Sunday, September 04, 2022

Today I Learned That Rabbinical Law Prohibits The Scientific Study Of Ashkenazi Remains

cell |  We report genome sequence data from six individuals excavated from the base of a medieval well at a site in Norwich, UK. A revised radiocarbon analysis of the assemblage is consistent with these individuals being part of a historically attested episode of antisemitic violence on 6 February 1190 CE. We find that four of these individuals were closely related and all six have strong genetic affinities with modern Ashkenazi Jews. We identify four alleles associated with genetic disease in Ashkenazi Jewish populations and infer variation in pigmentation traits, including the presence of red hair. Simulations indicate that Ashkenazi-associated genetic disease alleles were already at appreciable frequencies, centuries earlier than previously hypothesized. These findings provide new insights into a significant historical crime, into Ashkenazi population history, and into the origins of genetic diseases associated with modern Jewish populations.

In 2004 construction workers excavating land in central Norwich, UK, as part of the Chapelfield shopping center development recovered human skeletal elements from their spoil.

Subsequent archaeological investigations led to the discovery and excavation of a probable well containing the commingled remains of at least seventeen people. The stratigraphic position of the remains, their completeness, and state of articulation suggested that they had all been deposited in a single event shortly after their death. The overrepresentation of subadults and the unusual location of the burial outside of consecrated ground suggested that they may have been victims of a mass fatality event such as famine, disease, or mass murder.

Pottery sherds from the well were dated typologically to 12th–14th centuries CE, and two initial radiocarbon determinations on the skeletal remains placed these in the 11th–12th centuries.

The most prominent historically attested mass death in Norwich within this date range was in 1190 CE when members of the Jewish community were killed during antisemitic riots precipitated by the beginning of the Third Crusade although the number of individuals killed is unclear.

Norwich had been the setting for a previous notable event in the history of medieval antisemitism when, in 1144 CE, the family of William of Norwich claimed that local Jews were responsible for his murder, an argument taken up by Thomas of Monmouth through the first documented invocation of the blood libel myth. This represents the beginnings of an antisemitic conspiracy theory that persists up to the present day.

The possibility that the remains found at the Chapelfield well site were those of the victims of antisemitic violence is given further support by the site’s location just to the south of the medieval Jewish quarter of the city.

However, no additional archaeological evidence linked the human remains to a specific historical event or group of people. During the High Medieval period (ca. 1000–1300 CE), Norwich witnessed a number of outbreaks of large-scale violence, and additional data were therefore required to test the hypothesis that these individuals were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

Judaism is a shared religious and cultural identity, with endogamous marriage practices and distinctive diasporic histories of communities worldwide, particularly a Levantine origin and complex history of migrations over the last ∼2.5 millennia. Present-day Ashkenazim are descendants of medieval Jewish populations with histories primarily in northern and eastern Europe. As a result, they carry distinctive ancestries, and Jewish and non-Jewish medieval individuals living in the same regions would likely show characteristic patterns of genetic variation.

Hereditary disorders in Ashkenazi Jewish populations have been the focus of considerable medical research, with genetic screening now commonplace to mitigate risks.

Their prevalence is generally attributed to strong genetic drift during Ashkenazi population bottlenecks coupled with high endogamy although other processes such as heterozygote advantage have been proposed.

Candidate population bottlenecks include the phase of dispersion following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the formation of Ashkenazi communities in northern Europe during the medieval period, antisemitic persecution arising from the Crusades, unfounded reprisals for the Black Death, and the movement from western and central Europe to eastern Europe that preceded rapid population growth from the 15th to 18th centuries.

No genomes from known Jewish individuals are currently available from the medieval period or earlier, largely because exhumation and scientific testing of Jewish remains are prohibited. Such data could inform on the migration and admixture histories of Jewish populations. Furthermore, the presence of any pathogenic variants would provide valuable clues to the origins and spread of Ashkenazim-associated genetic disorders. Here, we examine results from radiocarbon dating and genetic analyses of the Chapelfield individuals to better establish who they were, when they died, and the nature of their death and burial, and identify potential broader implications for Ashkenazim population history and genetics.


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