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1,500 years is genetic estimate for first Jewish migration to India

The origin and migration of “Jewish diaspora” across the world has been a subject of intriguing research.

Written by Sreenivas Janyala | Hyderabad | Published: January 19, 2016 12:09:00 am

The first migrant Jewish people entered the Indian subcontinent via Kochi about 1,500 years ago, according to an estimate by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. CCMB has been studying the origin and migration of Jewish diaspora as part of Population Genetics, a programme to find out the genetic links of several populations.

The origin and migration of “Jewish diaspora” across the world has been a subject of intriguing research. Although genetic studies on European Jewish people have traced them to the Middle East, the parental population group and time of dispersal of their Indian counterparts has remained disputed. Of all the Jewish diaspora communities, the Indians are among the least studied.

In the absence of archaeological evidence and with only scanty historical documentation of Jewish people’s migration to India, an international team of scientists led by Dr Kumarasamy Thangaraj of CCMB and involving scientists from Estonian Biocentre, Tratu; Amala Institute of Medical Sciences, Thrissur, University of Calcutta; and Genome Foundation, Hyderabad, used genetic data to trace the roots of India’s Jewish populations. The study has been published recently Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports.

“To trace the origin and mixture of Indian Jewish populations, the researchers analysed the DNA of Indian Jewish people using high-resolution genetic markers and compared them with native Indian populations and people from the rest of the world,” said Dr Ch Mohan Rao, director, CCMB.

Three main distinct Jewish groups are living in India — the Jews of Kochi, the Bene Israel Jews in Mumbai and the Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata. Each community is socially linked to its neighbours rather than to one another. The analysis suggests that the Indian Jewish possess traces of Middle Eastern ancestry together with gene-flow from their contemporary Indian populations.

The Indian Jewish carry overwhelmingly South Asian ancestry and the proportion of Middle Eastern genetic ancestry was minor. The analyses revealed a high level of heterogeneity among the Indian Jewish groups and their closeness with the local neighbours. Sharing of specific inherited genetic markers among all studied Indian Jewish, and lack of these among other local Indian populations, can be seen as a remnant of a shared ancestry with Middle Eastern populations.

“The expansion of the Indian Jewish (population) from the Middle East was followed by extensive admixture and assimilation with the local populations; nevertheless the rooted ancestry to their ancestral place can be testified because of a higher proportion of genetic lineages of Middle East origin,” said Dr Thangaraj.

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