Special Topic: Sub-Saharan African Admixture in Ashkenazic Jews

by Kevin Alan Brook

Autosomal DNA and mitochondrial DNA samples of Ashkenazic Jews occasionally reveal faint signals of descent from Sub-Saharan Africans from West, Central, South, and East Africa who belong to the Negroid race, which is typified by the Bantu peoples and differentiated from the Pygmy and Bushmen races as well as from the North African Caucasoids (white Berbers and Coptic Egyptians). The hairstyle amusingly called the "Jewfro", sported by those rare Ashkenazim who have very curly hair of a kinky sort and don't artificially straighten it, is a probable physical indicator of this descent, but on the other hand some Assyrians from the Middle East also have that kind of hair. Most Ashkenazic Jews, however, have no genetic trace of Sub-Saharan African descent. Scientific laboratory admixture tests usually show that most Ashkenazim are basically zero percent Sub-Saharan autosomally. This page collects anecdotes from Ashkenazim who did inherit this ancestry.

Autosomal DNA

David, a full Ashkenazi who used the pseudonym "Phyllis Sharon" but signed his real name at the end of his message, wrote here that all his recent ancestors were Ashkenazim and that National Geographic's Geno 2.0 told him he's genetically 2% "Sub-Saharan African."

Sean M. Silver, another person of Ashkenazi descent, was also tested by Geno 2.0. Somebody else presented Sean's results here, including the finding that he's 2% "Sub-Saharan African".

The genetic company 23andMe's consumer autosomal test has brought to light even miniscule genetic components that people inherited. Peter Eisenstadt wrote here: "Me, I'm, as far as I know, a pure-bred Ashkenazi Jew, which is confirmed by 23andme, which tells me than I am 93.0% of Ashkenazi descent, and a whopping 99.2% of European ancestry, with a measly 0.1% of me from sub-Saharan Africa".

Kitty Cooper wrote here that her Ashkenazic husband got tested by 23andMe which assigned him a 98% Ashkenazi score and an 0.1% Sub-Saharan African score autosomally, even in the conservative view.

23andMe also provided the autosomal results for American personalities of only recent East European Ashkenazic descent who appeared on the episode "Our People, Our Traditions" in season 2 of the PBS television series "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The attorney Alan Morton Dershowitz and the playwright Tony Kushner were both reported to have less than 0.1% "Central and South African" ancestry. Many of Dershowitz's recent ancestors lived in the western Galician region of the Austrian Empire in towns that are now part of Poland. At least some of Kushner's ancestors also lived in Poland.

In August 2018, 23andMe updated their ethnicity estimates for people who tested with their v5 chip. Starting then, a small proportion of Ashkenazim show suggestions of more specific scores within the broad Sub-Saharan African category. Examples I've seen: D.R. (scores 99.6% Ashkenazic) and L.L. (scores 98.9% Ashkenazic) received 0.1% "Senegambian and Guinean" estimates, A third person (scores 99.7% Ashkenazic) also received 0.1% "Senegambian & Guinean". J.A. (scores 99.4% Ashkenazic) received an 0.1% "Sudanese" estimate, and H.S. (scores 99% Ashkenazic) received an 0.2% "Southern East African" estimate.

In admixture runs through Eurogenes, MDLP, and Dodecad, some Ashkenazim show small amounts in some of these tests that are attributed to Sub-Saharan ancestry, but usually well under 1% and not consistently showing across all tests, so they could be "noise", that is to say they may be elements that were assigned to the wrong ethnicity. In the comprehensive Eurogenes K36 test, Ashkenazim never show any amount of West African affinity, and almost never show any Central African or East African affinity either (not the same thing as Northeast African which is Caucasoid and does show up for some Ashkenazim in K36).

"jonahst" used "LTG's European G25 calculator using Poi's tool" and found that Ashkenazim score 0 percent Sub-Saharan autosomal DNA. Likewise scoring 0 percent Sub-Saharan using this calculator are Italian Jews, Sephardic Jews, Romaniote Jews, Moroccan Jews, Libyan Jews, Tunisian Jews, Syrian Jews, and Samaritans. Christian populations of the Mediterranean including Sicilians, Cretan Greeks, and Cypriots also score 0 percent Sub-Saharan. By contrast, Palestinian Arabs score an average of 2.5 percent Sub-Saharan DNA in this calculator.

