Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz with accurate biogeographic tools

Eran Elhaik1 , Ranajit Das1, Mehdi Pirooznia2, and Paul Wexler3

1 University of Sheffield, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, Sheffield, UK

2 Johns Hopkins University, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Baltimore, MD, USA

3 Tel Aviv University, Department of Linguistics, Tel-Aviv, Israel


The search for ancient Ashkenaz has been ongoing for over 1000 years. In the 11th century, Bible scholars determined that Ashkenaz stands for Germany based on the similarity between the names “Gomer” (Noah’s grandson and the father of Ashkenaz) and “Germany,” which became the standard. To test this inference, we sought to trace the origin of the Yiddish language, the native language of Ashkenazic Jews. The Yiddish language is over one thousand years old and incorporates German, Slavic, and Hebrew elements. The popular view claims Yiddish has a German origin1, whereas the opposing view posits a Slavic origin2. To localize Yiddish, we attempted to find the biogeographical origin of Yiddish speakers using the Geographic Population Structure (GPS)3, which converts DNA to geographical data. An analysis of 393 Ashkenazic Jewish genomes, half of which were from sole-Yiddish speakers, localized most Ashkenazic Jews along major primeval trade routes in northeastern Turkey adjacent to primeval villages with names that may be derived from the word “Ashkenaz.” One of those villages was abandoned in the mid-7th century, presumably when the Jews have left the region. A loss of haplogroups was evident in non-Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews. Our results imply that by combining accurate genetic tools with linguistics and history we were able to identify ancient Ashkenaz – one of the biggest mysteries of the Old World. Our approach can be applied to both modern and ancient DNA to address long standing questions in archaeogenetics. Our study has recently been published4.



  1. Katz, D. East and West, Khes and Shin, and the Origin of Yiddish. in Studies in Jewish Culture in Honor of Khone Shmeruk   (eds Bartal Israel, Mendelsohn Ezra, & Turniansky Chava)  9-38 (Zalman Center for Jewish History, 1993).
  2. Wexler, P. The Ashkenazic Jews: a Slavo-Turkic people in search of a Jewish identity.  (Slavica, 1993).
  3. Elhaik, E., Tatarinova T.,  et al. Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins. Nat. Commun.5, doi:10.1038/ncomms4513 (2014).
  4. Das, R., Wexler, P., Pirooznia, M. & Elhaik, E. Localizing Ashkenazic Jews to primeval villages in the ancient Iranian lands of Ashkenaz. Genome Biol. Evol., doi:10.1093/gbe/evw046 (2016).
  5. Elhaik, E., Tatarinova, T. V., Klyosov, A. A. & Graur, D. The ‘extremely ancient’ chromosome that isn’t: a forensic bioinformatic investigation of Albert Perry’s X-degenerate portion of the Y chromosome. Eur. J. Hum. Genet., doi:10.1038/ejhg.2013.303 (2014).


Eran Elhaik


While obtaining my Ph.D, I studied the compositional properties of eukaryotic genomes. I carried large-scale analyses to study the effect of genomic compositional patterns on the evolution of eukaryotic genomes and developed novel algorithms to reveal the genome compositional organization. My findings caused a paradigm shift in a field that suffered from methodological problems for 20 years. I became a member of genome consortiums and coauthored nearly a dozen papers published in the most prestigious journals (e.g., Science, Nature, PNAS, and Genome Research). My training at the University of Texas, Houston and Johns Hopkins University formed my development as a population geneticist and genetic epidemiologist. My work as a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield has made major contributions to the field of paleogenomics, dating the most ancient Y chromosome and mitochondrial chromosomes. I believe that my expertise in molecular evolution, genomics, population genetics, human genetics, and bioinformatics and my record of excellence in each of these fields are most useful in studying neurological disorders. I dedicate much of my time to communicating my results to the public. As such, five of my recent studies received worldwide recognition and are constantly ranked among the most read papers in the world (e.g., http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/reports/most-read). My h-index is 16.