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Ezekiel’s vision ‘The Valley of Dry Bones”.      Source: loswl / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Resurrecting the Ancient Israelites From the Valley of Dry Bones

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The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones prophecy is one of the most powerful prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel. In this vision, Ezekiel finds himself in a valley full of dry human bones of Israelite origins. He is asked to revive them, bring them hope, and lead them to the land of Israel.

The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.… And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them… Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel.”     Ezekiel 37

Engraving of “The Vision of The Valley of Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré. (Opoterser~commonswiki / Public Domain)

Engraving of “The Vision of The Valley of Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré. (Opoterser~commonswiki / Public Domain )

Ezekiel’s Vision and Jewish Ancestry

For the past decades, paleogenomics, the field dealing with ancient genomes, has been fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision by extracting DNA from dry bones and telling their stories with increasing accuracy. As Ezekiel envisioned, only dry (and cold) bones can tell stories.

Humidity and heat accelerate the degradation of the DNA beyond repair. At times, even the samples we can use are of poor quality, leading to an inability to put together all the pieces of the DNA and thus resulting in incomplete stories from the bones, as if told by stuttering tongueless skeletons. These are only some of the challenges we face in our efforts to reconstruct the past.

Ezekiel’s prophecies were written in the 6th century after several exiles of the Judeans to Babylon (601-582 BC). The importance of this vision to the debate on the continuity of the Jewish people became apparent very quickly. Already in the Talmud, two interpretations were offered.

The first considered it a complete allegory. The second considered it a reality where the Babylonian exiles returned to Israel and continued the Judaean bloodline. Zionism, a secular movement that recruited the Bible to serve its needs whenever necessary, considered the State of Israel the ultimate fulfilment of Ezekiel prophecies and called to the ingathering of the exiles.

The question of whether Ezekiel’s vision has been correctly interpreted is not anachronistic and has offshoots in history, archeology, linguistics, and genetics – the latest battlefield of the primordialists and constructivists. Did contemporary Jews descend from the ancient Israelites , as the primordialists claim? Or did they descend from people who converted to Judaism and only later on adopted nationalist ideas as the constructivist camp argues?

Of course, one look at Ethiopian, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, and Russian Jews can lend credence to the constructivist view without digging up a single bone. However, the primordialist camp has ready-made answers to that question. It criticized the weak diaspora Jews who succumbed to assimilation and embraced the Jews who remained as authentic Israelites.

Using a “Jewish Type” to Study Jewish Ancestry

It has always been clear that the only way to decide which Jewish communities represent the ancient Israelites most accurately, is by going back to the source – Israel. Therefore, in the late 19th century a search for the  jüdische Typus , the “ Jewish type ” was launched.

Jewish types from Popular Science Monthly 1898. (Ineuw / Public Domain)

Jewish types from Popular Science Monthly 1898. (Ineuw / Public Domain )

Anthropologists explored Palestine, studied the native inhabitants, and compared their anthropological measures to Jews. The results of these studies were incredibly disappointing, at least to the Ashkenazic Jews who carried out these studies and craved to see the jüdische Typus reflected in the mirror. As it turned out, Yemenite Jews held the greatest anthropological resemblance to the wandering Bedouins, the poster boys of the Patriarchs. Ashkenazic Jews, by contrast, resembled the Caucasian type more than anything else (Efron 1994).

This was not what Zionist leaders wanted to hear amid the formation of their nationalistic movement that called Jews to return to their homeland, fight and, maybe, die for it.

The research question had to be rephrased. Abandoning any desire to see a jüdische Typus specimen ever again, the new research paradigm focused on studying features common to all contemporary Jews and deriving the characteristics of the jüdische Typus from them (Elhaik 2016). Unfortunately, no biomarker for Jewishness was ever found in a way that excluded Jews from non-Jews. Yet the question remained: which of all the Jews, who have nothing in common except religion, best represent the Ancient Israelites. The answer among the Ashkenazic Jewish researchers was almost unanimous – let us mold the jüdische Typus in our own image.

To support these claims, geneticists began producing a large body of literature aimed to support and prove two things: 1) their genetic superiority and 2) their genetic ties to Israel, by showing their resemblance to Levantine populations (Falk 2017), whose own claims to the land were later dismissed on account of being “work migrants.” Kirsh (2003) demonstrated how human geneticists and physicians have consistently manipulated their results and emphasized the sociological and historical aspects of their research using their work as a vehicle for establishing a national identity and confirming the Zionist narrative.

