December 5, 2008 / 6:22 PM / 9 years ago

Sephardic Jews leave genetic legacy in Spain

3 Min Read

MADRID (Reuters) - From the 15th century on, Spain's Jews were mostly expelled or forced to convert, but today some 20 percent of Spanish men tested have Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and 11 percent can be traced to North Africa, a study has found.

"These values are surprisingly high," the researchers wrote in their report, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

They checked the Y chromosome, a stretch of DNA carried only by men and passed down with little change from father to son. Mutations in this gene can be used to trace ancestry, and some have been clearly linked to Sephardic Jewish and northern African populations.

"The genetic composition of the current population is the legacy of our diverse cultural and religious past," one of the report's authors, Francesc Calafell, from the evolutionary biology faculty at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said on Friday.

Along with researchers from Britain's University of Leicester and Wellcome Trust, the scientists analyzed DNA samples from 1,140 men in Spain, Portugal and the Balearic Islands and compared them to Moroccans, Algerians, and Sephardic Jews in Istanbul and Israel.

"The work shows that religious conversions and subsequent marriages between people of different lines had a significant impact on modern populations both in the Balearic Islands and in Portugal," Elena Bosch of the University of Leicester said in a statement.

One of the most surprising findings is the percentage of Spanish genes whose origin can be traced to Sephardic Jews, although Spain had a relatively small Jewish population compared to its Moorish population.

Some of these genes may pre-date the Sephardic Jewish culture, the researchers said, noting that the Phoenicians also share some of the genetic characteristics.

The Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711 and remained until defeated in battle by the so-called Catholic Monarchs in 1492. Moorish influence is still very noticeable in Spain's language, architecture, music and other aspects of its culture.

Jews lived in Spain before the Moors arrived and although small in number played a significant cultural and economic role.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain in various repressive moves, started by the Catholic Monarchs. The study suggests many Jews converted rather than face repression.

Some Sephardic communities to this day speak Ladino, which is similar to medieval Spanish and can be understood by present-day Spaniards.

Reporting by Teresa Larraz, writing by Sarah Morris, editing by Maggie Fox and Michael Roddy

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