Jews in the New World, II

We’ve seen this idea, now very common, that many Hispanos in the American Southwest have crypto-Jewish ancestry.

The evidence for this exotic ancestry is weak. The story seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is some reason to believe it might have its roots in the 19th and 20th century Seventh Day Adventists.

A recent story in The Atlantic seems to go the other direction, offering some new genetic evidence.

“Chacón-Duque and his colleagues pieced together the genetic record by sampling DNA from 6,500 people across Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to that of 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of the Latin Americans shared 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardic Jews.”

Sarah Zang, “The Genetic Legacy of the Spanish Inquisition” in The Atlantic (Dec. 21, 2018).

But that’s not quite the same thing as saying Latin Americans have crypto-Jewish ancestry. This is about people with Jewish ancestry, not necessarily people who are practicing Judaism secretly. And even then, the article goes on to say, “DNA alone cannot prove that conversos were the source of this ancestry, but it fits with the historical record.”

In fact, because of the history of the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the discovery of America, there would be quite a bit of mixed ancestry among the New World colonists. Not just from the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 but also from the preceding centuries as well.

After the expulsion of the Jews, the Spanish and Portuguese were deeply suspicious of those who converted to Christianity, and equally suspicious of their descendants. They were haunted, it seems, by the idea these people might be practicing their former religion in secret. They emphasized limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), and went to great lengths to hide mixed marriages in their own ancestries.

Given the stigma of converso ancestry it would be no surprise if the immigrants to America included a number of people with Jewish and Muslim ancestry. And this is all this new study is reporting. The evidence is consistent with widespread and low-level converso ancestry in Latin America. We don’t need to add to the stories about crypto-Judaism.


For the original article, see Juan-Camilo Chacón-Duque et al., “Latin Americans show wide-spread Converso ancestry and imprint of local Native ancestry on physical appearance” in Nature (Dec. 19, 2018).

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