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The Empire of R1a1a and the Levites
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R1a1a is one of the most geographically expansive Y chromosomal haplogroups. It spans the Irish Sea to the Bay of Bengal. I am of this lineage, as is my friend Daniel MacArthur. But with deeper exploration of the phylogeny of this haplogroup it seems clear now that it is very diverse, with a great deal of geographic structure. There are a wide range of South Asian lineages, but also one very dominant one in Eastern Europe.

A new paper in Nature Communications, Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites, addresses a peculiarity in the domain of Jewish genetics. The Levites, the helpers of the Cohen priestly class, seem to be carriers of R1a1a, and this lineage has exploded rapidly in this population (the classic “star-like phylogeny”). The historical genetic question though is this: are the Levites descendents of a Slav proselyte? Within Europe R1a1a exhibits the highest frequency in what was once the Pale of Settlement, so this is a reasonable question.

panelA Using whole genome analyses and more extensive geographic coverage, the answer to this question seems to be no. Rather, the Levites descend from a distinct West Asian branch of non-European R1a1a. This is evident in panel A of Figure 1. You can see clear that the Ukrainian samples are the outgroup in relation to the other branches of R1a1a. And within those there is further structure, as the South Asian Gujaratis are distinct from the clade in which most of the Ashkenazi Levites are nested (the authors posit that the presence of the Iberians may be attributable to the Moors, plausible enough). The Golden Age of Y chromosomal phylogenies is over, but these markers still have some juice which can be squeezed out.

Citation: Phylogenetic applications of whole Y-chromosome sequences and the Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi Levites (open access).

• Category: Science • Tags: Ashkenazi Jewish Genetics 
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  1. The R1 tree shown also provides nice spilt in R1b, with majority of jewish R1b samples been R1b-Z2105 (R1b1a2a2 — current isogg tree).

    Vast majority of western European R1b belongs under R1b-L11 (R1b1a2a1a) (see: Busby, G. B. et al. The peopling of Europe and the cautionary tale of Y chromosome lineage R-M269. Proc. Biol. Sci. 279, 884–892 (2012).)

    The increasing discovery of new SNP’s is producing more and more distinctive branches on the phylogenetic tree. I see for example that R1b-M222 that was associated with the likes of “Niall of the Nine Hostages” has been broken down into several subclades, the more upstream ones showing higher incidence (on the current sparse evidence) in northern Britain then in Ireland.


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  2. SB says:

    The slow and arduous peer review process has again left this research in the dust.
    Z2122 and Z2123 are sister clades under Z2124, which is under Z2125. While the Gujratis are L657, there is a huge population of Z2123 in the subcontinent (probably most of the south Indian Brahmin R1a and possibly many other dravidian populations may carry this). So the origin of Z2124 is most probably Iranian, and not West Asia.

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  3. . So the origin of Z2124 is most probably Iranian, and not West Asia.

    look at west asia on the map:

    you are free to your own personal definition. but don’t assume and use it with others.

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  4. SB says:

    I meant to write East Iranic as in Afghan/Tajik or somewhere near there…not Iranian as in Iran).

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  5. Davidski says: • Website

    There are two main surviving European lineages of R1a: L664 (Northwest European) and Z282 (which includes the Scandinavian Z284, Central European M458, and Balto-Slavic Z280, which is what that Ukrainian above belongs to).

    There is a single Asian lineage of R1a, which is called Z93 (shown on the tree above), and interestingly it’s more closely related to the European Z282 (via the Z645 mutation), than Z282 is to L664. Moreover, this lineage is also present in Europe in its ancestral form, Z93*, which suggests it came from Europe or the European/Asian border somewhere. I think it first expanded from the Volga-Ural region of Southern Russia with the chariot complex at Sintashta.

    R1a* is found all over the place, from the UK to Iran, and even in Tibet. So it’s difficult to say where it came from exactly. But it’s obvious now that the expansion of Z645 (and thus Z282 and Z93) started at about the same time, probably about 6000 years ago. In other words, there was no Z645, or probably even any R1a, in India, before this massive and rapid expansion.

    The Levite R1a-M582 does look like a signal of introgression from some Near Eastern Iranian group. But it’s generally accepted that the proto-Iranians came to Central Asia and Iran from the western steppe of what is now Ukraine and the Volga-Ural region, so it’s likely that the lineage ancestral to M582 came with them. This was probably Z93*.

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  6. Bob says:

    ” Razib Khan says:
    … look at west asia on the map:

    you are free to your own personal definition. but don’t assume and use it with others.”

    Do you generally adhere to these UN regional definitions when you refer to regions like ‘Northern European’, ‘Southwest Asian’, etc?

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  7. ohwilleke says: • Website

    In fairness to SB, Wikipedia’s West Asia link notes that while the majority definition of West Asia includes Iran, the United Nations treats Iran as part of South Asia and not West Asia for statistical purposes. Sometimes the English language is not as precise as we’d like.

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