Jews of the lost valley

A DNA analysis of two remote communities in the US results in an interesting find.

San Luis Valley 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
San Luis Valley 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A remote valley in southern Colorado may not be the first place one would go in search of a lost Jewish community. But a recent study published in the US Journal of Human Genetics suggests that San Luis is harboring exactly such a secret.
“We found evidence for sharing of segments of DNA between Sephardic Jews and Spanish Americans from Colorado and New Mexico, suggesting shared ancestry,” says Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and the study’s director.
His team analyzed two communities that trace back to Spanish colonial times: one in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado and New Mexico and one in the Loja Province of Southern Ecuador. It is the first time that researchers have studied the entire genome for large chunks of DNA that indicate shared ancestry rather than just looking at particular disease mutations or other individual genes. They calculated Jewish ancestry among the Lojanos at five to 10 percent and among the Spanish Americans, or Hispanos, at 1% to 5%.
Ostrer’s study was undertaken after previous studies found that the 185delAG mutation for breast cancer, which is usually associated with Ashkenazi Jews, was prevalent in New Mexican Hispanos too.
Jeff Wheelwright is author of a new book, The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion and DNA, which was recently published in the US by W.W. Norton. In his book he explores how the mutation may have traveled from the Middle East, and its implications.
“Those initial findings raised some awkward questions. What did the presence of the mutation say about the Catholics who discovered New Mexico?” he asks. “Some people in the valley were reluctant to confront these questions, at least initially. But rumors of a secret Jewish past had been flying around the San Luis Valley for decades and now genetic evidence seemed to support them. So families in this region have had to come to terms with their family history being suddenly illuminated by modern science.”
Interestingly, by comparing DNA samples from Jews around the world, scientists estimate that the 185delAG mutation arose well over 2,000 years ago among the Hebrew tribes of Israel prior to any split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. It spread and multiplied in succeeding generations, even as Jews emigrated from the Middle East to Europe. Because Jews throughout history often married other Jews, the mutation became more prevalent among Jewish populations.
Five hundred years ago a number of Conversos – Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition – made their way across the Atlantic. Over the past few decades, scholars claim to have found remnants of Crypto- Jewish practices in communities in the southwestern US as well as in Latin America. As the theory goes, when the Inquisition hit the shores of the New World the Crypto-Jews moved to the far-flung corners of the Spanish Empire in a bid to escape the Church’s reach.
ONE CANCER patient from the initial study, Beatrice Wright of Colorado, began to investigate her own family heritage when she discovered that she carried the mutation. She was tested after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 at the age of 40. Her maiden name is Martinez and she had many relatives in the San Luis valley. She connected the mutation to memories of conceivably Jewish customs, such as covering mirrors while mourning a loved one’s death. Robert Martinez helps sift through family records looking for references to Judaism. He traces his roots back to members of the first members of an expedition to New Mexico in 1598. He carries the mutation, as do two of his sisters. The Jewish connection caused no stir in his family. He wants to know who he is, where he comes from.
Some Hispanics even keep up forms of Jewish life without knowing their origin. Demetrio Valdez, a Catholic cattle farmer in the San Luis Valley, for example, grew up practicing kosher slaughter without realizing that the technique was Jewish.
“I found that people are not always who they say they are, if we apply genetic criteria to them. But in the end, the identity that people claim for themselves is indeed who they are. If genetics helps someone to make or change an identity, so much the easier.” says Wheelwright. “The reaction of the Hispanos to the findings of a likely Jewish heritage was all over the map. Some were intrigued, some were hostile to the idea, but most were nonplussed.”
Orlando Mondragon, one of the New Mexicans who took part in the study, wasn’t at all surprised to hear news of his likely Jewish heritage. “He always thought so,” says his wife, Viola, “because he had done some background studies into his family history. He was intrigued by it all.”
Does this mean that there are likely other Spanish populations with some evidence of Jewish origin? “Yes, 185delAG is the most common mutation among Mexican Americans in California,” Dr. Ostrer explains. One suspects that this is not the end of the story.