Sunday, June 3, 2012

Maybe They Could Call Themselves Jutes—Oh, Wait, That Name’s Already Taken

Geneticists from Israel’s Sheba Medical Center have found a genetic marker associated with the well-mapped Ashkenazic—or Eastern European Jewish—genetic profile in a population of a Colorado Indian tribe.

The tribe was not specified, but Colorado has only two federally recognized indigenous communities: the Southern Ute Tribe, and the Ute Mountain Tribe.  The Utes migrated to what is now Colorado from Mexico before statehood but after European settlement of North America began.

The marker is a “harmful modification in the BRCA1 gene,” linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.  The shared ancestry is likely to be linked to Spanish colonialism in Mexico—Spain being a country which had a large Jewish population until the expulsions of 1492 (the same year Christopher Columbus sailed—and, heck, some people think he may have been part Jewish), but where much Jewish genetic residue presumably remained.  Historians are only just beginning to appreciate how many Jewish families maintained their traditions and identity discreetly or secretly in the Wild West and under Spanish colonialism.

However, crackpot anthropological theories, such as that put forth in the Book of Mormon (which also claims that God punished some human populations for their laziness by making them dark-skinned, and that Jesus Christ visited the cities of Mesoamerica), are likely to seize on the study as evidence for the supposed origins of Native Americans in the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Many Native Americans find these Mormon theories deeply offensive—not out of anti-Semitism, but in reaction to the implication that anything culturally sophisticated or commendable among indigenous people needs to be explained through some Old World connection, which is a common thread in crackpot theories of the peopling of the Americas.  (I could do a search for Mormon websites responding to the news, but I don’t really have the patience for it right now.)  Meanwhile, on this side of the sanity–insanity divide, there may also be attempts to identify the Utes as a genuinely remnant genetically-and-culturally Jewish population, like the Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa, who abstain from pork, circumcise, use the Star of David, and maintained Old Testament stories in their oral traditions long before they learned, in the modern period, that there were other populations that shared those traits.

Members of the Lemba ethnic group in Zimbabwe—almost certain descendants of emigrants from the Holy Land

Many early anthropologists, missionaries, and settlers noted similarities between some indigenous North American cultural practices and beliefs and those found readily in the Old Testament and in Jewish tradition.  Examples include occasional arguable monotheism, the levirate (the practice of a man, for example, marrying his deceased brother’s wife), organization into tribes and clans, matrilineal descent (a post-diaspora adaptation in Jewish kinship, still persistent), animal sacrifice, food taboos, oral traditions of a Great Flood, even very sparsely distributed instances of circumcision.  But these, it is now clear, are more attributable to the global widespread nature of some cultural traits—traits which many European settlers of the era likely had not known of at all except through reading the Bible.

The flag of the Southern Ute Tribe.  As flag designs go, it’s a bit ... busy, isn’t it?

If nothing else, these new genetic discoveries may explain some unusual moments from the history of the Wild West.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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