Jewish Genetics: Abstracts and Summaries

Part 2: Cohens and Levites

Last Update: December 21, 2013

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Studies of Cohens and Levites

Rashmee Z. Ahmed. "India's children of Israel find their roots." The Times of India (July 20, 2002). Excerpts:
"More than 2,000 years after they first claimed to have set foot in India, the mystery of the world's most obscure Jewish community - the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel - may finally have been solved with genetic carbon-dating revealing they carry the unusual Moses gene that would make them, literally, the original children of Israel. Four years of DNA tests on the 4,000-strong Bene Israel, now mainly based in Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Ahmedabad, indicates they are probable descendants of a small group of hereditary Israelite priests or Cohanim, according to new results exclusively made available to the Sunday Times of India.... [Tudor] Parfitt, who initiated and led the research, says this is the first concrete proof that 'exiles from Palestine made it as far as India and managed to maintain Judaism in the sea of Hinduism and Islam'... Aharon Daniel expressed doubt about the new findings. 'Many scientists have claimed to have found Israeli or Cohenim genes in tribes in black Africa and other communities around the world and many here were sceptical about this,' he told STOI.... By studying certain genetic markers on the DNA chain, found only in male descendants of Aaron, Moses' elder brother, who founded the line of Jewish priests, the Bene Israel could well claim to be the purest of the pure."

Manoj Nair. "Thane Jews pass the blood test." Mumbai Mid-Day Newspaper (July 23, 2002). Excerpts:

"The news that recent DNA tests have linked India's Bene Israel Jewish community to the patriarch Moses has delighted the small Jewish community in Thane. For hundreds of years, the Bene Israel (meaning Children of Israel), now largely concentrated in and around Thane had fought Western prejudice that denied them their claim as descendants of one of Israel's 12 lost tribes. Now the Jews of Thane, home to 2,000 or 40 per cent of India's Jewry, can hold their head high among the rest of the Jewish community. '...Now science has proved that we are descendants of the Cohanim or hereditary priests. This will improve our status in the Jewish community,' says Ezra Moses, honorary secretary and trustee of Thane's Shaar Hashamaim or Gate of Heaven synagogue.... '...Now the DNA tests have confirmed our claims,' says Rachel Gadkar, a retired schoolteacher who recently published a book in Marathi called 'Bharatiya Bene Israel', that traces the origins of her community.... The current finding that the Bene Israel carry Moses's genes is the result of a research project that started seven years ago.... Sixty-six-year old Phinas Bamnolkar, the hazan or cantor at the Thane synagogue says, 'It was always our claim that we are descendants of Moses. Our claim has now been scientifically proved.'"

Terry Friel. "Ancient Indian Jewish Community Faces Unclear Future." Reuters (March 1, 2003). Excerpt:

"Extensive DNA testing has found the Bene Israelis, clustered in and around the western city of Bombay, are direct descendants of a hereditary Israelite priesthood that can be traced back 3,000 years to Moses' brother, Aaron."

Tudor Parfitt. "Place, Priestly Status and Purity: The Impact of Genetic Research on an Indian Jewish Community." Developing World Bioethics 3:2 (December 2003): 178-185. Excerpt:

"Of the Indian datasets, only the Bene Israel carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype..."

Jonathan Karp. "Seeking Lost Tribes of Israel in India, Using DNA Testing." Wall Street Journal (May 11, 1998). About Tudor Parfitt's genetic research in India.

Michael F. Hammer, Doron M. Behar, Tatiana M. Karafet1, Fernando L. Mendez, Brian Hallmark, Tamar Erez, Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Saharon Rosset, and Karl Skorecki. "Extended Y chromosome haplotypes resolve multiple and unique lineages of the Jewish priesthood." Human Genetics 126:5 (November 2009): 707-717. Also electronically published on August 8, 2009. Abstract:

