The Lost Tribes of Israel

by Patrick Marsolek (2/2014)

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 7th century BC many different political and cultural groups have claimed to have a connection with the ten Lost Tribes. The modern interest in these tribes has heated up with the advent of Genetic testing. Tudor Parfitt, a Jewish historian and researcher from Florida International University has been tracking down these groups and writing about the Lost Tribes for many years. 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. (image) When I recently interviewed Parfitt, he stated, “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. There is a meaningfulness for these people, to being connected to the myth of the Lost Tribes. The genetic testing that is being done sometimes reveals startling connections between present day people all around the world and the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean region. So, let’s take a step back and look at the story’s beginning.

The early history of Israel states that there were 12 tribes, the sons of Jacob, that comprised the “Children of Israel”. These tribes were enslaved in Egypt, escaped across the Red Sea around 1250 B.C. and settled in Canaan, the modern day territories of Israel and Palestine. The 12 tribes were united under King David and subsequently under Solomon. After the death of Solomon around 931 BC, the 10 northern tribes seceded and the two kingdoms lived mostly, peacefully side by side. Then in 722 B.C. the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. At the time, it was the practice of the Assyrians to take the indigenous people from the lands they conquered and transplant them to some other remote area of the empire. The 10 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 of the Jewish people.

There are written records from that time describing the Assyrian practices. There are cuneiform tablets from Iran in the 5th century BC with military lists of soldiers showing Jewish names from the region of Israel. A century later those names were no longer evident. Most historians agree that the ten tribes were conquered and like most other conquered people in the ancient world, lost their separate identity, were assimilated and ceased to exist. 

Yet the Jewish faith still holds that the true tribes of Israel will one day be united. In reference to 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.” It’s questionable to many that the genetic evidence is actual proof of a lineage back to the Lost Tribes, yet there are many believers.

The power of this cultural and spiritual connection been a strong force for perpetuating the myth of the Lost Tribes. Queen Elizabeth was proud to trace her ancestry all the way back to King David. The British Israelite movement believes the English and American peoples are descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manessah, 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 claims to come from the tribe of Judah through the marriage of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.

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 monarchs 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, on a mysterious journey from the Holy Land to Egypt to Spain to Ireland before arriving in Scotland. Though the composition of the current stone links it to Scotland, it is rumored that the original stone was a white marble which could have come from Egypt. The British have the stone and they treasure it, some say, because of the mythological power of the belief attached to it. Tudor Parfitt suggested, “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.” 

The myth of the lost tribes was very strong throughout the 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 theory 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 which called for their parishioners to go out and kill the “evil savages”. Clearly this is an example of the colonial powers using the myth to dehumanize the natives so that the colonists could justify taking their land.

When I asked Parfitt about this tendency of diminishing the capabilities of the native populations, he replied, “That suggests very limited horizons and a Eurocentriticy that is somewhat racist. Places in Mexico and Central American Civilizations were explained as being 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.”

So, I asked Parfitt if the genetic research being done trying to identify the Lost Tribes of Israel is also cultivating a kind of racism, stressing the importance of a particular bloodline. He replied, “A lot of people think 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 present the Jews as a race, being inferior, and harmful. Anything suggesting that the Jews are a race smacks of a fascist viewpoint. The term race is meaningless, and was when the Nazi’s used it. Race is entirely a social construction.” He continued, “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 farther emphasizing the irony of the current state of the research. He says, "Whereas, in the past, 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 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 that is being done today? Parfitt replied, “What DNA does 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 on line can be exaggerated. One can see how modern genetic science is capable of creating identities and simplification we try to avoid.”

As a short aside, the tribes that formed the sons of Israel in the 12th century B.C. were likely conglomerations of clans with intertribal alliances that were expressed in terms of brotherhood. Thus modern archaeologists and historians doubt there actually twelve sons of Jacob that gave birth to the twelve original tribes. It’s much more likely that a father figure was needed to unite all the different clans into one group, and that father was a purely mythological figure. The peoples of the twelve tribes settling in Canaan were carrying the genes of many different ancestors as they intermingled with the people already there. Even at that time the genetic tapestry of those people had to be complex.

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, 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 in the chromosomes present. (Haplogroups are groups of similar clusters of genes and their mutations that occur in the same spot on the chromosome.)

For example, since the 16th century it’s 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 15th 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 Indian 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, DNA that is 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 12 tribes were located. The weight of all the evidence from the oral history, genetics, anthropology and archaeology has brought acceptance with skeptics. It’s still not known for sure if they came from one of the 10 lost northern tribes, or from the two tribes of the Southern kingdom. And as Parfitt suggests, the DNA speaks clearly to a lineage to a place, but can’t prove the continuity of a race or a culture.  

It is interesting to consider that during the early migration period when the twelve tribes were together, there was openness between the Jewish people and different cultures. Later on, that openness ceased and there was much more hostility between the Jewish people and the Christians, and later with the Moslems. That being the case, later Jewish tribes would have been less likely to intermingle with the populations they encountered. In all likelihood, the lost tribes we romanticize today from the 7th century B.C. were absorbed by the cultures they encountered. However, like the Lemba of South Africa, some groups were different enough culturally and passionate enough about their religious beliefs that they could well have sustained a lineage back to an original group of Jewish refugees from the first or second diaspora.

Thus there could be other groups such as the Bnei Menashe in India that have the cultural myth that connects them to the Jewish faith as well as some intact genetic connection. Dr. Parfitt is still tracking down reports of different Jewish cultures all around the world. Currently he’s interested in Jewish religious groups in remote communities in the Americas. Who knows what fascinating connection Parfitt and other researchers might find next as track the threads of history with genetics, historical, anthropological and archaeological investigative techniques.

Patrick Marsolek is the author of Trans- form Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See for more information.