Uncovering Ancient Ashkenaz

The origin of the Yiddish language (spoken at least since the 9th century A.D.), and consequently Yiddish speakers, has been debated for the past several centuries, mainly between linguists. While the Rhineland hypothesis suggests a German origin, the Irano-Turko-Slavic hypothesis, proposed by Paul Wexler, suggests a more complex origin starting with Slavic lands in Khazaria, followed by Ukraine, and finally Germany where the language was relexified, i.e., adopted a German vocabulary, but retained its Slavic grammar, which is why Yiddish was oftentimes called “Bad German.”


Yiddish is written in Aramaic (or Modern Hebrew) letters, but sounds like German

To evaluate these two hypotheses we applied our Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool to the genomes of over 360 sole Yiddish and non-Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews. This is the largest study of Ashkenazic Jews and the first one to study Yiddish speakers. Surprisingly, GPS honed in an obscure region in northeast Turkey, with very little documented history of Jewish presence. Given the accuracy of GPS, it was a bit far away from Khazaria and too far away from the famous Babylonian schools to call it.

Unlike other tools, GPS accepts almost no parameters that can be manipulated and those that can be tweaked did not alter the results. Left with little choice, we wore our tracking shoes, packed food for several days, said goodbye to our loved ones, and went to the nearest library to dig in some old archeological and historical books.

As it turned out, we found more than we asked for. The area that GPS has identified was found to be fraught with villages (one was abandoned in the mid-7th century) whose name may be derived from the word “Ashkenaz,” suggesting that we have found ancient Ashkenaz. The search for ancient Ashkenaz has been one of the longest quests in human history lasting at least 1000 years (perhaps second only to Noah’s Ark that has been searched at least since the 3rd century A.D.) and although further archeological evidence are necessary to prove our findings, we have a reason to be optimistic, since this is the only place in the world with four placenames that may derive their name from the word “Ashkenaz” and they cluster nicely along trade routes – exactly what you would expect from a nation of traders. This is also where linguistic, genomic, historic, and geographic evidence converge.


GPS predictions for the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews (orange triangles) overlap villages whose name may be derived from the word “Ashkenaz” that reside along the Silk Roads and other trade routes. GPS predictions for the DNA of Iranian (yellow triangles) and Mountain (pink triangles) Jews are also shown. The figure was taken from Das et al. (2016) study published in GBE.

We can also conclude that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were not soldiers (they left this to the Khazars) nor scholars (they left that to the Iranian Jews), but merchants who plied land and maritime trade routes, invented a secret language with 251 words for “buy” and “sell” to maintain their monopoly, and built their township/state/kingdom (we cannot be certain) in a hub of trade routes. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slave, however, as Newman once said:

“When you control the mail, you control information” (Seinfeld)

I too believe that the most important commodity they transferred was information. You can think of these people as Twitter, Google, and Facebook of the Old World. If this is true, we can further speculate that gossiping (that ultimate need to communicate juicy information to win a moment of glory) has deep roots and was originally developed as a survival mechanism some 1500-2000 years ago. Overall, these findings are consistent with historical records depicting Jews as merchants. Indeed, by the 8th century the words “Jew” and “merchant” were practically synonymous.

Our findings indicate that the origin of the term “Ashkenaz” was in Turkey rather than in Germany, as is commonly thought and that Ashkenazic Jews split into two groups after the fall of Khazaria. Some remained in the Caucasus and others migrated into Eastern Europe and Germany that has been incorrectly proposed to be the original land of Ashkenaz. The two groups still call themselves Ashkenazic Jews, however the name became more strongly associated with the latter group.

Population geneticists are oftentimes criticized for being unable t0 generate new insights (aside fancy PCA and Structure-like plots that no one else understands) and that at the end they are falling back on the work of historians. Here, we were able to combine knowledge from different fields with powerful genetic tools to generate new knowledge and tie few loose ends of historical fabrics.

Our findings were published online in Genome Biology and Evolution.

For GPS FAQ click here

Our paper cna be cited as:

Das, R., P. Wexler, M. Pirooznia, and E. Elhaik. 2016. Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz. Genome Biology and Evolution.


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