"It has been known for over a decade that a majority of men who self report as members of the Jewish priesthood (Cohanim) carry a characteristic Y chromosome haplotype termed the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). The CMH has since been used to trace putative Jewish ancestral origins of various populations. However, the limited number of binary and STR Y chromosome markers used previously did not provide the phylogenetic resolution needed to infer the number of independent paternal lineages that are encompassed within the Cohanim or their coalescence times. Accordingly, we have genotyped 75 binary markers and 12 Y-STRs in a sample of 215 Cohanim from diverse Jewish communities, 1,575 Jewish men from across the range of the Jewish Diaspora, and 2,099 non-Jewish men from the Near East, Europe, Central Asia, and India. While Cohanim from diverse backgrounds carry a total of 21 Y chromosome haplogroups, 5 haplogroups account for 79.5% of Cohanim Y chromosomes. The most frequent Cohanim lineage (46.1%) is marked by the recently reported P58 T–>C mutation, which is prevalent in the Near East. Based on genotypes at 12 Y-STRs, we identify an extended CMH on the J-P58* background that predominates in both Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Cohanim and is remarkably absent in non-Jews. The estimated divergence time of this lineage based on 17 STRs is 3,190 ± 1,090 years. Notably, the second most frequent Cohanim lineage (J-M410*, 14.4%) contains an extended modal haplotype that is also limited to Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Cohanim and is estimated to be 4.2 ± 1.3 ky old. These results support the hypothesis of a common origin of the CMH in the Near East well before the dispersion of the Jewish people into separate communities, and indicate that the majority of contemporary Jewish priests descend from a limited number of paternal lineages."

Kevin Davies. Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA. New York: The Free Press, 2001. Excerpts from Davies' book:

"But the most remarkable application of Y-chromosome markers is to Jewish populations in the Middle East and beyond... Aaron thus became the first Jewish priest, or cohen, a tradition that has since been handed down from father to son. [Michael] Hammer, Karl Skorecki, David Goldstein, and colleagues studied Y markers from three hundred Jews, including more than one hundred cohanim, and found that half of the Jewish priests shared the same genetic signature, compared to less than 5 percent in the lay Jewish population.... The results of the DNA studies [of the Lemba people of South Africa] were stunning: a significant portion of the Lemba Y chromosomes exhibit the characteristic genetic signature found in the cohanim, including more than 50 percent of the Buba, one of the 12 Lemba clans. These markers have also turned up in the Bene Israel, the oldest Jewish community in India..." (excerpts from pages 182-183)

"Where We Come From: Recent advances in genetics are starting to illuminate the wanderings of early humans." U.S. News and World Report (January 29, 2001). Excerpts:

"On the Internet, Carvin located Family Tree DNA, a small Houston firm created to answer such questions. He mailed in a sample of his DNA, gathered by swabbing the inside of his cheek, and waited. In late October, he got a call from Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA. Not only did his Y chromosome have the cohanim markers-small genetic variations-but other markers matched with those of another man in the database, making it likely that they share a forefather within the past 250 years... Since then, other researchers have used the cohanim markers to ascertain that the Lemba, a Bantu-speaking people in Southern Africa who have traditionally claimed Jewish ancestry, do indeed have Semitic roots. And last June, Hammer published results showing that although Palestinian and Jewish men may be political foes, they are also brethren, so closely related as to be genetically indistinguishable."

Siiri Rootsi, Doron M. Behar, Mari J&aum;rve, Alice A. Lin, Natalie M. Myres, Ben Passarelli, G. David Poznik, Shay Tzur, Hovhannes Sahakyan, Ajai Kumar Pathak, Saharon Rosset, Mait Metspalu, Viola Grugni, Ornella Semino, Ene Metspalu, Carlos D. Bustamante, Karl Skorecki, Richard Villems, Toomas Kivisild, and Peter A. Underhill. "Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites." Nature Communications 4, article number 2928. Published online December 17, 2013. The branch of the Y-DNA haplogroup R1a found in Ashkenazic populations, particularly Ashkenazic Levites, doesn't come from an East European or Central Asian Turkic source, as previously suggested, but from an Iranian source population that intermixed with Israelite Jews in the Middle East in ancient times. While some Ukrainians, Karachays, and other peoples of Europe and the Caucasus have varieties of R1a, they are different varieties than the Ashkenazic one. An exception was one Nogay of the Caucasus who has the R1a-M582, but his STR haplotype "lies outside of the Levite cluster" according to the authors. The evidence goes against the hypothesis that a prominent Turkic Khazar family that converted to Judaism artificially adopted the status of Levites in Khazaria and then moved to Kievan Rus. Excerpts from the article:

