Italian Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jews

March 8, 2014

Genetic similarities between Italians and Ashkenazi Jews are due to the fact that about half of Jews' ancestry is European, a lot of which came from Italy when diaspora males migrated to Rome and found wives among local women who then converted to Judaism. The same process happened again to a lesser degree in other parts of Europe as Jews migrated further north, west and then east, but according to genome-wide autosomal DNA, their highest European admixture is Italian.

Overall, it seems that at least 80% of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry is due to the assimilation of mtDNAs indigenous to Europe, most likely through conversion. The phylogenetic nesting patterns suggest that the most frequent of the Ashkenazi mtDNA lineages were assimilated in Western Europe, ~2 ka or slightly earlier. Some in particular, including N1b2, M1a1b, K1a9 and perhaps even the major K1a1b1, point to a north Mediterranean source. It seems likely that the major founders were the result of the earliest and presumably most profound wave of founder effects, from the Mediterranean northwards into central Europe, and that most of the minor founders were assimilated in west/central Europe within the last 1,500 years. The sharing of rarer lineages with Eastern European populations may indicate further assimilation in some cases, but can often be explained by exchange via intermarriage in the reverse direction.

The Ashkenazim therefore resemble Jewish communities in Eastern Africa and India, and possibly also others across the Near East, Caucasus and Central Asia, which also carry a substantial fraction of maternal lineages from their 'host' communities. Despite widely differing interpretations of autosomal data, these results in fact fit well with genome-wide studies, which imply a significant European component, with particularly close relationships to Italians. As might be expected from the autosomal picture, Y-chromosome studies generally show the opposite trend to mtDNA (with a predominantly Near Eastern source) with the exception of the large fraction of European ancestry seen in Ashkenazi Levites.

Evidence for haplotype sharing with non-Ashkenazi Jews for each of the three main haplogroup K founders may imply a partial common ancestry in Mediterranean Europe for Ashkenazi and Spanish-exile Sephardic Jews, but may also, at least in part, be due to subsequent gene flow, especially into Bulgaria and Turkey, both of which witnessed substantial immigration from Ashkenazi communities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Gene flow could have been substantial in some cases—ongoing intermarriage is likely when these communities began living in closer proximity after the Spanish exile. A partial common ancestry for all European Jews—both Ashkenazi and Sephardic—is again strongly supported by the autosomal results.

Jewish communities were already spread across the Graeco-Roman and Persian world >2,000 years ago. It is thought that a substantial Jewish community was present in Rome from at least the mid-second century BCE, maintaining links to Jerusalem and numbering 30,000-50,000 by the first half of the first century CE. By the end of the first millennium CE, Ashkenazi communities were historically visible along the Rhine valley in Germany. After the wave of expulsions in Western Europe during the fifteenth century, they began to disperse once more, into Eastern Europe.

These analyses suggest that the first major wave of assimilation probably took place in Mediterranean Europe, most likely in the Italian peninsula ~2 ka, with substantial further assimilation of minor founders in west/central Europe. There is less evidence for assimilation in Eastern Europe, and almost none for a source in the North Caucasus/Chuvashia, as would be predicted by the Khazar hypothesis—rather, the results show strong genetic continuities between west and east European Ashkenazi communities, albeit with gradual clines of frequency of founders between east and west.

Costa et al. "A substantial prehistoric European ancestry amongst Ashkenazi maternal lineages". Nature Communications, 2013.

