The Bnei Menashe tribe in northeastern India believe they are descended from the Menasseh tribe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. They are one of many groups from around the world who are seeking recognition by the Jewish state, asylum, or emigration to Israel. The Bnei Menashe share an oral history of migration from the Middle East along the Silk Road to India. They have strongly rooted religious practices that are in accord with the Jewish faith. Though certainly not conclusive, genetic testing has shown that some of the female members of the tribe have DNA shared with Middle Eastern peoples.
Ever since the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the seventh century BC, many political and cultural groups have claimed a connection with the Ten Lost Tribes. With the advent of genetic testing, the modern interest in these tribes has heated up. Jewish historian and researcher from Florida International University, Tudor Parfitt, has been tracking down these groups and writing about the so-called lost tribes for many years (The Lost Tribes of Israel: the History of a Myth, Orion Publishing, 2004). He has traveled to India, Africa, and recently studied the Golgadala Tribe in Papua, New Guinea. He was trying to ascertain how the Golgadala fit into Jewish history and if, indeed, they are connected to the Lost Tribes of Israel. In a recent interview, however, Parfitt told this writer, “There’s no reason to suppose that the Ten Lost Tribes have any connection to any modern groups, except mythically. Yet, the myth is very important to these people. It’s very important to the Golgadala.”
Tribal members of the Golgadala in Papua, New Guinea and the Bnei Menashe in India are converting to Judaism, and the cultural practices of the faith are increasing. Doubtless, there is a special significance for these people to being connected to the compelling narrative of the Lost Tribes. Impossible as it may sound, the genetic testing currently underway often reveals connections, which seem startling, between present-day people all around the world and the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean region.
Genetic tracking aside, however, the mystery of the Lost Tribes of Israel has continued to fascinate, and even inspire, many around the world who claim no direct association with the Jewish faith. Jews, after all, take their name from the tribe of Judah, which, along with the tribe of Benjamin, once controlled southern Palestine. Though the fate of the ten tribes that occupied northern Palestine is unknown, they have not been forgotten. Jesus himself said, we are told, that he came to find them, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)
The history of ancient Israel, as recorded in the Bible’s book of Genesis, states that there were once twelve tribes, all descended from the twelve sons of the Israelite patriarch Jacob—the so-called “Children of Israel.” These tribes, we are told, were enslaved in Egypt, though some historians have speculated that, in fact, they were Egyptian themselves. [See the article following this one.]
Ultimately, led by Moses (possibly around 1250 BC), they escaped across the Red Sea and, after 40 years wandering in the wilderness, crossed the Jordan river and settled in Canaan—the land which, Genesis says, was “promised” to their father Jacob—where the territories of Israel and Palestine are found today. The legitimacy of that claim remains a subject of fiery debate today. The twelve tribes were united under King David and subsequently under Solomon. After the death of Solomon, around 931 BC, the ten northern tribes seceded but the two kingdoms lived peacefully, side-by-side, for the most part. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom. At the time, it was the practice of the Assyrians to take the indigenous people from the lands they conquered and neutralize them by transplanting them to some other remote area of the empire. The ten tribes were dispersed throughout the kingdom into what would be the modern geographical areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This became the first diaspora (dispersal) of the Israelites.
There are written records from that time documenting the Assyrian practices. Cuneiform tablets from Iran in the fifth century BC, with military lists of soldiers, show Jewish names from the region of Israel. A century later, however, those names were no longer evident. Most historians say that the ten conquered tribes, like conquered peoples elsewhere in the ancient world, lost their separate identity, were assimilated, and ceased to exist.
Many, however, believe the claims of the Bnei Menashe in India. Rabbi Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s chairman, recently welcomed a group of the Bnei Menashe to Israel, saying, “Your arrival provides us all with yet another reason to celebrate. Your return after more than 2,700 years is proof that the ingathering of the exiles continues to move forward.” While many question whether the genetic evidence constitutes actual proof of a lineage back to the Lost Tribes, there are, yet, many believers.
