Mitochondrial DNA reveals distinct evolutionary histories for Jewish populations in Yemen and Ethiopia

From the paper:

Mitochondrial DNA analysis also revealed a high diversity of sub-Saharan African and Eurasian haplotypes in both the Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish populations (see Fig. 2). Specifically, common haplotypes (haplotypes present at [5%) in Yemenite Jews include the African haplogroup L3x1 and Eurasian haplogroups R0a (renamed from (preHV)1 (Torroni et al., 2006), HV1, J2a1a [renamed from J1b (Palanichamy et al., 2004)] K, R2, U, and U1, and in Ethiopian Jews include African haplogroups L2a1b2 and L5a1 and Eurasian haplogroups R0a and M1a1 (see Fig. 2). Overall, sub-
Saharan African L haplotypes [hereafter referred to as L(xM,N), i.e., all African haplotypes except M and N, following the nomenclature of Behar et al. (2008)], comprise a large proportion of the genetic variation in both Jewish populations, representing 20% in the Yemenite Jews and 50% in Ethiopian Jews. This high frequency contrasts with other Jewish populations, such as Near Eastern and Ashkenazi Jews, who almost entirely lack L(xM,N) haplogroups (Thomas et al., 2002; Richards et al., 2003).

I think that the authors' conclusion that Yemenite Jews are partially descended from Israeli exiles is premature. Sure, they can exclude large-scale introgression of Yemeni mtDNA, but the universe of possibilities is not limited to either Israeli or Yemenite.

The way I see it, only a large-scale study of all global Jewish populations may uncover verified ancient Jewish lineages for both Y-chromosomes and mtDNA. The recent studies on Jews have uncovered several genetic sub-clusters of Jews, and only lineages that occur in 2 or more of these clusters, and preferably geographically separated ones have a strong claim of representing original Jewish lineages. There is a limit on what can be uncovered about the past from the study of living populations.

Mitochondrial DNA reveals distinct evolutionary histories for Jewish populations in Yemen and Ethiopia

Amy L. Non et al.


Southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa are important geographic centers for the study of human population history because a great deal of migration has characterized these regions since the first emergence of humans out of Africa. Analysis of Jewish groups provides a unique opportunity to investigate more recent population histories in this area. Mitochondrial DNA is used to investigate the maternal evolutionary history and can be combined with historical and linguistic data to test various population histories. In this study, we assay mitochondrial control region DNA sequence and diagnostic coding variants in Yemenite (n = 45) and Ethiopian (n = 41) Jewish populations, as well as in neighboring non-Jewish Yemeni (n = 50) and Ethiopian (previously published Semitic speakers) populations. We investigate their population histories through a comparison of haplogroup distributions and phylogenetic networks. A high frequency of sub-Saharan African L haplogroups was found in both Jewish populations, indicating a significant African maternal contribution unlike other Jewish Diaspora populations. However, no identical haplotypes were shared between the Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish populations, suggesting very little gene flow between the populations and potentially distinct maternal population histories.

These new data are also used to investigate alternate population histories in the context of historical and linguistic data. Specifically, Yemenite Jewish mitochondrial diversity reflects potential descent from ancient Israeli exiles and shared African and Middle Eastern ancestry with little evidence for large-scale conversion of local Yemeni. In contrast, the Ethiopian Jewish population appears to be a subset of the larger Ethiopian population suggesting descent primarily through conversion of local women.