Admixture between previously diverged populations yields patterns of genetic variation that can aid in understanding migrations and natural selection. An understanding of individual admixture (IA) is also important when conducting association studies in admixed populations. However, genetic drift, in combination with shallow allele frequency differences between ancestral populations, can make admixture estimation by the usual methods challenging. We have, therefore, developed a simple but robust method for ancestry estimation using a linear model to estimate allele frequencies in the admixed individual or sample as a function of ancestral allele frequencies. The model works well because it allows for random fluctuation in the observed allele frequencies from the expected frequencies based on the admixture estimation. We present results involving 3,366 Ashkenazi Jews (AJ) who are part of the Kaiser Permanente Genetic Epidemiology Research on Adult Health and Aging (GERA) cohort and genotyped at 674,000 SNPs, and compare them to the results of identical analyses for 2,768 GERA African Americans (AA). For the analysis of the AJ, we included surrogate Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Russian, and Caucasus subgroups to represent the ancestral populations. For the African Americans, we used surrogate Africans and Northern Europeans as ancestors. For the AJ, we estimated mean ancestral proportions of 0.380, 0.305, 0.113, 0.041 and 0.148 for Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Russian and Caucasus ancestry, respectively. For the African Americans, we obtained estimated means of 0.745 and 0.248 for African and European ancestry, respectively. We also noted considerably less variation in the individual admixture proportions for the AJ (s.d. = .02 to .05) compared to the AA (s.d.= .15), consistent with an older age of admixture for the former. From the linear model regression analysis on the entire population, we also obtain estimates of goodness of fit by r2. For the analysis of AJ, the r2 was 0.977; for the analysis of the AA, the r2 was 0.994, suggesting that genetic drift has played a more prominent role in determining the AJ allele frequencies. This was confirmed by examination of the distribution of differences for the observed versus predicted allele frequencies. As compared to the African Americans, the AJ differences were significantly larger, and presented some outliers which may have been the target of selection (e.g. in the HLA region on chromosome 6p).

Banda et al. "Admixture Estimation in a Founder Population". Am Soc Hum Genet, 2013.

Two major differences among the populations in this study were the high degree of European admixture (30%-60%) among the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Italian, and Syrian Jews and the genetic proximity of these populations to each other compared to their proximity to Iranian and Iraqi Jews. This time of a split between Middle Eastern Iraqi and Iranian Jews and European/Syrian Jews, calculated by simulation and comparison of length distributions of IBD segments, is 100–150 generations, compatible with a historical divide that is reported to have occurred more than 2500 years ago. The Middle Eastern populations were formed by Jews in the Babylonian and Persian empires who are thought to have remained geographically continuous in those locales. In contrast, the other Jewish populations were formed more recently from Jews who migrated or were expelled from Palestine and from individuals who were converted to Judaism during Hellenic-Hasmonean times, when proselytism was a common Jewish practice. During Greco-Roman times, recorded mass conversions led to 6 million people practicing Judaism in Roman times or up to 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. Thus, the genetic proximity of these European/Syrian Jewish populations, including Ashkenazi Jews, to each other and to French, Northern Italian, and Sardinian populations favors the idea of non-Semitic Mediterranean ancestry in the formation of the European/Syrian Jewish groups and is incompatible with theories that Ashkenazi Jews are for the most part the direct lineal descendants of converted Khazars or Slavs. The genetic proximity of Ashkenazi Jews to southern European populations has been observed in several other recent studies.

Atzmon et al. "Abraham's Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry". Am J Hum Genet, 2010.


Maternal grandma said...

What happened, genetically to the thousands of Roman/Italian converts to Juadaism (e.g. emperor Titus's sister)whose descendants followed the Gothic kings into Rhineland and N. France in the early dark ages? There were numerous Greek-speaking synagogues in ancient Rome and a few Latin-speaking synagoges as well. Is there genetic studies showing the date of the admixture in ancient times between Italians, Greeks, and Jews living in Italy who left the country later? For example, there was a Jewish migration from Lucca to Mainz in 920 CE as the Ashkenazi communities were being established there which later migrated to Lithuania and then to Poland. National Genographic Project gives the Ashkenazi DNA of some as 54% Greek or Tuscan and 21% Iranian (ancient DNA admixture) along with 19% N. European and 2% African, 4% E. Asian, where the East Asian comes from the 5% E. Asian in most Iranians. Any clues on Ashkenazim being partly descended from Italians and Greeks mixed with Persians? Thanks for any references to articles.

starfishlady said...

I think it's a mistake with the way they are interpreting the test. I think that what they are picking up is that all the people of the Mediterranean are related to a single group in ages past. For example, my dad's line started out in Babylon just like the legendary Abraham.

Paul renan-zelezniak said...

I think the Italian interpretation is probably correct - DNA test interpretations need historical support, and the conversion of Italian women was indeed historically recorded. One only needs to read the New Testament to read of these unions, if not involving conversion, at least marriage ( ie Timothy had a Greek father and a Jewish mother )

Jules said...