"[...] R1a-M582 was identified in various populations, with the highest frequency occurring within Iranians collected from the southeastern Kerman population who self-identified as Persians, northwestern Iranian Azeri and in Cilician Anatolian Kurds, at 2.86%, 2.50% and 2.83%, respectively (Table 1). [...] In summary, we have circumscribed the geography of marker M582 within the broad distribution zone of R1a-M198* lineages. We have shown it to be a minor haplogroup that is primarily shared among Iranian Kerman, Iranian Azeri, Kurds, Ashkenazi Jews and non-Ashkenazi Jews, and that it is virtually absent in the Caucasus region, Europe, South Asia, and southern Siberia."

Doron M. Behar, Mark G. Thomas, Karl Skorecki, Michael F. Hammer, Ekaterina Bulygina, Dror Rosengarten, Abigail L. Jones, Karen Held, Vivian Moses, David Goldstein, Neil Bradman, and Michael E. Weale. "Multiple Origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y Chromosome Evidence for Both Near Eastern and European Ancestries." American Journal of Human Genetics 73:4 (October 2003): 768-779. (Mirror) Abstract excerpts:

"...[T]he Levites, another paternally inherited Jewish caste, display evidence for multiple recent origins, with Ashkenazi Levites having a high frequency of a distinctive, non-Near Eastern haplogroup. Here, we show that the Ashkenazi Levite microsatellite haplotypes within this haplogroup are extremely tightly clustered, with an inferred common ancestor within the past 2,000 years. Comparisons with other Jewish and non-Jewish groups suggest that a founding event, probably involving one or very few European men occurring at a time close to the initial formation and settlement of the Ashkenazi community, is the most likely explanation for the presence of this distinctive haplogroup found today in >50% of Ashkenazi Levites."

Article excerpts:

"If a European origin for the Ashkenazi Levite haplogroup R1a1 component is accepted as a reasonable possibility, it is of interest to speculate further on the possible timing, location, and mechanism of this event. Because the modal haplotype of haplogroup R1a1 found in the Ashkenazi Levites is found at reasonably high frequency throughout the eastern European region, it is not possible to use genetic information to pinpoint the exact origin of any putative founder from the currently available data sets. ... One attractive source would be the Khazarian Kingdom, whose ruling class is though tto have converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century (Dunlop 1967). ... It extended from northern Georgia in the south to Bulgar on the Volga River in the north and from the Aral Sea in the east to the Dnieper River in the west -- an area that falls within a region in which haplogroup R1a1 NRYs are found at high frequency (Rosser et al. 2000)."

Observations:

Approximately 38 percent of Ashkenazi Levites share a particular haplotype that is also found among about 11 percent of Sorbs and about 8.5 percent of Belarusians. (Sorbs and Belarusians are both Slavic peoples.) In The Ashkenazic Jews (1993), Paul Wexler had proposed that Ashkenazi Jews are related to Sorbs, but this was unable to be substantiated using non-genetic data. The DNA affinity with Sorbs may be significant but may not be the only explanation.
The study emphasizes that Ashkenazi non-Levite Jews in general do not have a major Khazar or European origin in their Y-DNA.

Nicholas Wade. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (The Penguin Press, 2006). Excerpt from page 250:

"The Y chromosomes of Ashkenazic and Sephardic levites show no particular simularity. ... There is, however, a strong genetic signature common to 52% of Ashkenazic levites. It is a set of genetic variations belonging to a branch of the world Y chromosome tree known as R1a1. To judge by the amount of variation on these levite R1a1 chromosomes, the original ancestor seems to have entered the Jewish community about 1,000 years ago, roughly the time when Jewish settlement in northwest Europe began, in other words at the founding of the Ashkenazic community. The geneticists who discovered the R1a1 signature among the levites, a team that included Skorecki, Hammer and Goldstein, note that outside the Jewish community the R1a1 chromosome is relatively common in the region north of Georgia, in the Caucasus, that was once occupied by the Khazar kingdom. The Khazars were a Turkic tribe whose king converted to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century AD. The geneticists propose that one or more of the Khazar converts may have become levites, accounting for the R1a1 signature among today's Ashkenazic levites. But Shaye Cohen, an expert on Jewish religious history, believes it unlikely that converts would become levites, let alone founding members of the levite community in Europe. The Khazar connection is ''all hypothesis'' in his view."