The mammoth in the room was the lack of any genetic evidence from the ancient Israelites that would allow testing the similarity of their DNA to that of modern-day Jews. Since no one imagined that mammoths would ever come to life, they avoided the problem completely.

It was much easier to pretend that modern-day Jews and Ashkenazic Jews, in particular, are living replicas of the ancient Israelites who not only were all related to one another but also resisted the gene flow from non-Jews all this time. Despite the imagined link between modern-day Jews and the ancient Israelites, the claims of the primordialist camp became well accepted in the direct-to-consumer industry.

The myth of the “Cohen gene” (Skorecki et al. 1997) or “Four mitochondrial mothers” (Behar et al. 2004) produced by the members of this camp became the bedrock of the Genetic Judaism era, where one needs only to order a genetic test from the right company to receive a Jewishness certificate.

A genetic test from the right company can help one claim Jewish ancestry. (Rospoint / Adobe Stock)

A genetic test from the right company can help one claim Jewish ancestry. ( Rospoint / Adobe Stock)

Using DNA to Study Jewish Ancestry

Paleogenomics changed all that. Thanks to advances in the field, it became possible to extract DNA from ancient people and identify their mitochondrial haplogroups and even autosomal DNA. This remarkable progress allowed the unthinkable: A semi-revival of the ancient Israelites from their dry bones and the recovery of their stories.

The DNA extracted from those bones can tell us who these people were, what they looked like, what they ate, and what diseases they carried (Nielsen et al. 2017; Prohaska et al. 2019). We can trace their migration routes to gain a deeper understanding of where we all came from. Yes, they can also tell us how similar those ancient Israelites were to modern-day people, and if modern-day Jews are not the lineal descendants of the ancient Israelites, we can find out who is.

To answer some of these questions, I developed the  Primeval DNA test , which allows comparing the DNA of modern-day people to the ancient DNA extracted from skeletons of various people including the Ancient Israelites .

The ancient Israelites were obtained from three regions Motza Tachtit at the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, Peqi’in (Naphtali), and Raqefet Cave (Manasseh), near the valley of the Raqefet river.

The dry bones from Raqefet Cave. (Reuveny / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The dry bones from Raqefet Cave. (Reuveny / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The bones still cannot speak, but in their own way, they have a lot to teach us and allow us to reevaluate our core beliefs.

The answer to the question who is closer to the ancient Israelites rests in the DNA extracted from some 50 bones of ancient Israelites and Judaeans with many more to come. Are modern-Jews mostly Middle Easterners (or ancient Israelites) like Ostrer claims? Hardly.

Upon examining the results of 80 Jews from various communities, I could not help noticing the irony considering how the progress in population genetics validated the findings of the 19th-century anthropologists who combed the Levant in an honest search for the jüdische Typus before the repercussions of their findings became clear and their results were deplored on every stage. The most similar Jews to the ancient Israelites who left their dry bones in the Raqefet Valley in Israel were Yemenite and Mesopotamian Jews, but that genetic similarity was less than 15%, on average, in agreement with our previous analyses ascribing less than 5% ancient Levantine ancestry to Ashkenazic Jews (Das et al. 2017).

Yet, these averages mask the high heterogeneity among all Jewish communities. Some people may share the highest similarity with Gal (named after Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot), a young Neolithic woman – only 6200 years old, and other people may find that they are close to Abraham, a Turkish man (E1b1) who led a group of Anatolians to what he must to have felt was the promised land.

Due to the many population replacements that the area experienced, we can see a diverse range of mitochondrial haplogroups that vary over time. Among the most common lineages are J2, K1a, and T. An analysis of Judaeans from the first century AD confirmed the prevalence of the T haplogroup (Matheson et al. 2009), found today in less than 10% of Ashkenazic Jews. Unsurprisingly, not a single skeleton matches the alleged four Ashkenazic Jewish mothers, whose origin is in prehistoric Europe (Costa et al. 2013). As expected, an exact match with one of those “mothers” was found in Neolithic Spain (Haak et al. 2015).