To Maternal Grandma,
Where did you read that Nat. Geo is doing this?
"National Genographic Project gives the Ashkenazi DNA of some as 54% Greek or Tuscan and 21% Iranian (ancient DNA admixture) along with 19% N. European and 2% African, 4% E. Asian, where the East Asian comes from the 5% E. Asian in most Iranians. Any clues on Ashkenazim being partly descended from Italians and Greeks mixed with Persians?"
I've never seen an article on Genographic stating this and have not seen Dr. Spencer Wells give a speech on this. There is no Ashkenazim grouping listed on Genographic and I thought they just looked at individual markers. They don't seem to compare one group to another as in recent ancestry, but look for markers that a particular population is known for. If those markers fall into Tuscan or Greek, then that is what you are. I am northern Italian and Genographic lists me as Tuscan. I've seen South Italians come in with an Ashkenazi percentage on 23andMe, but never a Tuscan or Northern Italian. Just curious if you could post where you heard this. It is very interesting. I know that South Italians often get confused with Ashkenazi and on Gedmatch they have the AJ population between Southern Italy and Greece. I'd love to know the science of how they pull apart a South Italian from an Ashkenazi person, since both have Levant admixture automatically. Seeing all the South Italians come in with 11 to 14% Ashkenazi on Gedmatch, makes me wonder whether you can pull apart the two populations. I don't see why they'd put them between Greek and Tuscan, since the Tuscans do not come in with Ashkenazi ancestry, unless they really have that ancestry. I do believe that the Ashkenazim might have a significant South Italian ancestry from Roman times onward. They were in Southern Italy a very long time. Greeks and Southern Italians mixed with the Levant people during Hellenistic times. All Europeans come from the people who were in Persia and Iran at some point in time... making all of this yet harder to pull apart.

Jules said...

PS... I think I understand what you are saying Maternal grandma. I have not seen those kinds of results with Ashkenazi people who have done both 23andMe and Genographic. Not one has said they come out with that combination. Usually the person was found to be related to the Greeks (southern Italians) and also come in with a certain northern European component as well as a south Asian component, etc. So they will list Greek and Lebanese, as well as saying they are 60% Mediterranean, 20% northern European and the rest is generic south Asian at 20%. I've never seen them come in with 2% African or 4% E. Asian. I've never seen them come out related to Iranians. I've never seen them come out as Tuscan, but I gather if you are Italkim, then that might be in there. I've seen Lenbonese, but not Iranian. Interesting.

Jules said...

Edit: I meant to say southwest Asian component of 20%. Sorry I misspelled Lebanese.

Anne Hart said...

I'm Greek with pre-1840 relatives from Salonika. When I used to date Greeks pre 1963, the first question the male asked me was whether I was from Cyprus or Turkey. I have no idea why it would matter whether my distant relatives in the far past came from S. or N. Greece, the islands, or the southern part of Greece. My neighbors in Brooklyn's Little Italy of the 1950s was mostly Sicilian. We all look Middle Eastern, but a few Greeks did have red hair and blue or gray eyes. Thought it was fascinating. Proud to be Greek.

Rashi said...

I'm taking this hypothesis with a grain of salt. Although it bears merit, there are some things that don't make any sense. Why are the overwhelming majority of those in the mtDNA HG N1b2 or N1b Ashkenzi Jews and those who are not Jewish are either Mazadarani (Iranian), Egyptian or even Saudi? Why aren't there other Europeans within this HG? I know that the seeds of Ashkenaz started in Rome, yet many Jews were brought to Rome as slaves or merely kicked out of Israel. Many state that N1b started in the near east, yet what makes them say that it was 12,000 years ago? Couldn't it have been sooner? Thoughts anybody?

hebrew-catholic connection said...

This is very interesting to me. First my dna is the following.

Europe west-36%
Great Britain-11%
European jewish-1/2%
Europe east-1%
Iberian peninsula-6%
Middle east-1%

So, it looks like the jew were brought to italy greece region possible as slaves. the males from the Caucasus/middle east (possible birth place of the jewish people.) intermarried with the female italian/greece female population? So confused right now lol. Excuse my ocd traits on the subject.

multicaruana said...