Nicholas Wade. "Geneticists Report Finding Central Asian Link to Levites." The New York Times (September 27, 2003): A2. Excerpts:

"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 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... 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... 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 present descendants of the Khazars have not been identified. ... If the patrilineal descent of the two priestly castes had indeed been followed as tradition describes, then... all Levites [should be descended] from Levi, the third son of the patriarch Jacob. ... 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. ... The paternal ancestry of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Levites is different, unlike the Cohanim from the two branches..."

Dean H. Hamer. The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes (Doubleday, 2004). Excerpt from pages 191-192:

"A recent study by Skorecki and colleagues uncovered a subgroup of Ashkenazic Levites who have a Y-chromosome pattern that is not seen in other priests, or indeed any major Jewish group, but is common in people around the mouth of the Volga River. A little sleuthing revealed the historical connection. ... || ... Sometime in the eighth century, they [Khazars] decided to convert from paganism to monotheism. Most of the common people became either Christian or Muslim, but the royal family and many members of the nobility opted for Judaism. They continued to rule the region for nearly five hundred years as a Jewish state. The DNA evidence shows that many of the Khazar converts declared themselves to be not only Jews but of the priestly caste. Thus the infusion of new genetic lines."

Neil Bradman, Dror Rosengarten, and Karl L. Skorecki. "The Origins of Ashkenazic Levites: Many Ashkenazic Levites Probably Have a Paternal Descent from East Europeans or West Asians." Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Ancient DNA and Associated Biomolecules, July 21-25, 2002. Abstract excerpt:

"...Levite haplotype distributions were compared with distributions in Israelite Jews and candidate source populations (north Germans and two groups of Slavonic language speakers). The Ashkenazic Levites were most similar to the Sorbians, the most westerly Slavonic speaking group... Comparisons of the Ashkenazic Levite dataset with the other groups studied suggest that Y chromosome haplotypes, present at high frequency in Ashkenazic Levites, are most likely to have an east European or west Asian origin and not to have originated in the Middle East."

"Levite". MedTerms online medical dictionary.

Subsequently, as I learned in 2011, it was discovered that the Ashkenazi Levite version of R1a1a is distinguishable from the R1a1a of European non-Jews. The Ashkenazi version is coded as L342.2+ and R1a1a1g1 and it descends from Z93, whereas the European non-Jewish R1a1a descends from Z283. (One of our sources for this information is Łukasz Łapiński who is the administrator of the "R1a1a and Subclades Y-DNA Project" at Family Tree DNA.) The implication is that Levites did not get this haplotype from a Slavic forebear, which was one of the possibilities. Z93 is found among peoples of Central Asia, South Asia, and Southwest Asia including Persians, Arabs, Indians, and Tatars.

David Keys. Catastrophe: An Investigation Into the Origins of the Modern World. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Keys summarizes M. G. Thomas, Karl L. Skorecki, H. Ben-Ami, Tudor Parfitt, Neil Bradman, D. B. Goldstein, "Origins of Old Testament Priests." Nature 394 (July 9, 1998): 138-140. Excerpts from Keys' book:

"DNA tests on Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have revealed the possibility that at least one key section of the latter community may have genetic evidence of a potentially large-scale or even mass conversion which must have taken place sometime after around A.D. 700.... the only known mass conversion within that time frame and in that geographical area was that of the Khazars in the eighth century. Significantly, the section of the Ashkenazi community whose DNA may suggest a partially convert origin is that section which up till now had traditionally been said to be wholly descended from the Assistant Priests of ancient Israel.... By analyzing Y chromosomes from a sample of both Levite and non-Levite populations in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, geneticists have discovered that an astounding 30 percent of Ashkenazi non-Cohenic Levites have a particular || combination of DNA material on part of their Y-chromosome that is not shared to any extent by either non-Levite Ashkenazi Jews or the Sephardic community as a whole. This genetic marker does not even show up among the Cohens (descendants of the ancient Israelite Chief Priests) - but only among the descendants of Assistant Priests, and then only within Ashkenazi (northern European) Jewry. What seems to have happened is not only a potentially large-scale conversion of non-Jewish people, almost certainly Khazars, to Judaism, but also the adoption of Levite (Assistant Priest) status by a substantial number of the Khazar converts.... A tenth-century letter of recommendation from the Jewish community of Kiev to Jewish communities outside Khazaria was signed by Jews with traditional Turkic names whose almost certainly Turkic Khazar ancestors had adopted second names... indicating that they saw themselves as descendants or close associates of the ancient tribe of Levi.... Adoption of Cohenic or ordinary Levitical status by converts was and is expressly forbidden by rabbinical law, so the Khazars had to develop a mythic national history that gave them the right to Levitical status. They claimed that they were the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel and were not converts at all but merely returnees to Judaism. Furthermore, the tribe they claimed ancestry from was that of Simeon, the brother of the founder of the tribe of Levi.... Probably it was the old pre-Jewish Khazar priests - the qams - who at the conversion had become Levites en masse..." (excerpts from pages 99-100)

