Can Genetics Solve the Mystery of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel?

Geneticists will always need to rely on non-genetic evidence to make any historical sense of the data—written texts, oral traditions, and interviews with people about who they are and where their ancestors come from. Without such evidence it is impossible to turn the testimony of DNA into a coherent account of the past, and that process means that there will also always be some degree of imagination involved in the construction of genetic history, just as is the case for historical accounts based on ancient texts or archaeological finds.

See Also: The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age (Princeton University Pres, 2017)

By Steven Weitzman
Department of Religious Studies
University of Pennsylvania
August 2017

Click here for article.

Comments (4)

You make a very persuasive case for being cautious in these genetic matters. I was wondering if the only place to look for the Lost Tribes is among the modern Samaritans. If the Bible account is anywhere near the literal truth there was a huge population transfer between the Israelite Kingdom and the other Assyrian dominions way back then, such that there must be many Israelite genes in Iraq and many genes from a mixed multitude in the area of the old Northern Kingdom, subject to much churning over intervening centuries. Would the geneticists have any way of tracing all that after all this time?
It seems that after a few centuries there were no political or religious groups in Iraq and suchlike, not even families, claiming Lost Tribe status. Perhaps that indicates rapid loss of genetic identity?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 08/22/2017 - 17:12

Prof. Weitzman,
Thank you very much for this article. I had been wondering for years if any biblical scholar was going to respond to the claims of Karl Skorecki and his co-researchers. I am glad to learn that you have a more extended discussion in a book.

#2 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 08/24/2017 - 19:02

To answer Martin's query, there are certainly other peoples who believe themselves to be descendants of the lost tribes of ancient Israel.

Another famous case studied by geneticists, though involving the tribe of Judah rather than the ten lost tribes, involves the Lemba people in southern Africa, some of whom believe themselves descendants of exiles from ancient Judah.

But I don't know of any other people where we can trace this belief as far back in time as we can for the Samaritans, so they really do represent an important test-case. We will have to see how the genetics research develops, but some skepticism seems appropriate.

My thanks for the question and to Dr Avalos for his kind note.

#3 - Steven Weitzman - 08/24/2017 - 19:26

I have now bought and read the most relevant and some other passages of your interesting book and have done a little wider reading, some of it only on Wikipedia levels, but including Raphael Falk in Frontiers in Genetics 2015 'Genetic markers cannot determine Jewish descent' and noting Tofarelli (same journal previous year) about the difficulty of finding 'markers ...of Bible tales' by these means.
The story as presented here, even more in the book than in the article I think, is a gentle parable of the conflict - hardly a conflict because the scientists aren't really interested - between scientific modernism and literary postmodernism. But it seems to me that the real story is a much darker one in which research which was either overconfidently conducted or overconfidently reported in a heated ideological atmosphere, one might say echo chamber. There was evidently much use of latest techniques, which implies an excellent funding stream, which is always in all contexts a well-known source of unbalanced or
overconfident thinking. No individual may be particularly responsible, as things move from the gentle buzz of laboratory computers to the excitement of the press release, for
the overconfidence. But still it is important, when the ideological atmosphere is crackling with so much thunder and lightning, to make highly explicit efforts to emphasise the continuing room for doubt and scepticism. Not to do so is irresponsible and dangerous, as it takes no postmodern verbal trickery to see.

#4 - Martin Hughes - 08/30/2017 - 13:16

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.