TEL AVIV, Israel, May 10 (UPI) -- Bene Israel is a historical community of Jews in India. Its origins aren't well understood -- its oral history vague and speculative -- but new genetic research confirms the group's Jewish roots.
"Almost nothing is known about the Bene Israel community before the 18th century, when Cochin Jews and later Christian missionaries first came into contact with it," researcher Yedael Waldman, of Tel Aviv University, said in a news release.
A number of theories for the community's origins have been offered. Several trace the group's foundation to 14 Jewish survivors of a shipwreck. One telling has the group landing on India's Konkan shore some 2,000 years ago. Another suggests the ship wrecked around 175 B.C. Some believe the earliest Bene Israel settlers arrived in the area as early as the 8th century B.C.
Waldman and a team of researchers from Israel and the United States used new genomic analytical tools to locate significant genetic markers among the DNA of 18 Bene Israel individuals.
The analysis confirmed the group's Jewish roots.
"We found that while Bene Israel individuals genetically resemble local Indian populations, they constitute a clearly separated and unique population in India," Waldman explained.
The results of the genetic analysis also suggest that the first settlers arrived between 650 and 1,050 years ago, and proceeded to mix with local populations.
"We believe that the first encounter involved Middle-Eastern Jews and was followed by a high rate of tribal intermarriage," Waldman said. "This study provides a new example of how genetic analysis can be a valuable and powerful tool to advance our knowledge of human history."
Researchers published their results this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
"In the last few decades, genetic information has become an important source for the study of human history," added Alon Keinan, a researcher at Cornell University and the study's senior author. "It has been applied several times to the study of Jewish populations across diasporas, providing evidence of a shared ancestry."