Neil Bradman and Mark Thomas. "Genetics: The Pursuit of Jewish History By Other Means." Judaism Today 10 (Autumn 1998): 4-6. Excerpt:

"Notwithstanding the identification of the CMH, it is not possible to say that those are the markers of a 'true' Cohen or whether, indeed, there was a 'first Cohen'--be it Aaron or somewhere else. In a similar way, there is no Jewish haplotype and genetics cannot 'prove' whether someone is a Jew; that is a matter for religious authorities. Nor can genetics decide whether a particular community is or is not Jewish. What may be possible is to demonstrate either movement between or a common origin for two ore more communities, which may be known from other data to qualify for the epithet Jewish or as an ancient progenitor of such communities."

Peter Hirshberg, with reporting by Jane Logan. "Decoding the Priesthood." Jerusalem Report (May 10, 1999). Summary:

The topic is the discovery of a "Cohen" gene in the genetic make-up of an African people called Lemba who claim to be Cohens and Jews. The Lemba have the same proportion of the gene as "Western" Jews and a remarkably high frequency among their Buba clan, a senior clan parallel to our Cohens. The story makes further extensive references to the Lemba, all quite positive with regard to their Jewish origins. Another fascinating part of the story is that researchers came up with a genetically indicated timeline as to when the original Cohen forefather (Aaron) lived. Using a method for genetic dating based on the rate at which certain bits of the Y chromosome mutate, they found that the date was about 3,000 years ago, consistent with the oral Jewish tradition. Even if the black Lemba as well as Sephardic and Ashkenazic Cohenim descend from a single ancestor, they still represent peoples of divergent origins overall, because the racial makeup of the three groups are strikingly different. This therefore confirms the hypothesis that the Cohenic gene only demonstrates one of many lineages.

Nicholas Wade. "Group in Africa Has Jewish Roots, DNA Indicates." The New York Times (May 9, 1999). Excerpts:

"A team of geneticists has found that many Lemba men carry in their male chromosome a set of DNA sequences that is distinctive of the cohanim, the Jewish priests believed to be the descendants of Aaron. The priestly genetic signature is particularly common among Lemba men who belong to the senior of their 12 groups, known as the Buba clan... A colleague in Hammer's and Skorecki's research was Neil Bradman, a businessman who is now chairman of the Center for Genetic Anthropology at University College, London. Bradman set about making a wider study of Jewish populations around the world through the lens of the Y chromosome technique. One recruit to Bradman's project is David B. Goldstein, a population geneticist at Oxford University in England... "The problem is there has been intermingling with host populations, and that has obscured their common ancestry," Goldstein said... He [Goldstein] finds that 45 percent of Ashkenazi priests and 56 percent of Sephardic priests have the cohen genetic signature, while in Jewish populations in general the frequency is 3 to 5 percent.

Erik Hakimian. "Jewish Genes." Megillah (July 2000). Excerpts:

"In a second study, more DNA samples were gathered and the selection of Y chromosome markers was expanded. It was discovered that a particular array of six chromosomal markers were in 92 percent Cohens tested. This collection of markers came to be known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH) and is the standard genetic signature of the Jewish priestly family... This second study solidified the theory of the common ancestry of Cohens."

