HYDERABAD: The mystery over the origin and migration of Indian Jewish population has finally been resolved. In a major breakthrough, an international team of scientists led by Dr Kumarasamy Thangaraj of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) here has found out that the Indian Jews are a unique blend of Indian and Middle-Eastern ancestry and that the first migrant Jew entered Indian subcontinent at Cochin about 1,500 years ago.
In the absence of archaeological evidence and availability of only scanty historical documentation of the Indian Jews, the Thangaraj-led team comprising scientists from Estonian Biocentre, Tratu, Estonia; Amala Institute of Medical Sciences, Thrissur; University of Kolkata, and Genome Foundation, Hyderabad have traced the founder of the Indian Jewish population using genetic data.
Dr Ch Mohan, director of CCMB, said, “The origin and migration of Jewish diaspora has been curious to people across the world. Although the genetic studies on European Jews have traced them to the Middle East, the exact parental population group and the time of dispersal of Indian Jews have remained disputed. The Jewish communities are distributed throughout the world. However, of all the Jewish diaspora, the Indian Jews are among the least studied. So, in order to trace the origin and mixture of Indian Jewish population, the researchers analysed the DNA of Indian Jews using high-resolution genetic markers and compared them with native Indians and people from rest of the world.”
In India, three main distinct Jewish groups are living: the Jews of Cochin in Kerala, the Bene Israel in Mumbai, and Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata. Each of these communities are socially linked more to their neighbours than to one another. There are several legendary stories about their migration to India but because of lack of written records and inscriptions their origin and migration remain shrouded in legends.
“The expansion of the Indian Jews from the Middle East was followed by extensive admixture and assimilation with local populations, nevertheless rooted ancestry to their ancestral place can be testified because of a higher proportion of genetic lineages of Middle East origin,” Dr Thangaraj said.
The analysis suggested that the Indian Jews possess traces of Middle Eastern ancestry together with more likely unidirectional gene-flow from their contemporary Indian populations. They carry overwhelmingly South Asian ancestry and the proportion of Middle Eastern genetic ancestry was minor.
“The analyses of autosomal data revealed a high level of heterogeneity among the Indian Jewish groups and their closeness with the local neighbours. However, sharing of specific maternally-inherited mtDNA and paternally inherited Y-chromosomal haplogroups between all the studied Indian Jews and lack of them among other local Indians can be seen as a remnant of a shared ancestry with the Middle Eastern populations, he added.
“The initial admixture with local Indian populations, followed by strict endogamy has made Indian Jews a unique population,” said Dr Gyaneshwer Chaubey, a member of the research team.
The CCMB has been conducting high-quality basic research in frontier areas of modern biology and, as part of it, engaged in finding genetic links of several populations.