This is the only match from prehistoric times to date, but it is reasonable to expect many more to come as ancient DNA from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus will be sequenced. Interestingly, the Y chromosomal haplotypes of the ancient Israelites are typically E1b1 and T1 haplotypes, commonly found today in Africa with lower frequencies in the Middle East and Europe.

We can expect that future tests covering other regions of the world would be able to explain the remaining portion of the elusive Jewish ancestry. Only time will say if “Genetic Jewishness” will evolve onto “Primeval Jewishness” where people define their Jewishness based on their similarity to ancient Israelites and Jews rather than modern ones.

Think about it the next time that your favorite genetic testing company tells you that you have some “Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry.”

Top image: Ezekiel’s vision ‘The Valley of Dry Bones”.      Source: loswl / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Dr Eran Elhaik

References

Atzmon, G., HaoI, L., Pe’er, I., and Velez, C. 2010. Abraham’s children in the genome era: major Jewish diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern ancestry . American Journal of Human Genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45096123_Abraham's_Children_in_the_Genome_Era_Major_Jewish_Diaspora_Populations_Comprise_Distinct_Genetic_Clusters_with_Shared_Middle_Eastern_Ancestry
Behar, D., Hammer, M., Garrigan, D., and Villems, R. 2004. MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population . European Journal of Human Genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8466965_MtDNA_evidence_for_a_genetic_bottleneck_in_the_early_history_of_the_Ashkenazi_Jewish_population
Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M., and Elhaik, E. 2016. Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz . Genome Biology and Evolution. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297316381_Localizing_Ashkenazic_Jews_to_Primeval_Villages_in_the_Ancient_Iranian_Lands_of_Ashkenaz
Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M., and Elhaik, E. 2017. The Origins of Ashkenaz, Ashkenazic Jews, and Yiddish . Frontiers in genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317932824_The_Origins_of_Ashkenaz_Ashkenazic_Jews_and_Yiddish
Efron, J. 1994. Defenders of the Race . Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
Elhaik, E. 2016. In search of the jüdische Typus: a proposed benchmark to test the genetic basis of Jewishness challenges notions of “Jewish biomarkers” . Frontiers in genetics. [Online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4974603/
Falk, R. 2017. Zionism and the Biology of the Jews . Springer. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318608707_Zionism_and_the_Biology_of_Jews
Kirsh, N. 2003. Population genetics in Israel in the 1950s. The unconscious internalization of ideology . Isis. [Online] Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/386385?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Ostrer, H. 2012. Legacy: a genetic history of the Jewish people . Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Skorecki, K., Selig, S., Blazer, S., Bradman, R., Bradman, N., Waburton, P., Ismajlowicz, M., and Hammer, M. 1997. Y chromosomes of Jewish priests . Nature. [Online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14223371_Y_chromosomes_of_Jewish_priests

Comments

Yaakobi Oded's picture

Dear Dr Eran Elhaik:

There are few problems with you study, buisness project, and with this article...

Well, obviously, the first and most important problem, is that those DNA samples that you used and use for so-called "Ancient Israelites", are not really samples of “ancient Israelites” at all... All your samples (Gal, Issec, Sarah, Terah, Nahor, Debra, Abraham, Ashkenaz, Meshach, Hagar, Agam, Keturah, Bruriah, Adam, Hanoch, Eber, Haran, Ruth) are all from periods of between 4,200 BCE and 11,500 BCE - which is between ~3,000 years and ~10,000 years before the first Israelite ever appeared in Canaan, at the end of the Late Bronze Age (around 1,200 BCE, according to the Merneptah Stele)...

Now, some people might be fooled to think that this "time gap" is not important, because there were no changes in the "DNA landscape" of ancient Canaan between those periods. However, I think we both know that this is not true. I think we both know that during the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age (between 3,200 - 1,200 BCE) there were vast waves of migrations from the north (mainly from the areas of Iran and Turkey, but also from the Caucasus and South-East Europe) to the “Levant”, and we both know that those vast waves of migrations, completely changed the DNA landscape in ancient Canaan by the time the first Israelites appeared  - Not to mention that according to the Biblical record (which might be at least partly true) at least some of the ancestors of the Israelites (Abraham, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel) actually migrated to Canaan themselves from the area of Harran, which is in south Turkey...

