Monday, December 08, 2008

Gene Test Shows Spain's Jewish and Muslim Mix

El Transito Synagogue, Toledo, España, dedicated in 1357.

From an article by Nicholas Wade in last Friday's New York Times.

The genetic signatures of people in Spain and Portugal provide new and explicit evidence of the mass conversions of Sephardic Jews and Muslims to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries after Christian armies wrested Spain back from Muslim control, a team of geneticists reports.

Twenty percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11 percent have DNA reflecting Moorish ancestors, the geneticists have found. Historians have debated how many Jews converted and how many chose exile. “One wing grossly underestimates the number of conversions,” said Jane S. Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York. . . .

Because most of the Y chromosome remains unchanged from father to son, the proportions of Sephardic and Moorish ancestry detected in the present population are probably the same as those just after the 1492 expulsions. A high proportion of people with Sephardic ancestry was to be expected, Dr. Ray said. “Jews formed a very large part of the urban population up until the great conversions,” he said.
I was actually surprised by the 20% figure. The Sephardic population was a large and important one on the peninsula for hundreds of years, but I didn't expect one-in-five Iberians today to have Jewish ancestry. And the scientists doing the study believe that's the percentage AFTER the terrible expulsion in 1492.

The 11% figure for Muslim ancestry was closer to what I expected.

This is going to have a significant impact on the study of Spanish history, as well as on politics. Right-wingers like the late dictator Francisco Franco and his current proteges are going to have a harder time now claiming that weird Spanish-Catholic-Visigothic purity.


Liam said...

That is very interesting. I think the methodology of the study has some problems, so I'm not sure how to read the final numbers, but it definitely proves what we all suspected.

In the great 20th-century historiography wars, Americo Castro has just scored an impressive victory over Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz.

A tough day for Spanish Nazis. Cry me a freakin' river.

John Schertzer said...

Yup, we're all made of the same blasted protoplasm, and most of our mythologies are pretty much structured the same ways (because of brain physiology no doubt). Forced distinctions were always made by people who wanted to gather hordes against another group so he could be richer and become a proto-phallic godhead. Thank god that's all over and we have iTunes and instant messaging, huh?

John Schertzer said...

I just want to mention as well that Nietzsche had once remarked that the whole idea of German purity was an oxymoron, since the country was meshed together of a strange combination of peoples from all over the continent, from roving barbarians to nomads. He added that in contrast the Jews were probably the most "pure" blooded race in all of Europe, which annoyed the Germans in particular to no end because they really wanted to be pure, with their ordered Heggelian philosophies and all (which Frieddy was of course very fond of taking pot shots at). It's amazing that Hitler was able to turn this around and use Nietzsche as his guiding sage. The wonders of the evil imagination. Makes me curious to see what the fall out might be here.

cowboyangel said...


I was curious to hear your response to this news. Have you ever seen figures for percentage of the population for Jews and Muslims in your time period?

I would be curious to know more specifically the percentages in various regions. If it's 20% & 11% for all of the peninsula, I'm guessing it must be something like 40% & 22% in Andlaucia. And probably much less in Pais Vasco.

cowboyangel said...


Didn't know that about Nietzsche - very interesting.

I've never believed in purity of the races. Perhaps, in a few cases, there may be a higher percentage of people who share similar DNA - I think of the Basques. Their physical, cultural and linguistic isolation may contribute to that. but even they go overboard on trying to prove there's such a thing as "pure-bloods."

On the other hand, after living in Spain, I am fascinated by the movement of people groups around the world throughout history, and I do believe there are cultural and genetic ghosts that linger on for several generations. I used to think the Mexican side of my family was very dysfunctional, but after living in Spain, I realized they were just being Spanish. Even though they were 2 or 3 hundred years removed. And it was amazing to see so many old women in Spain who both looked and acted like my grandmother in Odessa, Texas.

John Schertzer said...

Still don't know where my family's dysfunction derives from, though I often believe it is a matter of conflict of cultures. For instance, the northern European, obviously, but I also have this Hungarian Gypsy thing going on (about 1/4), and the Hungarians supposedly sprung from the same blood lines as the Turks and Persians, while the Gyspsies are thought to have drifted from the Himalaya's. There's supposedly some more recent (w/ in the past 1000 years) northern African influx into these areas as well (so let's just say we're distant cousins).

I remember, and this is for Liam, hearing that the Kelts and Moors got along extremely well, when the Moors were up and about. And they actually enjoyed the Irish so well, they let them be. You can actually hear the cross-breeding in the music of both. You have to have better knowledge of this than I did. I didn't get it documented, but via pub talk in Dublin. So correct me if I'm wrong.

Liam said...

I think there has been stuff done on numbers, and probably more accurately in the later period. There is a fair amount of controversy about conversion rates in my period.

If I understand the article right, the numbers mean that one of your ancestors passed on the gene. Is it a dominant or recessive gene? Does that mean that more people might have Jewish or Moorish ancestors, but didn't draw the gene in the genetic lottery, or could it mean the opposite? I don't know much about genetics.

They had a thing on PBS about doing these tests on prominent African-Americans. Oprah got upset because she had the impression that she was Zulu (God knows why) and it turns out her ancestors are from Liberia. That pissed off my wife.

Garpu said...

Liam: she's not a fan of Oprah? I like the woman already.

Very interesting. I wonder what the Opus Dei goons think of this.

Jeff said...

I think you can see it in Andalucia, if I may be so bold as to say so, although I went to a corrida once in Utrera, near Sevilla. There was a guy who fought the bull on horseback, De Caballo. He was really good, somebody famous, I think. I don't remember his name, but he had red hair and freckles. Could've been Lynch, for all I could guess.

Who are worse? Spanish Visigoth Nazis... or Illinois Nazis?