Response to the study: “Diverse genetic origins of medieval steppe nomad conquerors” – the first sequencing of Khazar genomes

Mikheyev et al. (2019) have published in BioRxiv their ancient DNA study of nine Khazar genome. Here is their abstract:

Over millennia, steppe nomadic tribes raided and sometimes overran settled Eurasian civilizations. Most polities formed by steppe nomads were ephemeral, making it difficult to ascertain their genetic roots or what present-day populations, if any, have descended from them. Exceptionally, the Khazar Khaganate controlled the trade artery between the Black and Caspian Seas in VIII-IX centuries, acting as one of the major conduits between East and West. However, the genetic identity of the ruling elite within the polyglot and polyethnic Khaganate has been a much-debated mystery; a controversial hypothesis posits that post-conversion to Judaism the Khazars gave rise to modern Ashkenazim. We analyzed whole-genome sequences of eight men and one woman buried within the distinctive kurgans of the Khazar upper (warrior) class. After comparing them with reference panels of present-day Eurasian and Iron Age populations, we found that the Khazar political organization relied on a polyethnic elite. It was predominantly descended from Central Asian tribes but incorporated genetic admixture from populations conquered by Khazars. Thus, the Khazar ruling class was likely relatively small and able to maintain a genetic identity distinct from their subjugated populations over the course of centuries. Yet, men of mixed ancestry could also rise into the warrior class, possibly providing troop numbers necessary to maintain control of their large territory. However, when the Khaganate collapsed it left few persistent genetic traces in Europe. Our data confirm the Turkic roots of the Khazars, but also highlight their ethnic diversity and some integration of conquered populations.

Link to the full manuscript


My response was published in BioRxiv. Here is my abstract:

Recently, Mikheyev et al. (2019) have produced a preprint study describing the genomes of nine Khazars archeologically dated from the 7th to the 9th centuries found in the Rostov county in modern-day Russia. Skull morphology indicated a mix of “Caucasoid” and “Mongoloid” shapes. The authors compared the samples to ancient and contemporary samples to study the genetic makeup of the Khazars and their genetic legacy and addressed the question of the relationships between the Khazar and Ashkenazic Jews. A careful examination reveals grave concerns regarding all the aspects of the study from the identification of the “Khazar” samples, the choice of environment for ancient DNA sequencing, and the analyses. The authors did not disclose the data used in their study, and their methodology is incoherent. We demonstrate that their analyses yield nonsensical results and argue that none of the claims made in this study are supported by the data unequivocally. Provided the destruction of the bone samples and the irreproducibility of the analyses, even by the forgivable standards of the field, this study is irreplicable, wasteful, and misleading.

Link to the full manuscript


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1 Response to Response to the study: “Diverse genetic origins of medieval steppe nomad conquerors” – the first sequencing of Khazar genomes

  1. Jim W. Dean says:

    This new study has the whiff of “they shot the arrow and then drew the bullseye around it” twist we have seen from time to time on this particular topic.

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