In fact, the original study on the samples from the Peqi’in Cave in Israel - from which you took some of your so-called "Ancient Israelite" samples (those from 4,200 BCE) - specifically mentions some of those later Bronze Age migrations, and describes the changes they made to the "DNA landscape" of ancient Levant, saying:

“Previous genome-wide ancient DNA studies from the Near East have revealed that at the time when agriculture developed, populations from Anatolia, Iran, and the Levant were approximately as genetically differentiated from each other as present-day Europeans and East Asians are today24,25. By the Bronze Age, however, expansion of different Near Eastern agriculturalist populations—Anatolian, Iranian, and Levantine—in all directions and admixture with each other substantially homogenized populations across the region, thereby contributing to the relatively low genetic differentiation that prevails today24. Lazaridis et al.24 showed that the Levant Bronze Age population from the site of ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan (2490–2300 BCE) could be fit statistically as a mixture of around 56% ancestry from a group related to Levantine Pre-Pottery Neolithic agriculturalists (represented by ancient DNA from Motza, Israel and 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan; 8300–6700 BCE) and 44% related to populations of the Iranian Chalcolithic (Seh Gabi, Iran; 4680–3662 calBCE). Haber et al.26 suggested that the Canaanite Levant Bronze Age population from the site of Sidon, Lebanon (~1700 BCE) could be modeled as a mixture of the same two groups albeit in different proportions (48% Levant Neolithic-related and 52% Iran Chalcolithic-related). However, the Neolithic and Bronze Age sites analyzed so far in the Levant are separated in time by more than three thousand years, making the study of samples that fill in this gap, such as those from Peqi’in, of critical importance”.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05649-9

The other study you took the rest of your samples from (Lazaridis, I., Nadel, D., Rollefson, G. et al. 2016), is also talking about those migrations which changed the "DNA landscape" of the entire ancient world, saying:

"We report genome-wide ancient DNA from 44 ancient Near Easterners ranging in time between ~12,000-1,400 BCE, from Natufian hunter-gatherers to Bronze Age farmers. We show that the earliest populations of the Near East derived around half their ancestry from a ‘Basal Eurasian’ lineage that had little if any Neanderthal admixture and that separated from other non-African lineages prior to their separation from each other. The first farmers of the southern Levant (Israel and Jordan) and Zagros Mountains (Iran) were strongly genetically differentiated, and each descended from local hunter-gatherers. By the time of the Bronze Age, these two populations and Anatolian-related farmers had mixed with each other and with the hunter-gatherers of Europe to drastically reduce genetic differentiation. The impact of the Near Eastern farmers extended beyond the Near East: farmers related to those of Anatolia spread westward into Europe; farmers related to those of the Levant spread southward into East Africa; farmers related to those from Iran spread northward into the Eurasian steppe; and people related to both the early farmers of Iran and to the pastoralists of the Eurasian steppe spread eastward into South Asia."

https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/31731830/5003663.pdf

So, to sum it all up, what we've seen in those studies is that during the Early & middle Bronze Age periods (roughly between 3,200 and 1,600 BCE), there were massive migrations of Iranian and Anatolian populations into the Levant (where the land of Canaan/Israel is), which completely changing the DNA pool of this area. Making it very different from what it was during the Natufian and Chalcolithic periods (roughly between 11,500 and 4,200 BCE) - from which you took your so-called "Ancient Israelites" samples..

In fact, it was so different that even the veteran population of an old Canaanite settlement like Sidon, already had about 52% of Iranian related ancestry, and only 48% of Levant Neolithic/Natufian-related ancestry, at around 1,700 BCE - some 500 years before the first Israelites appeared (~1,200 BCE)..