"Jewish Priestly Line Maintains Legacy - and Genetic Marker." IsraelWire (September 23, 1998). Excerpts:

"...Based on a study of 306 Jewish men in Israel, Canada and England, the researchers discovered that the 106 Jews who had identified themselves as kohanim shared genetic markers in their Y chromosomes that members of the general Jewish population did not... The study also found a predominance of certain chromosome features in kohanim of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin... But Jonathan Marks, a biological anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has difficulty accepting the study's results. 'I'm a skeptic,' he said. 'What they're doing is Mickey Mouse social science.' The problem, he said, is their interpretation of the facts... Besides, he continued, 'there's no reason to think that there even was a priestly Aaron. It's an origin myth. To take at random something from the deep hoary past as if it's literally true and use that as your starting point, there's a problem with that. It's not science.'... Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona who worked on parts of the study, said Marks' criticisms missed the point. For the study, Hammer said, 'surnames were fairly irrelevant. It was a test case for genetics to see if the Y chromosome can be consistent with patrilineal descent.'"

Martha Molnar. "Priestly Gene Shared By Widely Dispersed Jews." Press Release. 10 July 1998.

Edward Rothstein. "DNA Teaches History a Few Lessons of Its Own." The New York Times "Week in Review" (May 24, 1998). Excerpts:

"Last year, for example, Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, showed that a genetic analysis of the Y chromosomes of Jewish men who ritualistically identified themselves as descendants of the Biblical High Priest Aaron and are known as Cohanim showed a high transmission of markers that were less prevalent among Jews who did not identify as Cohanim. This was evidence, Hammer said, of the accuracy of the oral tradition."

Judy Siegel. "Genetic link found among 'kohanim'." The Jerusalem Post (January 3, 1997).

"Kol ha-Kohanim hem be'emet b'nei Kohanim ekhad." Ma'ariv (January 5, 1997 = 27 Tevet 5757). Original article in Hebrew. Translation of excerpts:

"Research in genetics done on the Y chromosome, in other words, the one passed directly from father to son, provides some answers and proves that Jews who are Kohanim are really the descendants of one man, the founder of the 'Cohen Dynasty' according to Jewish tradition. Moreover, the research discovered that the same unique genetic markings that are found on the same chromosome are the same for a Sephardic or an Ashkenazic, born in Europe, North Africa, or anywhere in the world. The research was led by Professor Karl Skorecky... His co-workers were Dr. Sara Zelig and Dr. Shraga Belzer. ...and Lynn Bergman... and staff from the University of Arizona, USA. ... The report was published last weekend in the respected periodical 'Nature'."

Tim Radford. "Cohens in a (gene) class of their own." Electronic Mail and Guardian (January 14, 1997).

Michael F. Hammer, Karl L. Skorecki, Sara Selig, Shraga Blazer, Bruce Rappaport, Robert Bradman, Neil Bradman, P. J. Warburton, Monica Ismajlowicz. "Y Chromosomes of Jewish Priests." Nature 385(6611) (January 2, 1997): 32-33. Excerpts:

"Based on surveys of Jewish cemetery gravestones, priests represent approximately 5% of the estimated total male world Jewish population of roughly 7 million.... We identified six haplotypes, whose frequencies are shown in the table (YAP+ DYS19A-E and YAP+ DYS19, all alleles.) Applying the x2 test to the frequencies of the T-chromosome haplotypes distinguishes priests from the lay population. The most striking difference was in the frequency of YAP+ chromosomes among compares to lay Jews. Only 1.5% of Y-chromosomes among priests were YAP+, in comparison to a frequency of 18.4% in lay Jews. In contrast, we found no significant difference in the distribution of alleles for the non-Y-chromosomes locus polymorphism D1S191. (data not shown). These Y-chromosome haplotype differences confirm a distinct paternal genealogy for Jewish priests... This result is consistent with an origin for the Jewish priesthood antedating the division of world Jewry into Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, and is of particular interest in view of the pronounced genetic diversity displayed between the two [Sephardic and Ashkenazic] communities."

Regarding the "Cohen gene": David Goldstein, an evolutionary geneticist at Oxford University, said: "It looks like this chromosomal type was a constituent of the ancestral Hebrew population. It was incredibly exciting to find something that could be tracing paternally-inherited traits over 40 to 50 generations, three or four thousand years of history."

