Kashmir’s Jewish Connection

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Scores of books and ethnolinguistic literature have been around to explain who the Lost Tribes of Israel took refuge in Kashmir. The authors studied physical features, language and connected legends and places to support the narrative. Now a new research carried out by scientists in USA and Kashmir says, the claims are myths, reports Saima Bhat

The centuries-old “myth” about the ‘lost tribes of Israel’ had a strong Kashmir angle and it led to countless papers. Exiled in 722 BCE, it was believed that they had travelled to Kashmir taking the historic Silk Route and spread across various countries in the Middle East, Persia, and Afghanistan. A recent joint research done in the USA with SKIMS has examined by issue and laid it to the rest.

The research paper A Genome-Wide Search for Greek and Jewish Admixture in the Kashmiri Population was jointly done by Department of Human Genetics and Division of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies, Department of Internal Medicine from the University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City, Utah USA), and Department of Internal & Pulmonary Medicine, Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Kashmir (SKIMS).

The paper was focused on the longstanding hypothesis that Kashmiri population derives ancestry from Jewish or Greek sources. Various studies in last more than two centuries have claimed that there are historical and archaeological evidence of the ancient Greek presence in India and Kashmir.

It has also been proposed in the study that many of the rural tribes of Kashmir are of Greek descent as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. “It is thought that many of Alexander’s conscripts and soldiers settled in parts of India, including Kashmir, and intermixed with the local population once his conquests ended in India. This hypothesis has been supported by archaeological evidence of ancient Greek presence in Kashmir,” the paper explains.

Lineage of Dissent

There have been series of studies that have connected linkages or similarities between the Hebrew and the Kashmiri. Even some of the physical features including a peculiar skin disease were shared by the two ethnicities resulting in the conclusion that they have the same ancestry. Medically, the peculiar baldness is called Alopecia.

To investigate this hypothesis, the researchers studied a sample population of 15 Kashmiris whose DNA was received at SKIMS. In the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, the same sample of a genotype data from 573 persons of Jewish descent who represent 16 populations, including two Sephardic, were also collected from the Jewish HapMap Project, which served as a Jewish ancestry reference group.

The sample population from Kashmir had resided in the Kashmir for at least three generations and had no history of marriages outside the valley or to a non-Kashmiri. And another sample for genotyping was taken from sixteen Kashmiri Tibetans from Srinagar, who had Tibetan ancestry and now practised Islam. They had also performed further genotyping on a previously undescribed population of 32 firsthand second generation Tibetan exiles in McLeod Ganj that included two individuals from the Tibetan Children’s Village, to serve as population references.

This study was done using a genome-wide genotyping and admixture detection methods, in which it was found that there are no substantial signs of Greek or Jewish admixture in modern-day Kashmiris. The ancestry of Kashmiri Tibetans was also determined, which showed signs of admixture with populations from northern India and West Eurasia.

The researchers have written in their joint paper that it is possible that the southern European and Mediterranean admixture seen in the Kashmiri individuals represents Greek or Sephardic Jewish ancestry. However, these patterns are not Kashmiri specific and are seen in a number of nearby Indo-European ethnolinguistic populations in northern India and Pakistan. Taken together, these findings have strongly suggested that the Kashmiri population is genetically similar to nearby populations and does not have a distinctly different ancestral origin.

Interestingly, the genomes of Tibetan population, however, have displayed their ancestry from both Tibetan and south-west Asian sources. “The Kashmiri Tibetans show ancestry deriving from the various populations of India, Pakistan, and western Asia,” The paper reads.“The degree of ancestry deriving from these populations in the Kashmiri Tibetans is also highly variable, which is a pattern consistent with recent admixture. Ancestry from these populations could suggest that admixture took place between Tibetans and Arabic-speaking peoples in the past. Such events are thought to have occurred as early as the eighth century AD when Islam was first introduced to Tibet.”

In addition, some Kashmiri Tibetans who claimed to have originated from Kashmir migrated to Lhasa and returned to India after the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China. Once they were exiled by the Beijing to West Bengal, Pandit Nehru accepted their Kashmir ancestry and helped them take refuge in Kashmir, their home now. “These migratory events could have resulted in additional admixture,” reads the paper.

The results of the study show that the Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are very genetically similar to previously studied Tibetan populations found on the Tibetan Plateau. As a result, studies of this population could be useful in elucidating the genetic and physiological mechanisms by which Tibetans are able to adapt and survive in high altitude and hypoxic conditions.

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