Furthermore, if you studied a bit about the the history of Canaan at the Late Bronze Age, you probably know by now that during the time between 1,700 BCE and 1,500 BCE there was yet another wave of migration from the North into Canaan, which changed the DNA landscape of Canaan furthermore. This was the influx of many of the "Nations of Canaan" mentioned in the Bible, such as Hittites, Hivites, Jebusites, Girgashites, and, mainly the Hurrians - as described by Edward Lipinski in his paper: “Hurrians and Their Gods in Canaan”:

“The first appearance of Hurrians and of personages bearing Indo-Aryan names in citystates of ancient Canaan can be dated to the late 16th century B.C. and be related to the expansive influence of the Mittannian empire. Information is provided mainly by written material from Shechem, by the tablets from Taanach, and by the Amarna letters, thus by sources dating from a period when Canaan was dominated by Egypt. Traces of this Hurrian presence are recognizable in Jerusalem until the 10th century B.C. and the Hurrian goddess Šuwala, the Queen of the netherworld, continued her career through centuries in the Hebrew literature in which she appears under the name of Sheol. Also a vague souvenir of the Hurrians persisted, called Horites in the Bible and regarded as a pre-Israelite population of Canaan. A particular attention is paid in the article to some personal names, like Šuwardata, Abdi-Ḫeba or Pora-Ḫeba, the name of a ruler of Jerusalem in the 14th century, further to Ḫutiya and to Bat-Tešub, also in Jerusalem.The very name used by the Egyptians for Canaan since the early 15th century B.C. was the Land of Ḫor (Ḫ3r)1, a word which at first had an ethnic connotation, designating the Hurrians, but was later used geographically and survived in the "Horites” of the Bible..

The Hurrian expansion as far as southern Canaan took place not long before the early 15th century B.C. and it should very likely be linked to the rising power of the Mittannian empire, with which the sources suddenly confront us in the same period. This important state emerged in the 16th century in the area of the Habur triangle; it united the whole of Northern Mesopotamia and started extending its influence southwards. Wherever Hurrian personal names appear, quite distinct from the Semitic or Hittite-Luwian ones, the presence of this people must be assumed"..

http://journals.pan.pl/Content/82350/mainfile.pdf

The conclusion of all this is that those “Flintstones” which you call “Ancient Israelites” (Gal, Issec, Sarah, Terah, Nahor, Debra, Abraham, Ashkenaz, Meshach, Hagar, Agam, Keturah, Bruriah, Adam, Hanoch, Eber, Haran, Ruth) - which are all from periods of between 4,200 BCE and 11,500 BCE - are completely irrelevant and have a completely different DNA from the DNA of the population which lived in Canaan at the times when the REAL Ancient Israelites have lived there - between 1,200 BCE and 100 AD (By the way, why didn't you use the more relevant DNA samples of Jews from ~50 AD Jerusalem, out of the study of Matheson et al. 2009 which you mentioned in this article?)... This might be a bit problematic since you're charging money from people, promising them a comparison of their DNA with the DNA of real "Ancient Israelites", don't you think?...   

Finally, your claim that "Unsurprisingly, not a single skeleton matches the alleged four Ashkenazic Jewish mothers, whose origin is in prehistoric Europe (Costa et al. 2013)", seems to ignore a well known study by Eva Fernández, Alejandro Pérez-Pérez, Cristina Gamba, et al, from 2014, about the DNA of Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB = ~8,000 BCE) populations in Israel and the levant, which specifically says that:

“Another interesting case are the Ashkenazi Jews, who display a frequency of haplogroup K similar to the PPNB sample together with low non-significant pairwise Fst values, which taken together suggests an ancient Near Eastern origin. This observation clearly contradicts the results of a recent study, where a detailed phylogeographical analysis of mtDNA lineages has suggested a predominantly European origin for the Ashkenazi communities [48]. According to that work the majority of the Ashkenazi mtDNA lineages can be assigned to three major founders within haplogroup K (31% of their total lineages): K1a1b1a, K1a9 and K2a2. The absence of characteristic mutations within the control region in the PPNB K-haplotypes allow discarding them as members of either sub-clades K1a1b1a or K2a2, both representing a 79% of total Ashkenazi K lineages. However, without a high-resolution typing of the mtDNA coding region it cannot be excluded that the PPNB K lineages belong to the third sub-cluster K1a9 (20% of Askhenazi K lineages). Moreover, in the light of the evidence presented here of a loss of lineages in the Near East since Neolithic times, the absence of Ashkenazi mtDNA founder clades in the Near East should not be taken as a definitive argument for its absence in the past”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4046922/

Maybe the title should have been Resurrecting the Ancient Jews. The Israelites were composed of 12 tribes. Jews were only one of them and not the largest one either. Maybe they should use some of that DNA to identify the other tribes.

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