Only about half, or less (40-45%), of Ashkenazi Jewish Cohens have the so-called "Kohen gene". A somewhat greater percentage of Sephardic Cohens have the gene. But it doesn't approach 100 percent. Tell that to the staff of Karl Skorecki's institution, Technion University, who claim here "Professor Karl Skorecki discovered genetic proof that all Jews belonging to the Cohen family are descendents of the biblical high priest Aaron Hacohen." If that's not misrepresentation I don't know what is. [Dr. Skorecki himself does not approve of the university's use of the word "all" and has asked them to fix their description of his research.]

Daniel Friedman observes: "Ashkenazi and Sephardic Cohanim (left two columns in the chart below) show significant differences in the occurrence frequencies of the haplotypes said to make up the 'Cohen gene'. Israelite populations from both populations (right two columns) do not show the same differences. If the 'Cohen gene' comes from a single Biblical ancestor, the Cohanim seem to have had different genetic histories since the split between Sepharad and Ashkenaz."

The 
COHEN Gene: YAP+ DYS19 Haplotypes

Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin. "Are today's Jewish priests descended from the old ones?" HOMO: Journal of Comparative Human Biology - Zeitschrift für vergleichende Biologie des Menschen 51:2-3 (Urban and Fischer Verlag, 2000): 156-162. (Summary). Abstract:

"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." (p. 156)

Zoossmann claims that the studies of Jewish priests are rather problematic. They merge together the Sephardim even though they are diverse, and he claims this is unscientific. He also argues that some useful markers were not used in the studies. The SRY4064, SRY 465, Tat, and sY81 polymorphisms were useless for the purposes of the studies, he writes. Also, the Cohen modal haplotype is the most common haplotype among Southern Italians and Central Italians [A. Caglià et al., "Increased forensic efficiency of a STR-based Y-specific haplotype by addition of the highly polymorphic DYS385 locus." International Journal of Legal Medicine 111 (1998): 142-146], Iraqi Kurds [C. Brinkmann et al., "Human Y-chromosomal STR haplotypes in a Kurdish population sample." International Journal of Legal Medicine 112 (1999): 181-183], and Hungarians [S. Füredi et al., "Y-STR haplotyping in two Hungarian populations." International Journal of Legal Medicine 113:1 (1999): 38-42] Some Greeks and Armenians also have the Cohen modal haplotype. Since the haplotype is found among many populations in the eastern Mediterranean, Zoossmann demonstrated that it does not represent (exclusively) an ancient Israelite trait.

Judy Siegel. "Genetic kohanim descent claims disputed." The Jerusalem Post (February 28, 2001). Excerpts:

"...Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin (Ph.D.)... recently published an article in the German-language Journal of Comparative Human Biology that attempts to casts doubt on Skorecki's study. Zoossmann-Diskin, who during the 1990s worked in the laboratory of Tel Aviv University geneticist Prof. Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, concludes that studies of kohanim are 'problematic and arrive at conclusions are not supported by all available data.'... Asked to comment yesterday, Skorecki said that Zoossmann-Diskin repeatedly attacked his findings until four years ago, 'but we have not heard from him since. He presented an article to Nature, but when we were asked by the editor to explain, our arguments were accepted, and Zoossmann-Diskin's article was not published.'..."

Kyle Berger. "Tracing roots to Aaron: Kohanim represent the original Jewish priesthood." The Western Jewish Bulletin (Vancouver, B.C., Canada, February 1, 2002). Excerpts:

"Today, it is estimated that approximately five per cent or 350,000 men of the seven million male Jews around the world are kohanim.... So, now I know that, not only am I a direct descendant of Moses' brother, but I am a member of the Jewish priesthood who carries the heavy responsibilities of keeping the traditions of the kohanim alive.... In early 1997, Nature reported that a research team had found a unique genetic chromosome linking kohanim across the globe. Prof. Karl Skorecki... along with his researchers, found that the 188 unrelated kohanim they tested shared a variation of the Y chromosome which linked them to Aaron, who was born in 2365 BCE. This specific chromosome would only be passed from father to son. This research provided proof that the priesthood established by Aaron probably did exist as the Torah details it. However, not everyone in the scientific world agreed with Skorecki's conclusions. Dr. Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin... attempted to cast doubt on Skorecki's findings. In an article published in the Jerusalem Post, Feb. 28, 2001, Zoossmann-Diskin claimed that studies of kohanim are 'problematic and arrive at conclusions that are not supported by all available data.'... But Skorecki maintained his claims to be true and said the findings of his research team have been corroborated several times since then. OK. So, now I accept that I probably really am a descendant of Aaron and that kohanim are supposed to be the role models of the Jewish people."

