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Genes Unravel Jewish History

by Roger Highfield, Science Editor

The Jewish tradition that a priestly caste - the Cohanim - are descendants of an ancestor who lived 3,000 years ago is backed by a genetic study published today.

The findings are consistent with these priests being descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, as stated in the Old Testament. However, the study in today's Nature is silent when it comes to the identity of the common ancestor.

The scientists also believe that they have found a genetic marker for the ancient Hebrew population which can be used to unravel its relationship with contemporary communities.

The work provided a demonstration of the power of genetics to shed new light on human history, said David Goldstein of Oxford University, who reports the findings with colleagues at University College London, University of London, and the Technion in Haifa.

"I was quite staggered by the results," he said. "It supports the oral tradition that the status of these priests has been passed from father to son over some considerable time, perhaps 3,000 years."

Jewish tradition says that, after the Exodus from Egypt, male descendants of Aaron were selected to serve as priests, forming a caste called the Cohanim. The Cohanim continues to play a role in synagogues and to subject to religious restrictions - its members are forbidden from marrying divorcees or converts in Israel, for example - said Neil Bradman of Oxford University, a co-author.

A Cohen, Craig Levison, 26, the co-ordinator of Jewish Community Information, London, was unsurprised by the disclosures. "Because I am a Cohen I have known that since I was born anyway."

However, the same study of 306 Jews did not find the same degree of genetic homogeneity of the Levites, the male descendants of the tribe of Levi, of which Moses was a member.

The research on the origins of the priests began when it was speculated that, if Jewish oral tradition were accurate, the genetic makeup of present-day Levites and Cohanim should not only be distinguishable from other Jews but should also derive from a common ancestral type no more recently than the establishment by the Jews of the first temple in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago.


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