Tudor Parfitt, the protagonist of the NOVA documentary "Lost Tribes of Israel,"
made a journey through southern Africa to study the unusual traditions of a
black African tribe called the Lemba. This Bantu-speaking group claimed Jewish
ancestry and observed many Semitic traditions such as kosher-like dietary
restrictions and slaughter practices, male circumcision rites, strict rules
against intermarriage, and Semitic-sounding clan names. (See Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Journey.)
Parfitt spent many months with the Lemba, meeting their tribal and religious
leaders and observing some of their most sacred rituals. He came to the
conclusion that the origin of many of the Lemba traditions was indeed
Semitic, not African. But whether these traditions came from Islamic or
Jewish sources was impossible to discern from the historical and
anthropological evidence available. It would take Y-chromosome studies to delve
deeper into this question of origin.
A few years after his travels, Parfitt teamed up with a group from The Center
for Genetic Anthropology at University College London to look for a genetic
counterpart to the Lemba's oral tradition of Jewish descent. Using a relatively
new technique in genetic studies, the team identified a particular series of
genetic markers on the Y chromosome of Lemba males. They then compared these
markers to other groups with whom the Lemba might have shared a common ancestor
The team collected DNA samples from Bantu (African), Yemeni (Arab), and
Sephardic Jews and Azhkenazi Jews (including Cohanim from both
communities) to compare the amount of similarity that existed between each of
these groups. As we've seen, the more similar the Y chromosome, the more closely related are
some individuals in the different groups to a common paternal ancestor. As a consequence, one can establish links between
Dr. David Goldstein of the Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics, University College, London.
In an interview with NOVA, team member Dr. David Goldstein commented on the
team's findings: "The first striking thing about the Y chromosomes of the Lemba
is that you find this particular chromosomal type (Cohen modal haplotype) that
is characteristic of the Jewish priesthood in a frequency that is similar to
what you see in major Jewish populations. Something just under one out of every
10 Lemba that we looked at had this particular Y chromosomal type that appears
to be a signature of Jewish ancestry. Perhaps even more striking is the fact
that this Cohen genetic signature is strongly associated with a particular clan
in the Lemba. Most of the Cohen modal haplotypes that we observe are carried by
individuals of the Buba clan which, in Lemba oral tradition, had a leadership
role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel."
What this study shows is that the Lemba, and more specifically some members of
the Buba sub-clan, seem to have an ancestral connection to Judaic populations.
Like an oral history, but written in the letters of their DNA, the Lemba Y
chromosome hands from father to son a living record of the past.