Make no mistake about the fact that Ashkenazim Jews such as myself have strong Italian DNA in our genetic profile. My Ancestry report has only a few percentage points non-Jewish European and it is mostly Italian. Studies now have confrmed what I postulated years ago; the Askenazim roots are in Italy- not the Middle East or the Caucasus. My mother always told me that her East European "clan" had Italian roots but no one paid attention. Add to that the fact the ancestral name was "Volpe." Italian DNA among the Ashkenazim is much stronger than Middle eastern, which is almost non-existent. By the fifth and sixth centuries, following the decline of Rome and the triumph of Christianity, the conversion of Italian women to Judaism following marriage, ended, and the population of Jews from Italy continued to move northward towards Germany, where by the tenth century the group coalesced into what we call the "Ashkenazim", and from then on became an autonomous genetic grouping due to tremendous in-breeding.The Italian DNA , however, lives on- in small quantities among th Ashkenazim- some one thousand years later, following close to 2300 years of Jewish presence in Italy. The Middle Eastern, however, does not- it may never have been there.I postulate that whatever Middle Eastern DNA there is among the Ashkenazim comes from the Italian DNA -or- Sephardim. In shortthe Ashkenazim are a subgroup of the Italian people.

Jean-Philippe Gourdine said...

My wife has Celtic ancestry from France and Ashkenazi from her mom. Our 23andme results as well as dnatribes results clearly stated Northern Italy (Tuscany) and Celtic ancestry.

My wife can trace back her European Jewish ancestry from 2 generations. That was pretty striking. This article from Zoossmann give a good summary of the Italian origin of Eastern European Jews (The origin of Eastern European Jews revealed by autosomal, sex chromosomal and mtDNA polymorphisms,

multicaruana said...

Dear Mr. Gourdine,
Your wife is basically Ashkenazim and she showed Northern Italian DNA? Does she know any of her Italian relatives on her mother's side? Do you know what ancestry she has beyond the two generations of Jewish? And I am curious as to what percent Italian and what percent Ashkenazim she is? How was she brought up?
I would like to read the article by Zoosmann. Someone I know has told me that there is minimal Italian in the Ashkenazim so I need to see more studies.
Harry Katz

Jean-Philippe Gourdine said...

Dear Mr. Katz, she had well documented Polish-Ukrainian and Dutch Jewish maternal ancestry and no Italian ancestry as far as documents can tell (Are there family secrets, maybe yes maybe no ?).

Interestingly, 23andme pointed out Ashkenazi signature but broader Italian features overall. Similarly, DNATribes clustered her with Ashkenazi individuals but compared to general European peoples, clustered her with nowadays Italian people (Tuscany, Bergamo, Abruzzo, Sicily...).

In this case, it is not minimal. Many studies in the past used non-significant sample size and focused only on Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA. Nowadays, we can study the whole genome and be more precise. Ancient DNA in Israel will be also great to compare with modern people.



multicaruana said...

Dear Mr. Gourdine,
Thanks for the info.
Are you saying that her Italian ancestry was clustered with "general European peoples" or was it separate from "general European peoples?"
I do agree with you that ancient DNA in Israel needs to be studied but how can this be found? My hunch is that ancient Israel DNA would be FAR closer to Palestinian DNA than it is to the DNA of the Ashkenazim, whom I am reasonably confident, did not originate in the Middle east.
Thank you.
Harry Katz

Jean-Philippe Gourdine said...

Dear Mr Katz,

Her DNA clustered with general European, Italian particularly.

For ancient DNA, some studies have been conducted on parasites like lice for instance ( )

Hopefully, more preserved human ancient DNA will be available like this study (


stan orr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stan orr said...

More blue smoke and mirrors. The Ashkenazim are Italian converts to Judaism not descendants of Jacob. However, there has to be another explanation for the vast numbers found in Eastern Europe: Germany, Poland, Russian, Ukraine, Romania for example. Where there`s there is smoke there is fire (expect for blue smoke) so the likelihood that many are converts from the former Empire of the Khazars. The story that all these Italian women converted to Judaism is a stretch. We have many Biblical examples of gentile women that married Hebrew men and did not convert to Judaism.

Samsons wife and girlfriend, was Samson`s romantic interest Delilah converted before she sold him down the river to the Philistine Lords? King Agrippa's wife, Queen Esther was a Jewish but the Kind of Persia did not convert. Solomon had 700 non-Jewish wives that he built heathen shines for on the mount of offense opposite to the Temple of God. In fact God warned Israel not to marry heathen wives because they will turn your heart away from worshiping the true God.

