral hometowns of one major (free!) Y chromosome database. (That's my husband's ancestor over there in far-western Hungary.)

(Damn, I really need to write that long-put-off FPP on this subject one of these days.)
posted by Asparagirl at 9:57 AM on February 15, 2005

Eastern Hungary. Someday I'll learn the difference between the right and left sides of a map...
posted by Asparagirl at 10:02 AM on February 15, 2005

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