Study finds widespread traces of Sephardic genes in Latin America

Geneticists study genomes of 6,589 people from 5 countries; about one-quarter show what may be remnants of Jewish converso ancestry

File: An Orthodox Jewish Colombian family shown in 2012. (Paul Smith/For the Washington Post/via JTA)
File: An Orthodox Jewish Colombian family shown in 2012. (Paul Smith/For the Washington Post/via JTA)

JTA — In a genetic study of 6,589 people from five Latin American countries, about a quarter displayed traces of what may be Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Geneticist Juan-Camilo Chacón-Duque and his colleagues published their findings last week in Nature Communications magazine, in an article titled “Latin Americans show wide-spread Converso ancestry and imprint of local Native ancestry on physical appearance.”

Converso is the Spanish-language word for people who converted from Judaism to Christianity during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Many conversos, or anusim in Hebrew, fled to Latin America.

Overall, converso genes account for only a small part of the ancestries of the study populations from each country, ranging from 1 percent in Brazil to 4% in Chile. The researchers used a set of DNA variations, or haplotypes, observed to be common among Jews with roots in the Iberian Peninsula.

But converso genes “are widespread,” Chacón-Duque told JTA.

Some 23% of the 6,589 people sampled showed some genes — or more than 5% of their ancestry — associated with Sephardic, East Mediterranean, or South Mediterranean ancestry, “probably stemming mostly from the clandestine colonial migration” of conversos, the researchers wrote.

“For every individual we characterized more than 600,000 genetic variants,” they said, “creating a dense genome-wide profile of genetic variation for each individual.”

The study is the most comprehensive of its kind in Latin America, but “it doesn’t represent the whole population” of the genetically diverse region and “has biases,” Chacón-Duque said.

While the study indicates that converso genes have spread far and wide in Latin America, he added, the research sample of fewer than 7,000 people “doesn’t necessarily mean that a quarter of Latin Americans have Sephardic genes.”

Earlier this month, US Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) announced at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony that she is descended from Sephardic Jews who fled to Puerto Rico during the Spanish Inquisition. During the ensuing debate, genealogists noted that any individual can count some 1 million ancestors between the present and the year 1500.

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