Genetic history of the Near East

The archaeogenetics of the Near East involves the study of DNA or ancient DNA, identifying haplogroups and haplotypes of ancient skeletal remains from both Y-DNA, and mtDNA and other autosomal DNA for populations of the Ancient Near East (i.e., the modern Middle East including Egypt, Iran (Persia), Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Levant, Turkey (Anatolia), Arabia, Northern Africa, etc.

Developments in DNA sequencing in the 1970s and 1980s provided researchers with the tools needed to study human genetic variation and the genetics of human populations to discover founder populations of modern people groups and human migrations. In 2005, National Geographic launched The Genographic Project, led by 12 prominent scientists and researchers, to study and map historical human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.


Contamination from handling and intrusion from microbes create obstacles to the recovery of Ancient DNA.[1] Consequently most DNA studies have been carried out on modern Egyptian populations with the intent of learning about the influences of historical migrations on the population of Egypt.[2][3][4][5]

In general, various DNA studies have found that the gene frequencies of North African populations are intermediate between those of the Near East, the Horn of Africa, southern Europe and Sub Saharan Africa,[6] though Egypt’s NRY frequency distributions appear to be much more similar to those of the Middle East than to any sub-Saharan African population, suggesting a much larger Eurasian genetic component.[7][8][8][9][10][11]

Blood typing and DNA sampling on ancient Egyptian mummies is scant; however, blood typing of dynastic mummies found ABO frequencies to be most similar to modern Egyptians[12] and some also to Northern Haratin populations. ABO blood group distribution shows that the Egyptians form a sister group to North African populations, including Berbers, Nubians and Canary Islanders.[13] Scholars such as Frank Yurco believe that Modern Egyptians are largely representative of the ancient population.[14]

Iran (Persia)

According to one study based on Y-Chromosome haplogroups, "The Iranians from the present study carry signature lineages with origins in Asia, North Africa, and Europe." As a whole, Persia displays contributions from Anatolia in the northern parts and the Indus Valley in the southern parts, yet a greater proportion from the former is observed in spite of Iran’s proximity to the latter.[15]

Another recent study of the genetic landscape of Iran was done by a team of Cambridge geneticists led by Dr. Maziar Ashrafian Bonab.[16] Bonab remarked that his group had done extensive DNA testing on different language groups, including Indo-European and non Indo-European speakers, in Iran.[17] The study found that the Azerbaijanis of Iran do not have a similar FSt and other genetic markers found in Anatolians and Europeans. However, the genetic Fst and other genetic traits like MRca and mtDNA of Iranian Azeris were identical to Persians in Iran. Azaris of Iran also show very close genetic ties to Kurds.[18]

Iraq (Mesopotamia)

The indigenous Pre-Arab and Pre-Islamic Assyrian (aka Chaldo-Assyrian) Christian population, descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians, are fairly closely related to other Iraqis,[19][20] and also to some modern Jordanians, Mandeans and Near Eastern Jewish populations, yet due to religious, ethnic and cultural endogamy have a very distinct genetic profile that distinguishes their population from Iraqi Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Turcomans, and Shabakis.[21] "The Assyrians are a fairly homogeneous group of people, believed to originate from the land of old Assyria in northern Iraq [..] they are Christians and are bona fide descendants of their ancient namesakes."[22]

In a 2006 study of the Y chromosome DNA of six regional populations, including, for comparison, Assyrians and Syrians, researchers found that, "the two Semitic populations (Assyrians and Syrians) are very distinct from each other according to both [comparative] axes. This difference supported also by other methods of comparison points out the weak genetic affinity between the two populations with different historical destinies." [23]

A 2008 study on the genetics of "old ethnic groups in Mesopotamia," including 340 subjects from seven ethnic communities ("Assyrian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Armenian, Turkmen, the Arab peoples in Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait") found that Assyrians were homogeneous with respect to all other ethnic groups sampled in the study, regardless of religious affiliation.[24]

