Genetic Chaos

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba-the "Black Jews of Southern Africa"

The Lemba are a traditionally endogamous group speaking a variety of Bantu languages who live in a number of locations in southern Africa. They claim descent from Jews who came to Africa from "Sena." "Sena" is variously identified by them as Sanaa in Yemen, Judea, Egypt, or Ethiopia. A previous study using Y-chromosome markers suggested both a Bantu and a Semitic contribution to the Lemba gene pool, a suggestion that is not inconsistent with Lemba oral tradition. To provide a more detailed picture of the Lemba paternal genetic heritage, we analyzed 399 Y chromosomes for six microsatellites and six biallelic markers in six populations (Lemba, Bantu, Yemeni-Hadramaut, Yemeni-Sena, Sephardic Jews, and Ashkenazic Jews). The high resolution afforded by the markers shows that Lemba Y chromosomes are clearly divided into Semitic and Bantu clades. Interestingly, one of the Lemba clans carries, at a very high frequency, a particular Y-chromosome type termed the "Cohen modal haplotype," which is known to be characteristic of the paternally inherited Jewish priesthood and is thought, more generally, to be a potential signature haplotype of Judaic origin. The Bantu Y-chromosome samples are predominantly (>80%) YAP+ and include a modal haplotype at high frequency. Assuming a rapid expansion of the eastern Bantu, we used variation in microsatellite alleles in YAP+ sY81-G Bantu Y chromosomes to calculate a rough date, 3,000-5,000 years before the present, for the start of their expansion.

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Tracking the genetic imprints of lost Jewish tribes among the gene pool of Kuki-Chin-Mizo population of India


The Kuki-Chin-Mizo population comprising traditionally endogamous tribal groups residing in the state of Mizoram, India claim their descent from the ten lost tribes of Israel that were exiled by the Assyrians. To ascertain their oral history, we analysed DNA markers comprising 15 autosomal microsatellite markers, 5 biallelic and 20 microsatellite markers on Y-chromosome and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA sequence variations on 414 individuals belonging to 5 tribal communities from Mizoram (Hmar, Kuki, Mara, Lai and Lusei). The genetic profiles obtained were compared either with populations sharing Jewish ancestry or with local populations along the probable route of migration of the Jewish ancestry claimant Mizoram tribes.


Y-STR analyses showed absence of the Cohen Modal Haplotype, the genetic signature of Cohanim origin. Y-chromosomal biallelic marker analyses revealed the presence of East and Southeast Asian-specific lineages and absence of haplogroup J predominant among Jewish populations. The mitochondrial DNA sequence analyses however revealed traces of genetic relatedness between the Jewish ancestry claimant Mizoram tribes and Near Eastern lineages. Autosomal analyses showed moderate degree of genetic differentiation among the different Mizoram tribes.


Migration of the lost tribes through China resulting in subsequent genetic admixture over a long period of time has probably diluted the extant gene pool of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo population. Although their paternal lineages do not exhibit any trace of Jewish ancestry, incidence of maternal Near Eastern lineages among the Mizoram tribals suggests their claim to Jewish ancestry cannot be excluded.

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