Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba--the "Black Jews of Southern Africa"

Am J Hum Genet. 2000 Feb;66(2):674-86. doi: 10.1086/302749.


The Lemba are a traditionally endogamous group speaking a variety of Bantu languages who live in a number of locations in southern Africa. They claim descent from Jews who came to Africa from "Sena." "Sena" is variously identified by them as Sanaa in Yemen, Judea, Egypt, or Ethiopia. A previous study using Y-chromosome markers suggested both a Bantu and a Semitic contribution to the Lemba gene pool, a suggestion that is not inconsistent with Lemba oral tradition. To provide a more detailed picture of the Lemba paternal genetic heritage, we analyzed 399 Y chromosomes for six microsatellites and six biallelic markers in six populations (Lemba, Bantu, Yemeni-Hadramaut, Yemeni-Sena, Sephardic Jews, and Ashkenazic Jews). The high resolution afforded by the markers shows that Lemba Y chromosomes are clearly divided into Semitic and Bantu clades. Interestingly, one of the Lemba clans carries, at a very high frequency, a particular Y-chromosome type termed the "Cohen modal haplotype," which is known to be characteristic of the paternally inherited Jewish priesthood and is thought, more generally, to be a potential signature haplotype of Judaic origin. The Bantu Y-chromosome samples are predominantly (>80%) YAP+ and include a modal haplotype at high frequency. Assuming a rapid expansion of the eastern Bantu, we used variation in microsatellite alleles in YAP+ sY81-G Bantu Y chromosomes to calculate a rough date, 3,000-5,000 years before the present, for the start of their expansion.

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Southern
  • African Americans
  • African Continental Ancestry Group / genetics*
  • Alleles
  • Emigration and Immigration*
  • Fathers
  • Gene Frequency / genetics
  • Genetic Variation / genetics
  • Haplotypes / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Jews / genetics*
  • Judaism
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics
  • Middle East / ethnology
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Phylogeny*
  • Time Factors
  • Y Chromosome / genetics*