"drobbah" confirmed using another G25 model that Ashkenazim score 0 percent Sub-Saharan autosomal DNA. He gave well-constructed ancient admixture proportions for population clusters of Ashkenazim from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, and Belarussia. None of them score any Dinka or Yoruba affinities. In comparison, Palestinian Arabs in his model score 0.4% to 2.6% of Dinka and 0.4% to 5.4% of Yoruba. "drobbah" therefore came to the conclusion: "I don't think Askhenazis have East African ancestry or SSA ancestry at all besides whatever is embedded in the Taforalt which they probably got from the Berbers of NW Africa".

Mitochondrial (mtDNA) haplogroup L2a1l2a

Whereas the Sub-Saharan mtDNA haplogroups L1 and L3a aren't found in Ashkenazim like they are in Yemenite Jews, and while L2a1a in Czechs and Slovaks came from admixture about 10,000 years ago, there is a haplogroup called L2a1l2a that some Ashkenazim belong to which is ultimately of Sub-Saharan origin.

Dr. Ian Logan compiled a list of L2a1l2a and L2a1l2a1 samples in GenBank, including those known to be Ashkenazim (EU092687, EU547188, JN204423, JQ705049, JQ705185, JQ702015, and JQ702904), and their mutations.

Brooke Schreier Ganz, an East European Ashkenazi with roots in Galician Ukraine, Poland, and Moldova who got tested by Family Tree DNA, wrote here that her haplogroup is L2a1l2 and "all my exact matches at FTDNA are Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish (as am I), but just a teensy bit further up the tree, everyone listed at GenBank is sub-Saharan African or African-American." She explained here that her HVR1+HVR2 level matches for L2, L2a, and L2a1 are fellow Ashkenazim (from central and eastern Europe) whereas her HVR1-only level matches include natives of the African nations of Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone.

Peter J. Roberts wrote here that dozens of Ashkenazim with ancestors from Slovakia, Poland, Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, France, and Germany carry a variety of L2a1 in Family Tree DNA's database and that other varieties of L2a1 in the database are held by tribes like the Bassa of Cameroon, the Hausa of Niger and Nigeria, the Manjaco of Guinea-Bissau, and the Kikuyu of Kenya who show as HVR1-only level matches to Ashkenazim.

In a comment here, Ted Kandell of Open Genomes wrote "mtDNA L2a1l2a A143G T14180C (with the closest match among the Pana of Burkina Faso) [...] [is] found in substantial percentages among Ashkenazi Jews."

Doron M. Behar, Michael F. Hammer, Daniel Garrigan, Richard Villems, Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, Martin Richards, David Gurwitz, Dror Rosengarten, Matthew Kaplan, Sergio Della Pergola, Lluis Quintana-Murci, and Karl Skorecki. "MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population." European Journal of Human Genetics 12:5 (May 2004): pages 355-364. The supplementary data show that 1.8% of Ashkenazim possess the African mtDNA haplogroup L2a.

Anita Brandstätter, Balazs Egyed, Bettina Zimmermann, Attila Tordai, Zsolt Padar, and Walther Parson. "Mitochondrial DNA control region variation in Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary." Forensic Science International: Genetics 2:1 (January 2008): pages e4-e6. Two samples (As2A8 and As2F3) out of the 177 Hungarian Jewish sequences this study submitted to the EMPOP database under accession number EMP00027 were assigned to haplogroup L2a1, which is described as an "African lineage" on page e5.

Marta D. Costa, Joana B. Pereira, Maria Pala, Verónica Fernandes, Anna Olivieri, Alessandro Achilli, Ugo A. Perego, Sergei Rychkov, Oksana Naumova, Jiři Hatina, Scott R. Woodward, Ken Khong Eng, Vincent Macaulay, Martin Carr, Pedro Soares, Luísa Pereira, and Martin B. Richards. "A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages." Nature Communications 4 (October 8, 2013): article number 2543. The authors do not assign a geographic origin to haplogroup L2a1l but note that they found it in 1.5% of all their Eastern European Jewish mtDNA samples as a whole. They found it in 0.9% of Czech/Austrian/Hungarian Jews, 2.9% of Polish Jews, 1.4% of Russian/Belarusian Jews, and 2% of Romanian/Moldovan Jews. They also found it in 2% of French Ashkenazi Jews and 1.8% of Dutch/German/Swiss Ashkenazi Jews. They didn't happen to find it in any of their Baltic Jewish or Ukrainian Jewish samples.