A study published in 2011 looking at the relationship between Iraq's Marsh Arabs and ancient Sumerians concluded "the modern Marsh Arabs of Iraq harbour mtDNAs and Y chromosomes that are predominantly of Middle Eastern origin, although this does not specifically link the Marsh Arabs to the Sumerians, a people who were absorbed into the Assyro-Babylonian population by circa 2000 BC. Therefore, certain cultural features of the area such as water buffalo breeding and rice farming, which were most likely introduced from the Indian sub-continent, only marginally affected the gene pool of the autochthonous people of the region. Moreover, a Middle Eastern ancestral origin of the modern population of the marshes of southern Iraq implies that, if the Marsh Arabs are descendants of the ancient Sumerians, also Sumerians were not of Indian or Southern Asian ancestry."[19]

In a 2011 study focusing on the genetics of the Maʻdān people of Iraq, researchers identified Y chromosome haplotypes shared by Marsh Arabs, Arabic speaking Iraqis, Assyrians and Mandeans "supporting a common indigenous local background."[19] Mandean genetic profiles are closest to Assyrian.

Levant (Syria, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan)

Zalloua and Wells (2004), under the auspices of a grant from National Geographic Magazine examined the origins of the Canaanite Phoenicians. The debate between Wells and Zalloua was whether haplogroup J2 (M172) should be identified as that of the Phoenicians or that of its "parent" haplogroup M89 on the YDNA phylogenetic tree.[25] Initial consensus suggested that J2 be identified with the Canaanite-Phoenician (Northwest Semitic) population, with avenues open for future research.[26] As Wells commented, "The Phoenicians were the Canaanites"[27] It was reported in the PBS description of the National Geographic TV Special on this study entitled "Quest for the Phoenicians" that ancient DNA was included in this study as extracted from the tooth of a 2500 year-old Phoenician mummy.[28]

Wells identified the haplogroup of the Canaanites as haplogroup J2 which originated in northern Mesopotamia.[29] The National Geographic Genographic Project linked haplogroup J2 to the site of Jericho, Tel el-Sultan, ca. 8500 BCE and indicated that in modern populations, haplogroup J2 is found primarily in the Middle East, but also along the coasts of North Africa and Southern Europe, with especially high distribution among present-day Jewish populations (30%), Southern Italians (20%), and lower frequencies in Southern Spain (10%).[30]

In a 2005 study of ASPM gene variants, Mekel-Bobrov et al. found that the Israeli Druze people of the Carmel region have among the highest rate of the newly evolved ASPM haplogroup D, at 52.2% occurrence of the approximately 6,000-year-old allele.[31] While it is not yet known exactly what selective advantage is provided by this gene variant, the haplogroup D allele is thought to be positively selected in populations and to confer some substantial advantage that has caused its frequency to rapidly increase. According to DNA testing, Druze are remarkable for the high frequency (35%) of males who carry the Y-chromosomal haplogroup L, which is otherwise uncommon in the Mideast (Shen et al. 2004).[32] This haplogroup originates from prehistoric South Asia and has spread from Pakistan into southern Iran.

Cruciani in 2007 found E1b1b1a2 (E-V13) [one from Sub Clades of E1b1b1a1 (E-V12)] in high levels (>10% of the male population) in Turkish Cypriot and Druze Arab lineages. Recent genetic clustering analyses of ethnic groups are consistent with the close ancestral relationship between the Druze and Cypriots, and also identified similarity to the general Syrian and Lebanese populations, as well as a variety of Jewish lineages (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Iraqi Jewish, and Moroccan) (Behar et al. 2010).[33]

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that "the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population", and suggested that "most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighbouring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora".[34] Researchers expressed surprise at the remarkable genetic uniformity they found among modern Jews, no matter where the diaspora has become dispersed around the world.[34] Skorecki and colleague wrote that "the extremely close affinity of Jewish and non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations observed ... supports the hypothesis of a common Middle Eastern origin".[35] According to another study of the same year, more than 70% of Jewish men and half of the Arab men (inhabitants of Israel and the occupied territories only) whose DNA was studied inherited their Y-chromosomes from the same paternal ancestors who lived in the region within the last few thousand years.

