Slaying the Dragons of Genetic Dogma


Eran Elhaik

Elhaik. Source: Eran Elhaik Lab.

Can genetics distinguish between a Jew and a non-Jew? On the basis of genetics alone, can anyone tell you if you are Native American, or part Native American, or what part or percentage?

Is there a DNA signature for people of Cherokee descent?  What about other tribal varieties? These and other fundamental questions are once more in the forefront of DNA research as “next-generation ancestry testing” emerges in the direct-to-consumer marketplace.

Next-generation DNA ancestry testing succeeds “SNP chip” technology as the newest autosomal method for solving long-standing challenges. (For a comparison of methods, see our blog post, “Do You Know Your European Origins?”) One of the champions of next-generation autosomal haplotyping, who has emerged as the bête noire of both the orthodox and the Orthodox, is Eran Elhaik.  A half-Italian, half-Iranian Israeli Jew, Elhaik worked and trained in Israel and the United States and is currently lecturer in genomics at the University of Sheffield.

From exploding the myth of biological Jewishness and refuting the so-called Rhineland thesis of Jewish origins to helping improve the information of ancient archeological DNA and inventing a genetic GPS that steers admixed persons to their primeval villages of origin, the thirty-something wunderkind has drawn plaudits and potshots from all quarters.

In characteristic fashion, he says of himself, “My research is multidisciplinary and requires computational and statistical skills alongside epidemiological and mathematical skills. For example, in Elhaik (2013a) I designed a dedicated microarray for genetic genealogy, in Elhaik (2013b) I showed that the origin of European Jews is from the Khazars, in Elhaik (2014a) I dated the most ancient human Y chromosome known as “Adam” Y chromosome, and in Elhaik (2014b) I developed the GPS tool that uses DNA to predict geographical origin of populations with an extreme accuracy.”

GPS DNA tracing, standing for Geographic Population Tracing, is Elhaik’s baby. It is being offered by Diagnostics DNA Center under a beta rollout this fall. The new test shows great promise both for solving genealogists’ vexed problems of admixture and exotic roots such as that illusive Native American in the family tree as well as facilitating geneticists’ search for fine-scale information about groups involved in historical admixture events.

Earlier work published in 2013 by Hellenthal et al. applied a similar method called “chromosome painting” to tracing shared “chunks” of DNA that decay from generation to generation back to constituent founder groups matching extant populations.

Their pioneering statistical work on population change through GLOBETROTTER software redefined haplotyping so that we can now speak routinely of autosomal haplotypes whereas the term used to be restricted to male (Y chromosome) and female (mitochondrial) lineages.

The same British and German geneticists observed admixture processes following in the wake of the Mongol hoards, the Arab slave trade and Bantu expansions in Africa. They thought that these tools for dating the age of admixture were effective for at least the last 4,000 years, when populations of importance to all countries and cultures on earth today were formed, and they noted that most of the admixture events of history have thus far passed as invisible and unknown.

genetic david

We eagerly seized on Hellenthal et al’s admixture tools and published“Admixture in Pima Includes Greek and Sardinian:  Genetic Signature of the Minoans, Sea Peoples and Other Mediterranean Peoples in the Southwest?” in this space, March 22, 2015.

We look forward to the Elhaik revolution, which has disproved two fictitious chapters in Jewish history already, the “Roman exile” and “Rhineland Thesis.” We trust someday GenoChip technology will be used to lay to rest harmful myths of American Indian genetics. At the top of the list of dogmas that should be relegated to the genetics scrapheap are:  “All American Indians Came from Asia” (sometimes stated as “Columbus Discovered America”) and “The Federally Recognized Citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Are the Best, and Only, Representatives of Cherokee Identity and Origins.”

We can think of a lot more giant lies that deserve to meet their Davids, and we bet our readers can too.

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