DNA analysis from the 12th century reveals the hidden roots of modern genetic diseases

The study shines a new light on the health of the Ashkenazi population.
Nergis Firtina
Digital facial reconstructions by Professor Caroline Wilkinson based on skeletal remains and DNA data
Digital facial reconstructions by Professor Caroline Wilkinson based on skeletal remains and DNA data

Professor Caroline Wilkinson.  

Your ancestors from centuries ago may have had genetic diseases that could affect you today — particularly if you have Ashkenazi Jewish roots.

A new study carried out by international researchers suggested that a group of Ashkenazi Jews — victims of antisemitic violence during the 12th century — had a diseased genome that may affect modern-day Ashkenazi Jewish populations.

The research was published in Current Biology on Tuesday.

The DNA contained variations linked to genetic disorders that are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jewish populations today, one of the two main ancestral groups of Jews, according to the research.

Researchers also suggested that their study challenges the previous view that disease-related variants associated with Ashkenazi Jewish populations only became more common in the past 600 years.

As reported in The Independent, scientists from the Natural History Museum, University College London, Mainz and Cambridge Universities, and the Francis Crick Institute, conducted an analysis of the remains of six of the people discovered at Norwich.

The findings indicate that four of the probable victims were relatives, including three young sisters (aged 5-10 years, 10-15 years, and a young adult). They also may point to widespread fatalities from famine, disease, or murder.

Dr. Selina Brace, a principal researcher at the Natural History Museum and lead author of the paper, said: “I’m delighted and relieved that 12 years after we first started analyzing the remains of these individuals, technology has caught up and helped us to understand this historical cold case of who these people were and why we think they were murdered.”

Co-author Professor Mark Thomas, of University College London, said: “It was quite surprising that the initially unidentified remains filled the historical gap about when certain Jewish communities first formed, and the origins of some genetic disorders."

It's hard to say what exactly happened - yet

Jewish communities have suffered genocides throughout history.

According to the study, the findings are consistent with these people being victims of a historically recorded antisemitic massacre in Norwich on February 6, 1190 AD by local crusaders and their supporters.

Dr. Tom Booth, the senior research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “Ralph de Diceto’s account of the 1190 AD attacks is evocative, but a deep well containing the bodies of Jewish men, women, and especially children forces us to confront the real horror of what happened.”

Study abstract

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.

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