Exploring religion, genetics & identity | Tudor Parfitt | TEDxFIU

Posted By on July 31, 2019

thank you very much my teachers at Oxford were often going on about the fact that the furthest East that any Orientals needed to go was Leipzig and the reason for this was that it was considered that people studying the East didn't really need to go there you could study the people in the place from a distance and particularly in a library and it just so happens that lydic is the most easterly of the great european orientalist libraries but i'm not that kind of scholar I've had a lot of adventures in my life and I've had a lot of journeys and the most exciting of these in many ways and this is really rather surprising and astonishing was in Africa now why should this be surprising it's surprising because I am a student of Jewish Studies and particularly remote Jewish communities throughout the world and whereas of course there were Jews in places like Europe and the Caucasus and Central Asia and of course on the the Silk Route as far as China there were no Jews in pre-modern times in black Africa with the exception of one or two references in very very dodgy medieval texts suggesting that there might be some lost cities and the occasional jewish king somewhere in the heart of the unknown continent this is how it happened i was asked to go to south africa to give a lecture at the University of Witwatersrand and it was a whole bit like this the place was full of very well-dressed a fluent looking white South African and they listened very attentively sitting in their comfortable well upholstered chairs to what I had to say but at the back of the hall there was quite a large group of very poorly dressed black people shoeless but they were wearing little black skull caps and after my lecture I went across introduce myself and we started to chat and they explained that they were members of the lembeh tribe and then to my great astonishment again they said that they were black Jews who'd come hundreds or perhaps thousands of years before into Africa from somewhere in the north and from a city that they referred to as Sena and they had a kind of epic poem which they started chanting to mean it went something like this we are the white men who came from Sanna we crossed pasilla we crossed the sea we came to Africa we rebuilt sin we are the white men who came from Sanna we followed the star we carried the ark pretty amazing song and then they said that they would like me to go and visit them and they lived six or seven hours north of where we were right up against the the frontier with Zimbabwe in little thatched villages and off I went and spent a little time there several days and at night I would sit out with the old men and they would tell me stories of their journey across Africa of their Jewish customs of their circumcision rights and their ritual slaughter of animals and most astonishingly they told me how their priests because there was a priestly clan how their priests carried something like the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders on poles right across the continent well it was a pretty amazing story and I was amazed as a Jewish scholar that I didn't know about it there is no more historically conscious people in the world than the Jews and yet in the whole realm of Jewish scholarship there was no mention of these people and these remarkable stories so I felt that I absolutely had to find out whether these people were genuinely Jewish in the first place and I wondered if this was possible and I also needed to find out where their lost city of Senna was I decided to try and do this and a few months later I started off on a journey which took me right across Africa and the idea of the journey in a way was to follow the oral tradition of this tribe in Reverse because the oral tradition was extreme extremely complete and very precise and it worked as an amazingly good road map and so if I set and it took me through South Africa and Zimbabwe and then Malawi Tanzania and finally into Mozambique and then I got to the sea and then the clues simply dried up there was nothing there that could help me find the original senna which was somewhere across this sea somewhere in the north but while i was on the coast i found near the mouth of the Zambezi River some great monumental chunks of stone and a few days later in Zanzibar I was rooting around in a library came across some old Arabic texts and I was able to deduce that these stones were the last remnant of a city which had existed there by the name of sayona now it was pretty sure that this sayona have been the second Sena of the lembeh they left Sena they crossed the sea came to Africa and rebuilt this Sena say Yuna but it also occurred to me that the say Yuna was the same as the Arabic for the word Zion like an African Zion and when I thought that a cold shiver went down my spine it was a very exciting moment but still I had no way at that point of trying to discover the original Sena and it was only the following year when I was in the Yemen in South Arabia during a book on the Jews of the Yemen that I had another clue and this happened by chance I was having lunch with a Muslim cleric in tehreem a holy city in the had removed which is that valley that cross is right across South Arabia and I told him what I'd been doing I told him the story of the lembeh the story of their crossing from sin acrossing / sailor rebuilding sin and so on and the cleric clapped his hands together and he said I think I've got a hunch I think I know where your your sin is and he told me that he'd heard that right at the end of the wadi going towards Mahara and Amon there was indeed a lost city or the remnants of a lost city in the desert partially covered by sands and there was a local tradition that when the original population had to leave because the Dan there broke they went to Africa so I jumped into a Land Rover a few days later I was there discovered the this lost city of Senna and talking to the Bedouin tribes who lived in the vicinity I was astonished to discover that their tribal names were exactly the same as the clan names of the lembeh tribe right on the other side of of Africa thousands and thousands of miles away so this seemed to me to be a reasonable indication that this indeed was the the tribe this was the that this was really the the lost city of the of this tribe and then they told me that when they'd left the city when the population had left the city they followed a valley called the Mesilla down to the sea and then they took a boat which took them to Africa and I thought well maybe the Mesilla is the Priscilla of their oral tradition but still it was close I wasn't entirely satisfied that I had the proof it wasn't exactly a smoking gun so I had the idea that maybe what seemed to be pretty impossible by regular means might be made possible by using genetics and so I went back to London and I