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The Khazars are one of the most mysterious populations of the Old World whose abrupt disappearance from the history pages has tantalized scientists for years. Who were these Eurasian warriors? Were they Giants, Amazons, Turks, or Mongols? Were they all Jews or just their rulers? What happened to them and where are they now? Were they enslaved by their conquerors or were they absorbed into a different population?

To answer these questions we launched the Khazar DNA Project. 

The first stage involved a crowdfunding effort, which has ended in 2012. This video accompanied the project:

The second stage, still going, aims to trace live descendants of Khazars.

Overall, this project traces the ancestry of the Khazars, by searching for their particular DNA signature in the genomes of different populations. Sounds like searching for a needle in a sack of hay? It’s somewhat similar, but imagine that you have a magnet!

What can DNA tell us? Our DNA is like a history encyclopedia. It tells us the stories of our forbearers from the first human who walked on the earth to YOU. Different DNA regions can tell us whether you ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, while other regions tell us about the path your ancestors took out of Africa. It all depends on what you want to know and your ability to interpret the genetic code. We are interested in identifying populations around the world the carry the Caucasus signature. Because Caucasus people remained largely confined in the Caucasus, finding populations who carry these signature is the first step in relating them to the Khazars.

Why Khazars? Why now? Unlike the famous Greek, Roman, and Persian Empires, the history of the Khazar’s Empire remained a mystery, known only to very few people. The main reason was that the study of Khazaria was forbidden in the Soviet Union, where the major sites reside. Dr. Satanovsky, director of the Middle Eastern Institute in Moscow, said that Josef Stalin detested the idea that a Jewish empire had come before Russia’s own. He ordered references to Khazar history removed from textbooks because they “disproved HIS theory of Russian statehood.” Only now are Russian scholars free to explore the Khazar culture, and they are doing a tremendous job. The Itil excavations, for example, sponsored by the Russian-Jewish Congress, recently revealed one of the three Khazar capital cities. While archeologists and historians are making their contribution to our knowledge of the Khazars, so should geneticists. Using genetic data we can unravel some of the mystery around these people who built their Empire of the basis of harmony and peace and later on joined the Jewish faith and perhaps contributed to Eastern European Jewish culture.

Our knowledge of the ancient Khazars is based almost entirely on the writings of educated, wealthy, elite men who often contradicted one another. The Soviet Union did its share of spreading fear and prejudice around about the Khazars that still prevails among many people and hinders studies in the field. It’s time to change our approach to Khazar history by harnessing genetics and combining it with archeological and historical knowledge.

What is this new project about? My research identified a unique Caucasus genetic signature found exclusively in Caucasus populations. This is not surprising, because Caucasus populations remained isolated in their mountain terrain for centuries and over time they became genetically distinct from other populations. The only population who mass-migrated from the Caucasus were the Khazars when they fled from the Rus in the 13th century. Because the Khazars were Jews, we speculate that Jewish populations, mostly around ancient Khazaria, will exhibit a large fraction of this signature, compared to other populations, but we will search non-Jewish populations as well. The possibility to reveal the genetic background of these mysterious people through genetic data is one of the most exciting ventures now available with Next Generation Sequencing data.