The tumult of the Spanish Inquisition, which began over 500 years ago, has echoed down through the generations of people living on the Iberian peninsula in a remarkable way. A new genetic study has revealed that many current Spaniards have Sephardic Jewish or North African heritage, indicating that their ancestors converted to Christianity during the religious upheaval of the 15th century in order to remain in Spain. The study showed that one in ten Iberians has a North African ancestor, while one in five had Jewish forebears.
This melting pot probably occurred after centuries of coexistence and tolerance among Muslims, Jews and Christians ended in 1492, when Catholic monarchs converted or expelled the Islamic population, called Moriscos. Sephardic Jews, whose Iberian roots extend to the first century AD, received much the same treatment. “They were given a choice: convert, go, or die,” says Mark Jobling, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, UK. Some of those that became Christian would have ended up contributing genes to the Iberian pool [New Scientist].
For the study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics [subscription required], biologists analyzed the Y chromosomes of 1,140 men living on the Iberian peninsula. They developed a genetic signature of Sephardic men from communities founded by Jews who migrated from Spain after 1492, as well as one for Moroccan men; then they looked for those genetic traces in the Iberian population. Because most of the Y chromosome remains unchanged from father to son, the proportions of Sephardic and Moorish ancestry detected in the present population are probably the same as those just after the 1492 expulsions [The New York Times].
Researchers say the findings offer a glimpse back into Spanish history, and helps refute the creed presented by generations of Spanish monarchs: that Spanish civilization is fundamentally Catholic and that other religious and ethnic groups left few traces. Studies such as the new one “tell the true history of everyone’s ancestors and not just the history book lessons of kings and queens,” says James Wilson, a population geneticist [Science News].
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Image: Wikimedia Commons