This research has suggested that, in addition to Israelite male, significant female founder ancestry might also derive from the Middle East-with 40% of Ashkenazim descended from four women lived about 2000–3000 years ago in the Middle East.[36] In addition, Behar (2006) suggested that the rest of Ashkenazi mtDNA is originated from about 150 women, most of those were probably of Middle Eastern origin.[37] However, more recent research suggests that the four founding maternal lineages of Ashkenazi Jews originate in Europe and that only ~8% of Ashkenazi mtDNA can confidently be assigned a Near Eastern origin, while >80% of Ashkenazi maternal lineages have a likely European origin [38]

In 2004, a team of geneticists from Stanford University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tartu University (Estonia), Barzilai Medical Center (Ashkelon, Israel), and the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center (Zerifin, Israel), studied the modern Samaritan ethnic community living in Israel in comparison with modern Israeli populations to explore the ancient genetic history of these people groups. The Samaritans or Shomronim (singular: Shomroni; Hebrew: שומרוני) trace their origins to the Assyrian province of Shomron (Samaria) in ancient Israel in the period after the Assyrian conquest circa 722 BCE. Shomron was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel when it was conquered by the Assyrians and gave the name to the ancient province of Samaria and the Samaritan people group. Tradition holds that the Samaritans were a mixed group of Israelites who were not exiled or were sent back or returned from exile and non-Israelites relocated to the region by the Assyrians. The modern-day Samaritans are believed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Samaritans.

Their findings reported on four family lineages among the Samaritans: the Tsdaka family (tradition: tribe of Menasseh), the Joshua-Marhiv and Danfi families (tradition: tribe of Ephraim), and the Cohen family (tradition: tribe of Levi). All Samaritan families were found in haplogroups J1 and J2, except the Cohen family which was found in haplogroup E3b1a-M78.[32] This article predated the E3b1a subclades based on the research of Cruciani, et al.[39]

Turkey (Anatolia)

In population genetics the question has been debated whether the modern Turkish population is significantly related to other, mainly Central Asian, Turkic peoples, or whether they are rather derived from the indigenous largely Indo-European and Semitic speaking populations of Anatolia which were, with the exception of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews and Kurds, culturally assimilated during the late Middle Ages. The contribution of the Central Asian genetics to the modern Turkish people has been debated and become the subject of several studies. As a result, several studies have concluded that the historical (pre-Islamic) and indigenous Anatolian groups are the primary source of the present-day Turkish population,[40][41][42][43][44][45][46] in addition to neighboring peoples,[42] such as Balkan peoples (such as Phrygians and Macedonian Greeks),[47] and Central Asian Turkic people, from the Turkic homelands in modern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kirghizstan.[42]

The Pre-Islamic and Pre-Turkic speaking population of Anatolia consisted of, at different periods, a vast patchwork of Caucasoid peoples, including Language Isolate speakers such as Hurrians, Hattians and Urartians among others, who were eventually absorbed by Indo-European populations, the most prominent being Greeks, Kaskians, Luwians, Hittites, Mitanni, Phrygians, Lydians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Medes, Lycians, Cilicians, Armenians, Celts and Kurds. Semitic speaking peoples such as Assyrians, Amorites, Eblaites, Phoenicians, Arameans and Jews also maintained a longstanding presence across southern Anatolia, and to a lesser degree, Kartvelian (Georgian) and Northwest Caucasian speaking peoples in the north east.

See also


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  • Cruciani, F.; La Fratta, R., Torroni, A., Underhill, P. A., Scozzari, R. (2006). "Molecular Dissection of the Y Chromosome Haplogroup E-M78 (E3b1a): A Posteriori Evaluation of a Microsatellite-Network-Based Approach Through Six New Biallelic Markers". Human Mutation 27 (8): 831–2. PMID 16835895. doi:10.1002/humu.9445. 
  • King, R. J.; Ozcan, S. S., Carter, T., Kalfoglu, E., Atasoy, S., Triantaphyllidis, C., Kouvatsi, A., Lin, A. A., Chow, C-E. T., Zhivotovsky, L. A., Michalodimitrakis, M., Underhill, P. A., (2008). "Differential Y-chromosome Anatolian Influences on the Greek and Cretan Neolithic." Annals of Human Genetics 72 Issue 2 March 2008: 205-214.
  • Shen, P; Lavi, T; Kivisild, T; Chou, V; Sengun, D; Gefel, D; Shpirer, I; Woolf, E; Hillel, J et al. et al. (2004). "Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations From Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation". Human Mutation 24 (3): 248–260. PMID 15300852. doi:10.1002/humu.20077. 
  • Zalloua, P., Wells, S. (2004) "Who Were the Phoenicians?" National Geographic Magazine, October 2004.
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