Bones From Medieval Jewish Cemetery Reveal Ashkenazi DNA

Human remains from a medieval Jewish cemetery in the city of Erfurt in central Germany enabled what scientists say is the largest study of ancient Jewish DNA to date. 

Conducted without exhuming human remains, in accordance with Jewish law, the study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Cell found that the medieval Jewish community in Erfurt was more genetically diverse than the modern Ashkenazi Jews. ​​

The study also showed that they had many of the same Jewish genetic diseases – such as Tay Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis – that affect Ashkenazi Jews nowadays.

Shai Carmi, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues, were able to analyze the DNA of 33 people who died between 1270 and 1400, thanks to their teeth. A similar analysis of six individuals who were victims of an antisemitic massacre in 1190, carried out earlier in August by English researchers, revealed that Ashkenazi Jews developed a unique genetic variation centuries earlier than expected.

Jewish presence in Erfurt is attested between the 11th and 15th centuries, but after the final expulsion of all Jews in 1454, the city built a granary in place of the Jewish cemetery. In 2013, the city approved the repurposing of the old attic into a parking lot.

As it was a historic site, a preventive excavation had been carried out. Shai Carmi, who was looking for ancient Jewish cemeteries to examine, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that when he arrived in Erfurt “archaeologists still hadn’t reburied the remains.”

Carmi’s goal was to “fill in the gaps in our understanding of the ancient history of Ashkenazi Jews.” His team found that the Erfurt community appeared to belong to two genetically distinct groups, descending from either Middle Eastern or European populations. That type of genetic variability no longer exists, according to Carmi.

The analysis also revealed remarkable continuity in the local community. “A third of the individuals in Erfurt are descended from a single woman through their maternal line,” he concluded.

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