had quite a number of geneticist friends told them what the problem was historically and we agreed to do a project together and so we did a big collect in the in the had room and collected a lot of data and then we went to Africa did control collects and a huge collection from the lembeh tribe itself took the data back to London into the lab and a couple of weeks later they called me and we sat down we looked at the information that was coming coming out and to my great gratification excitement there was a real overlap between the population of the lembeh and the population of the east and had rumored well this is pretty exciting because it seemed to me that I had therefore proved that where the original center of the lembeh was good I had also proved that their tradition which said that they had come from the north presumably from Arabia was true but there was the other question were they Jewish now a couple of years before I'd collaborated on another paper which had to do with the Jewish hood now a Jewish priest is called Cohen everybody here knows somebody called mr. Cohen now mr. Cohen in theory would be descended from the original priests who two and a half thousand years ago officiated in the temple in Jerusalem that was the idea so we did a big we did a big a big experiment we collected many many Cohen's from all over the world and what we discovered really was a corroboration of this tradition that over half of the current population descended from a particular individual and that particular individual lived somewhere in the area of Palestine Israel 3,000 years ago 3,000 years ago is more or less the time when Moses lived and it was Moses his brother Aaron who was the founder of the priesthood so this was a pretty neat piece of research and a particular haplotype a particular signature a family signature of the Cohens was known to exist and did exist so then when we started looking more closely at the stuff coming out of the zember DNA in one of the clans their priestly clan you remember the clan that carried something like the ark over Africa what did we discover we discovered that the same proportion that that clan had this rare haplotype as did Cohens throughout the world again this was a pretty extraordinary moment so it was fair to say that the the orange origins of the lembeh were indeed Jewish we knew where Senna was and we knew had that got there more or less the implications of this piece of research were quite considerable they were certainly significant for the lembeh people because when they were first discovered or come across in the 19th century by British colonists they were forced pretty much to become Christians like everybody else in the area as soon as the DNA research came through they stopped in many cases being Christian they abandoned the church and they started creating synagogues so in terms of their identity the genetic research was massively influential and so it seemed to me that this kind of research at least in my area was possible of delivering not only a kind of historical authenticity but also a sort of social justice in another case I had been working with the tribe of so-called maybe Jews small black men who live in in and around Mumbai in western India who'd always been absolutely on the fringe of anything Jewish and nobody took their claim to be Jewish in any way seriously and we did a big DNA based piece of research on this group and we discovered that indeed there claimed to be of an Israelite population was true in the night that this was revealed that been a huge article in the in the in The Times of India the day before the people spilled out into the streets and they were singing and they were dancing and they were rejoicing all night as one of them said to me afterwards It was as if the Messiah had come they felt a sense of vindication a sense of authenticity which they'd never had before one of the other impacts was that this kind of technology and this way of looking at history spread all over the world of course through the internet and one day I was in my hotel room in Sydney I was lecturing at the University of Sydney the telephone goes and somebody is calling from Papua New Guinean he describes himself as being the spiritual head of a particular tribe called the God Allah who live in the western part of Papua New Guinea in the fly River estuary and he explained to me that he'd seen on the internet the stuff that I done on the lumber and he wanted me to prove for the world that his tribe in the fly swamp were also of Jewish ancestry in the following day he arrived from Papua New Guinea and he came into the hotel room bearing a large black hat and he plucked out of the hat a hair and inside the Hat there were another five hundred he taken a hair from five hundred members of his tribe and he wanted me to take the hair back to London so DNA could be extracted from the from the roots well in the event not very surprisingly the research that I subsequently did some ten years ago on this particular hypothesis didn't prove to be satisfactory to the Jewish claims of the of the God Allah tribe but I found it was utterly fascinating that a tribe which until 1950 had been cannibalistic and which was still largely hunter-gatherer should by 2,000 and whatever he was using the internet to invoke genetics to try and prove and Israelite identity and so I've been following their progress since and despite the negative DNA work they're still quite convinced that they're Jewish and their practices of Judaism increased as the years go on so what does that prove it tends to prove anyway that positive positive identifications through DNA have a very very big impact upon identity as we have in the case of the lembeh and as we have in the case of the group from Mumbai in Western in the case of the go-go dollar the the results was somewhat negative but they didn't seem to particularly impact over the last let's say 13 years historians have been handed a new tool of research it's a very powerful tool of research in the past the study of history was always in the hands of a kind of elite but now with the history book that everybody carries in their DNA which is a very kind of democratic kind of history whole new worlds are going to open up both of both in terms of the way that we view history and finally I think about the way that we view ourselves thank you

Posted by Lewis Heart

This article has 5 comments

  1. As a Jew of color, descending from Ethiopian Beta Israel, a student of proto-Hebraic African or antique Jewish communities for my entire professional life, this guy has been like a burr under my skin. For years he claimed that black Jews in Africa was absolutely impossible. Until…the rest of us became the proof.

  2. Must be true , evidence of a destroyed city always means jews must've been there..Probably happened due to a fracas over invisible friends..


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