Dr. Levon Yepiskoposyan (Yerevan, Armenia), Head of the Institute of Man and President of the Armenian Anthropological Society:

"Indeed there are some evidences of genetic relation between Armenians and Jews. Jewish population could preserve 'genetic signature' of their ancient ancestors in male Y chromosome - in genetically isolated communities of Cohanim. It is so called 'Cohanim modal haplotype' - CMH. We found the presence of CMH in modern Armenians as well. This is a strong evidence of ancient genetic contacts between Armenians and Hebrews. We suppose that these contacts took place about 3-4k years ago. Our paper on Y chromosome diversity in the Armenian population is in press. It is impossible to establish the ethnic origin of any person according to blood ABO groups."

Nicolas D. Kristoff. "Is Race Real?" The New York Times (July 11, 2003): Opinion section. Excerpt:

"Among Jews, there are common genetic markers, including some found in about half the Jewish men named Cohen. But this isn't exactly a Jewish gene: The same marker is also found in Arabs."

Harlen Wall. "It began with an idea in a synagogue: Jewish scientist researches heritage, Finds genetic marker in priestly tribe." Toronto Star (September 26, 2003). Excerpts:

"...Now a leading researcher at the Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, Skorecki, 50, has been involved in breakthroughs in molecular genetics that continue to revolutionize the field of medicine. In addition, his DNA studies have opened new vistas in the life sciences and raised many profound questions regarding identity. ... In the first study, reported in 1997 in the journal Nature, a particular genetic marker was detected in 98.5 per cent of all Cohanim tested. Solidifying the hypothesis was a second study in which six chromosomal markers were found in 97 of 106 Cohanim tested. The collection of markers has come to be known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype, the standard genetic signature of the Jewish priestly family. ... Although they look the same as their African neighbours, the Lemba have a standard genetic signature of Jewish people. ... So, does this mean science has proven that Jews have a genetic link going back 3,300 years to Aaron, brother of Moses? Perhaps. What is certain is that research which began with an idea in a North York synagogue has shown a clear genetic relationship among Cohanim and their direct lineage from a common ancestor."

J. Travis. "The Priests' Chromosome? DNA analysis supports the biblical story of the Jewish priesthood." Science News 154:14 (October 3, 1998): 218. Excerpts:

"...Hoping to tap this genetic gold mine, in 1996 Skorecki contacted Michael F. Hammer of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has used the Y chromosome to investigate the origins of people in Japan (SN: 2/15/97, p. 106) and elsewhere. Working with colleagues at University College London, Skorecki and Hammer obtained DNA samples of 188 Jewish men from Israel, Canada, and the United Kingdom, 68 of whom called themselves cohanim. The scientists focused on two genetic markers on the Y chromosome... From their analysis of YAP and another genetic marker, Skorecki, Hammer, and their colleagues concluded that the Y chromosomes of cohanim are indeed distinct from those of others Jews, which supports the oral tradition of father-to-son transmission of priestly status. "There's nothing unique or special about these markers," he [Skorecki] says, pointing out that many noncohanim, and even non-Jews, possess the same markers. In fact, the researchers hope to document the dispersal of the original Hebrew people from which Jews originated by studying the frequency with which the cohanim chromosome appears in various Jewish and non-Jewish populations worldwide..."

Denise Grady. "Finding Genetic Traces of Jewish Priesthood." The New York Times (January 7, 1997): 6.

Denise Grady. "Father Doesn't Always Know Best." The New York Times (January 19, 1997): Section 4, Page 4.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen. "Kohen gene pioneers fear misuse." Jewish Telegraphic Agency (January 7, 1997).

For more information about the presence of the Cohen Modal Haplotype among the Lemba people, see: Studies that test the potential Israelite ancestry of certain non-Jewish populations


Jewish Genetics: Abstracts and Summaries - Index

Books About Jewish Genetics
Ancestry.com's Jewish Family History Collection - searchable databases