G. González-Fores, F. Tassi, et al. "A western route of prehistoric human migration from Africa into the Iberian Peninsula." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286:1895 (January 23, 2019). This study reveals that a person who lived in Córdoba, Spain about 3,600 years ago belonged to mtDNA haplogroup L2a1l, which is described as "a typical sub-Saharan haplogroup, to our knowledge never described before in ancient individuals outside Africa. [...] in present-day populations haplogroup L2a1 l is most frequent in West/West-Central Africa [41], [...] In addition, there are no members belonging to L2a1 l in present-day samples from North Africa." The pathway for L2a1l's transmission into the Ashkenazic population could very well have been via admixture in Spain.

Jeffrey Barak, whose ancestors were Ashkenazic Jews living in Bessarabia and Ukraine, was identified as a carrier of the haplogroup L2a1l2 by 23andMe. However, his Sub-Saharan mitochondrial ancestry, representing such a tiny fraction of his overall DNA, did not show up in the estimated ancestry composition, which reported he has no autosomal DNA from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sandra Fishman wrote how her Ashkenazi Jewish cousin with roots from Lithuania and Latvia was detected to be a carrier of L2a by National Geographic's Geno project.

Debate over Y-DNA haplogroups

Some Ashkenazim, "Power77" whose paternal line is Ashkenazic from Romania and Kitty Cooper's husband among them, belong to the Y-DNA haplogroup is E1a1 (E-M44), but it is not frequent among Ashkenazim. E-M44 is found in Africa among some people in Mali and Sudan at rates of 2-5% for those countries as a whole but much more prevalently (44%) specifically among the Dogon people of Mali and even more prevalently (53%) among the Fulbe people of Cameroon. A relatively small percentage of people in countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom also have E1a1. The specific Ashkenazic branch of E1a1 which is a grandchild of E-M44 is called E1a1a1 (Z17696) on ISOGG's March 18, 2015 haplogroup tree. While some interpret E-M44 as having a Sub-Saharan African origin, ISOGG says the root haplogroup E1 might have originated in Northeast Africa despite its high frequencies further to the southwest: "E1 and E2 are found in Northeast Africa, but surveys show E1 may actually be more prevalent in Mali than in its presumed region of origin."

In a comment here, Ted Kandell of Open Genomes asserted that a small proportion of Ashkenazim belong to "a tiny West African E1b1a1a1d1a-U290 clade". I had not heard of this clade in Ashkenazim before. Leo Cooper later informed us that E-M4254, the name of the terminal assignment for the Ashkenazic E1b1a subclade as listed by 23andMe, is also found in Moroccan Jews in 23andMe. Based on Ancestry raw data, E-M4254 is the predicted Y-DNA assignment of an Ashkenazi Jewish man from Romania per YSEQ Clade Finder based on his AncestryDNA raw data, as discussed here. E-U290 is one of the numerous descendant clades of E-M4254. E-U290 is found in Sierra Leone and Nigeria and descendant branches of E-U290 are found in countries that include Nigeria, South Africa, Central African Republic, Kenya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Wim Penninx lists an Ashkenazic Jewish carrier of the Y-DNA haplogroup E2-FT424222. Some other sources say E2 is found among Bantu people in Sub-Saharan Africa, not only in northeastern Africa. More research is needed to determine who the closest non-Jewish genetic relatives of Ashkenazic E2 carriers are.

SUMMARY: Genetic testing reveals that some (but not all) Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe descend a little bit from Sub-Saharan African black people. Comprehensive maternal and paternal haplogroup analysis shows that a woman, rather than a man, was the source of this ancestry. (The common Ashkenazic Y-DNA haplogroup E1b1b1 originated with Caucasoid or proto-Caucasoid people living in northeast Africa or Arabia. As noted above, E1a1a1 might likewise be rooted with Caucasoids of ancient northeast Africa.)
  • East/Northeast Asian Admixture in Ashkenazic Jews
  • East European Admixture in Ashkenazic Jews
  • Studies of the Genetics of Jewish Populations (Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahim, Yemenite, Ethiopian)
  • Studies of Cohens and Levites