The Jews in Germany emerged as a distinctive ethno-religious cultural group in 10th century Rhineland, from where they migrated to Eastern Europe, reaching Erfurt in the 11th century (at the latest). Here, they later encountered an influx of Jews from the Middle East.
Jewish graveyards are some of the most evocative places. Since Jewish burials are meant to be preserved eternally, archaeological excavations are very rarely carried out. However, in 2013, the ancient Jewish cemetery in Erfurt was accidentally disturbed. In 2017, the Israeli geneticist Shai Carmi led a genetic investigation of the salvaged remains, leading to a fascinating story of the descent of the first and second Jewish communities in Erfurt, dated to the 10th century.
Studying the aDNA of the 33 members of the community from Erfurt from the 14th century has revealed how this Jewish community was formed from two subgroups – one Eastern European and one Central European. The former group probably came to Erfurt after the devastating horrors of 1349 when it is estimated that nearly 1000 Jews lost their lives during a pogrom in Erfurt. When the Jews returned to Erfurt in 1354, they appear to have been replenished with this new influx of people from the East. However, upon further investigation, it seems that these Jews could trace their ancestry back to an admixture of the Middle East as well as Southern Italy. Nevertheless, the researchers discovered that a third of the sampled Erfurt individuals shared a specific genetic trait, indicating that they descended from just one woman.
Until now, scientists and historians have discussed the so-called Ashkenazi “founder event” and located it in a later period. However, the original founder group may have actually consisted of several hundred individuals with mixed Middle Eastern and European ancestry. Later, endogamy worked to solidify this combined gene pool of Jews, creating the distinctive genetic profile of modern Ashkenazi Jews. This distinctive group of genetic traits seems to have been formed in the aftermath of the medieval pogroms. The new studies show how this “founder” event must be dated quite early in the High Middle Ages. Probably, the bottleneck can be traced back to the early history of Erfurt and its first Jewish settlement.
Jewish wedding. From the Second Nüremberger Haggadah. © David Sofer Collection CCBYSA
Prress-release: Ancient DNA from medieval Germany tells the origin story of Ashkenazi Jews
Research team analyzed genome-wide data for 33 Jewish individuals from 14th century Erfurt, Germany
Shamam Waldman, Daniel Backenroth, Éadaoin Harney, Stefan Flohr, Nadia C. Neff, Gina M. Buckley, Hila Fridman, Ali Akbari, Nadin Rohland, Swapan Mallick, Iñigo Olalde, Leo Cooper, Ariel Lomes, Joshua Lipson, Jorge Cano Nistal, Jin Yu, Nir Barzilai, Inga Peter, Gil Atzmon, Harry Ostrer, Todd Lencz, Yosef E. Maruvka, Maike Lämmerhirt, Alexander Beider, Leonard V. Rutgers, Virginie Renson, Keith M. Prufer, Stephan Schiffels, Harald Ringbauer, Karin Sczech, Shai Carmi, and David Reich
In Cell (2022), Nov 30.
Human genetics: A tale of two historical Jewish communities
By Carles Lalueza-Fox
In: Cell. Current Biology (2022)