Not much is said, though, about the Israel-despising, Taliban-fostering Pashtun tribe of Afghanistan, which also considers itself descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Yet many in both the Jewish and Christian communities still hold that the true tribes of Israel will one day be reunited. In fact, the biblical notion of a promised land, “flowing with milk and honey,” for the children of Israel has inspired religious leaders, from Mormon founder Joseph Smith to Martin Luther King. While the more orthodox consider that place to be the State of Israel, there are yet more than a few who think the true ‘promised land’ is actually America.
The power of this cultural and spiritual narrative has served to perpetuate many legends of ancient birthrights. Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, was proud to trace her ancestry all the way back to King David. The British Israelite movement (from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries) believed the English and American peoples are descended from Ephraim and Manasseh, two of the Lost Tribes. The Mormon Church claims a connection with the same groups. Some say that the people of Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland are all descendants from the tribe of Dan or one of the other lost tribes. The Merovingian Dynasty in France claimed to come from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin through a dynastic marriage of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. The story, though, is not entirely one of lost bloodlines. Some New Age groups see reincarnation as the means by which the ancient destiny of the tribes of Israel is to be fulfilled. These believe that the “chosen” people are scattered throughout all races and peoples worldwide—the “name of God written in their forehead” (the third-eye chakra). Their ultimate regathering is said to be required in order to save the world.
The Stone of Scone, often referred to as the “Stone of Destiny,” is a block of red sandstone used for centuries in the coronation of the rulers of Scotland and later the monarchs of England. It is also known as Jacob’s Pillow Stone and is believed to come directly from Jacob (or Israel) on a mysterious journey from the Holy Land to Egypt to Spain to Ireland before arriving in Scotland. Although the composition of the current stone links it to Scotland, it is rumored that the original stone was a white marble that could have come from Egypt. The British have returned the stone to Scotland but—because of the mythological power of the belief attached to it—they treasure it and expect it to be available for their next coronation. Tudor Parfitt thinks, “It was the power of the myth that was desired by Queen Elizabeth and most of the crown heads, including the Swedish and Scottish royal families.” He said, “Everybody wants the connection. It’s a way of insinuating yourself into the sacred history of the people that you’re ruling. It’s one thing to be the King of Ireland; it’s something else to be in direct line to King David and, even further, to Jesus Christ. It doesn’t get any grander than that.”
Belief in the importance of the story of the lost tribes was very strong throughout the American colonial period. Often, when “modern” people encountered “primitive” cultures with evidence of advanced architecture or civilization, the colonizers interpreted what they saw as evidence of one of the Lost Tribes. One of the theories espoused in the Americas was that the Lost Tribes had built the thousands of mounds that dotted the landscape of eastern North America, but that the Indians had killed the “civilized Jews.” Frontier preachers gave sermons that called for their parishioners to go out and kill the “evil savages.” Here, it would seem, is an example of colonial powers using the myth to dehumanize the natives so that the colonists could justify taking their land.
Regarding an agenda to thus diminish the capabilities of native populations, Parfitt speculates, “That suggests very limited horizons and a Eurocentricity that is somewhat racist. Civilizations in Mexico and Central America were explained as the work of some European connection. In Africa, the ruins of Zimbabwe were put down to King Solomon. Solomon was used all the time to explain anything grandiose that was discovered just about anywhere from South America, to East Africa, to the Pacific. The trope of Solomon’s “gold lands” was responsible for a lot of myth-making.”
Some wonder if the genetic research now underway, in an attempt to identify the Lost Tribes of Israel, might also cultivate a kind of racism, by stressing the importance of a particular bloodline. “A lot of people think,” said Parfitt, “that any research in DNA with respect to population, and particularly with Jews, is racist. One can think of the Second World War and the Germans trying to portray the Jews as a race that is inferior and harmful. Anything suggesting that the Jews are a race smacks of a fascist viewpoint. The term ‘race’ is as meaningless here and it was when the Nazi’s used it. Race is entirely a social construction.” He continues, “The very fact that you can say this group of people originates on one line, on a particular part of the earth thousands of years ago, does not constitute a race.”
Schlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University goes further, emphasizing the irony of the current state of the research. “Whereas, in the past,” he says, “anyone who defined the Jews as a race was vilified as an anti-Semite, today anyone who is unprepared to define them as a race is labeled an anti-Semite.” The geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaikis is also careful to say, “The various groups of Jews in the world today do not share a common genetic origin. We are talking here about groups that are very heterogeneous and which are connected solely by religion.” This is the importance of the myth, or narrative, that ties a people together; it can easily be adapted to fit different cultural needs, as it does with the Golgadala.
So what is the value of the genetic research done today? “What DNA does,” argues Parfitt, “is to trace populations back to a particular spot on the face of the Earth many thousands of years ago; that’s what it can do. What population research on the Jews tells us is that a majority of these Jewish cultures did, indeed, start life in the area around the Mediterranean. The DNA of these Jews is very similar to the Eastern Cypriots and Palestinians who are indigenous to that region. It is taken to be very important by people on whom such studies have been done. Whether I think it’s important or not, doesn’t matter—for them, it’s huge.”
He continued, “In reality, we’re talking about the tiniest little bit of human being. And that little bit has nothing to do with intelligence, or looks, other than the fact that a few thousands years ago, some of these ancestors, and maybe only one line of ancestors, came from this one spot on the Earth. There may be hundreds of other ancestors that didn’t come from that spot. The significance of that one line can be exaggerated. One can see how modern genetic science is capable of creating identities and engendering an oversimplification that we should try to avoid.”
An interesting thread of genetic research is being done on what is called the Y-chromosomal Aaron. This is a hypothesized common ancestor of many of the Jewish priestly cast known as Kohanim (part of the biblical tribe of Levi), people today known as Kohen or Cohen. Although membership in the Jewish community is passed maternally, membership in the Jewish priesthood has been passed from father to son. Since Y-chromosomes are also passed somewhat intact from father to son, it can be shown when there is a common male ancestor, specifically, when there are specific haplogroups present in the chromosomes. (Haplogroups are groups of similar clusters of genes and their mutations that occur in the same spot on the chromosome.)
For example, since the sixteenth century, it has been theorized that tribes in the Afghan region were descended from one of the Lost Tribes. There is historical evidence that some Afghans did practice Judaism as early as the fifteenth century. However, a Y-chromosomal DNA study showed little connection of these tribes to the area around the Mediterranean; instead, their genes showed more connection to the Indus Valley.
However, with the Lemba people in Southern Africa, the genetic results were surprising and suggestive. In the early 1990’s, Parfitt began studying the Lemba people who claimed descent from Jewish ancestors who traveled from Yemen all the way down to the tip of Africa. According to the oral history of the Lemba, their ancestors were Jews who originated in a place called Senna, in present-day Yemen. Parfitt’s journey through Africa, tracing the origins of the Lemba, and the book he published about his journey, brought him international attention and earned him the title, “the British Indiana Jones.” He followed up that book with another claiming that the Lemba have the Ark of the Covenant in their possession.
Parfitt helped organize Y-DNA studies on the Lemba starting in 1996. The first study suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are Semitic in origin, which is a DNA pattern shared by Arabs and Jews. A second, more detailed study showed significant similarities between the markers of the Lemba and men of the Hadramawt region in Yemen, where Parfitt did find a ruined city named Senna. A later study found the Kohanim haplotype in other populations across the Middle East and Arabia. Interestingly, the studies of the Lemba suggested no Semitic female contributions to the gene pool. This indicates that the their ancestral men took wives from the neighboring communities, which also agrees with the Lemba’s oral history.
In this case, the genetic testing indicates that one genetic line for the Lemba comes from ancestors that did, at one time, live in Yemen near the area where the original twelve tribes were located. The weight of all the evidence from the oral history, genetics, anthropology, and archaeology has brought some acceptance from skeptics. It’s still not known for sure if they came from one of the ten lost Northern Tribes or from the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom, but, as Parfitt suggests, the DNA speaks clearly to a lineage from a place but can’t prove the continuity of a race or culture.
If nothing else, the current quest for some kind of greater historical or genetic authenticity could underscore the futility of establishing, in flesh-and-blood terms, the existence of a kingdom, which may be less of this world than of another.
Patrick Marsolek is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.