For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. 1 Kings 11.4 This literally happen to King Solomon, he did not convert one heathen wife to God they converted him to idol worship. Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love.1 Kings 11.2

Finally we have the example of the mass divorcees of heathen women ordered by Nehemiah after the Jewish captives returned to Jerusalem after the Babylon captivity. Eza 10.3 When the Hebrews left Egypt they took a mixed multitude with them of Jews married to Hebrews...these people had to camp outside the Hebrew tribes and not allowed into the congregation of the Lord for three generations. Exodus 12.38, Deuteronomy 23:8
This prohibition demonstrates the danger God associates with heathen converts to Judaism.

So this story of Jewish men marrying heathen wives that all converted and became good Jews is a stretch. Unless all these women were miracles...the story is most likely fiction. There is no scriptural prescience for mass conversions of heathen women to Judaism. to suggest that conversion of We can find no examples in the Bible and very few in history. A more reasonable explanation is they were a result of a mass conversion similar to the Khazar Empire.

multicaruana said...

Are you saying that the Ashkenazim are not descendants of Judeo/Italian men and their Italian wives who converted but, rather are the descendants of Jacob Not sure, here. But you do seem to be saying there was a "mass conversion." If it were the Kazars who had a mass conversion that are the foundation of the Ashkenazim, our DNA would show significant Caucasus ancestry but it does not. None. If the mass conversion was in Russia we would should Rus DNA but we do not. The MiddleEast origins may be true for the religion but not for the Ashkenazim. I am going to stick with my theory that the Ashkenazim, which started out few in number, have significant Italian ancestry from over 1200 years of habitation in that land, and that the population EXPLODED in East Europe after the 17th century. My grandfather, born in Vilnus, was one of 15 children, and this I do not think was exceptional as tese people followed the ordinance "be fruitful and multiply."

Robin Lieske said...

Hi Mulitcaruana,
Thank you! My father's people were Ashkenazim and my DNA markers are off the chart for Tuscany and Southern Italy. All I know is that they ended up leaving Lithuania for the US around the 1900's, barely escaping destruction. I was astounded to find out there was Italian ancestry in that line---or, for that matter, how European they became (Italian, French & German) as they migrated through Europe. There's only one faint marker that could be considered from the "Levant" and it was from Iran. Less than 1/100 of my DNA. So here I am seeking answers. 6-7% came from Turkey and 3% from the Caucasus. Nothing compared to the Italian markers.

multicaruana said...

As I wrote you, I am curious about how much Italian DNA you have and what your mother's ancestry is. If you as much as 25% Italian it would suggest strongly that you have an Italian grandparent. While I believe that the foundation of the Ashkenazim- over a thousand years ago- was substantially Italian because of the historic and abundant presence of Jews in Italy, and the fact that many of them moved up to the Rhineland where the first evidence of the Ashkenazim exists, I do not believe that a very high Italian genetic marker would be left, after 1000 years of inbreeding, with little or no infusion of Italian genes into the Ashkenazim(once they settled into Eastern Europe). The Italian DNA would have been substantially reduced . In my case, I know that an Italian soldier(among French and Spanish) fleeing the Russian Army in the dead of winter in 1812 found refuge with our family in Vilna, and ultimately married an eligible woman in the house, after he converted. We are descended from this man- "Gerson Volpe." I believe other Italian(French and Spanish) soldiers may have also been taken in in Vilna. Thousands perished outside the gates of Vilna. Mass graves have been found. My humble Italian DNA would reflect a forbearer in 1812. I still , however, believe that the foundation of the Ashkenazim is Jewish Italian, not the Levant or the Middle East! Thank you for the correspondence. Harry Katz

Robin Lieske said...

My Italian DNA is 30.4%---14.8% Tuscany; 12.5% South Italy; 1.7% Iberian Peninsula and 1.3% Aegean. From the Near East, I have 5.2% North Turkey; 1.5% Levant (Iran) and 1.2% South Turkey. From Central Asia, 1.8% Northwest Caucasus and from South Asia, 1.1% Pashtun. Otherwise its French, English, and German. Having grown up this "Lithuanian Jewish" identity I was delighted to see Italian. It made a lot of sense given a life-long passion for all things Latin---including 20 years of working deeply with the Hispanic community here in the Southwest. I have no idea how my Jewish family mated or lived. Too much was wiped out during the Holocaust.

Robin Lieske said...

(And my Mom's ancestry was the English. She was Gentile.)