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Population genetic history

The origin of Middle Eastern populations

Every population has its founding myth, a story of its origins going back in time, which defines its identity, customs, and spirit. But to what extent these stories are true? Unsurprisingly, biological research lagged behind archeology, history, and anthropology, but its contribution, albeit later, became more significant over the past centuries.

We are interested in developing and applying genomic tools to study the genomic history of populations and through that understand the roles that demographic and biological forces played in shaping them. 

Two recent example are Ashkenazic Jews whose language, Yiddish, have been the subject of controversy for over three centuries. In Des et al. (2016), we aimed to identify the origin of Yiddish. Since language, genetics, and geography are correlated we reasoned that the geographical origin of Yiddish can be derived from the geographical origin of the DNA of Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews. To infer the geographical origin of their genomes, we applied the Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool (Elhaik et al. 2014) to the genomes of over 360 Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews. We traced their genomes to northeast Turkey where we uncovered four villages whose name may be derived from the word "Ashkenaz," thereby uncovering the primeval lands of “Ancient Ashkenaz.”

A map over Turkey with a lot of green triangles and some black squares.
Localizing Ashkenazic Jews (green) to Ancient Ashkenaz using GPS

The origin of Druze has remained unknown for almost a thousand years. The Druze people, who live almost exclusively in the mountains of Syria, Lebanon and Israel have captivated linguists, historians, and sociologists, who have not been able to agree whether the Druze are of Arabian, Turkish, Caucasus or Persian origin. In Marshall et al. (2016), we applied the GPS tool (Elhaik et al. 2014) to the genomes of Druze and Levantine populations from the region to find the geographical origins. Unlike other Levantine populations, Druze were predicted to some of the tallest mountains in the Near East, in agreement with their propensity to live in high altitudes. By contrast, most of their Levantine neighbors were predicted southern of Turkey.

A map over Middle East with green dots, red arrows and black triangles.
Localizing Druze (green) to their ancient lands using GPS

We are interested in extending our methods to further populations and species of interest.


  1. Elhaik, E. The missing link of Jewish European ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian hypotheses. Genome Biol. Evol. 5, 61-74, doi:10.1093/gbe/evs119 (2013).
  2. Elhaik, E. In search of the jüdische Typus: a proposed benchmark to test the genetic basis of Jewishness challenges notions of “Jewish biomarkers”. Front. Genet. 7, doi:10.3389/fgene.2016.00141 (2016).
  3. Elhaik, E. Editorial: Population Genetics of Worldwide Jewish People. Front. Genet. 8, doi:10.3389/fgene.2017.00101 (2017).
  4. Elhaik, E. et al. The GenoChip: a new tool for genetic anthropology. Genome Biol. Evol. 5, 1021-1031, doi:10.1093/gbe/evt066 (2013).
  5. Elhaik, E. et al. Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins. Nat. Commun. 5, 1-12, doi:10.1038/ncomms4513 (2014).
  6. Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M. & Elhaik, E. Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz. Genome Biol. Evol. 8, 1132–1149, doi:10.1093/gbe/evw046 (2016).
  7. Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M. & Elhaik, E. The Origins of Ashkenaz, Ashkenazic Jews, and Yiddish. Front. Genet. 8, doi:10.3389/fgene.2017.00087 (2017).
  8. Marshall, S., Das, R., Pirooznia, M. & Elhaik, E. Reconstructing Druze population history. Sci. Rep. 6, 35837, doi:10.1038/srep35837 (2016).
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