After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror invited Jews into England. Settling in places like Norwich, York, and Lincoln, they were presumably Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Europe and the Middle East (my DNA tells me that I’m one of them.) Their professions were, as a Smithsonian article (second below) recounts, mainly “financiers and moneylenders,” professions that were forbidden for Christians.
But although they were invited in, they weren’t loved, and were ultimately expelled from England in 1290. (Nobody likes the Jews!). History recounts that, around 1190, only 133 years after the Conquest, a group of Jews were killed by Christians who thought they’d do in a bunch of Ashkenazis on their way to the Third Crusade.
Or so the paper below, from a recent issue of Current Biology, tells us. It recounts a genetic analysis of 6 of 17 skeletons—11 adults and 6 children—found in 2004 in a well in Norwich near the location of the city’s ancient Jewish quarter. This was 18 years ago, and you can see video and photos of mass grave in the “cold case” video below.
The genetic analysis of 6 of these individuals suggests that the skeletons were a group of Ashkenazis, probably ones killed in the 1190 massacre. Click on the screenshot below to go to the Current Biology piece (free access). You can download the pdf here, and I give the reference at the bottom.
First, here’s what was found (photo and caption from 9News. (You can see a lot more in the video at bottom.)
After the remains were excavated, sorted, and sexed, they found 17 bodies, with 11 adults (a mixture of men and women) and 6 children. The bones were radiocarbon dated to between 1161 and 1216 (95% confidence interval), putting the burial right at the time the Jews of Norwich were killed.
Although a few of the bones were broken, that was from being tossed into the well (head first), which cracked some ribs and vertebrae. As for what killed the individuals, there’s no indication of that: no fractures or indications of blows. They were almost surely killed before being tossed into an empty well, perhaps by stabbing or cutting, or perhaps by smoke inhalation if their houses were burned.
Six of the individuals had DNA extracted from the bones for genetic analysis. The authors didn’t do complete genome sequencing, but did enough to determine that three of them, ranging from 10 years old to young adults, were full siblings—sisters. (You can tell the sex from both the bones and the DNA itself.) These three had identical mitochondrial DNA, showing that they came from the same mother. Another individual was more distantly related to these.
We are also at the stage where we can determine with near certainty the hair and eye color of individuals from DNA, for we know which genes are involved in those traits. As the paper notes,
Two individuals were inferred to have had brown eyes, one with “dark” and one with “light” hair (SB605 and SB676, respectively), while the 0- to 3-year-old boy (SB604) was inferred to have had blue eyes and red hair, the latter of which is associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews.
I wasn’t aware that this is a historical stereotype of European Jews; I would have thought that most of them, like me, had dark hair and eyes, but what do I know from historical stereotypes? And of course two of the three were dark, so what we see is variation, not really a confirmation that these were Ashkenazi Jews. The evidence for that comes from genetic data. First, here’s a reconstruction of the faces of two individuals—a young one and an older one—from both DNA and skulls. These are of course very rough, and don’t tell us much. (I wonder, now that 23andMe has a huge sample of my own genetic data, if they could estimate what I look like from my DNA alone. They already guessed correctly that I have dark hair and eyes.)
The genetic evidence for who these individuals were rests on comparing their DNA with several modern populations from Western Eurasia, as well as looking for sequences of genes that cause disease in modern Ashkenazi Jews. (As an inbred group that probably went through a severe reduction in population size, as well as having substantial intermarriage—”endogamy”—living Ashkenazi Jews have a high frequency of genetic disorders, the most famous being Tay-Sachs disease.
You can see below a plot of where the six individuals whose DNA was analyzed (the black dots) fall in a cluster study—made from what’s known as a principal-components analysis—of the various modern populations. analyzed. Data from living Brits are in the small purple cluster at about 9 o’clock, far away from the Norwich individuals, who fall closer to Southern European and Middle Eastern populations, including modern Ashkenazi Jews, Turkish Jews, and North African Jews. As the authors conclude:
We projected the six Chapelfield genomes on a PCA defined by variation among modern western Eurasian population samples, including modern Jewish individuals. All six Chapelfield [Norwich] individuals project well away from present-day British samples, as well as northern Europeans more generally. Instead, they partially overlap with Southern Europeans, close to Cypriots, modern Ashkenazi, Turkish, and North African Jews. These results are consistent with the Chapelfield individuals having Jewish ancestry (cf. Kopelman et al.)
Click to enlarge:
There’s one more line of evidence that the individuals in the well were Ashkenazim. This is the observation that the six individuals analyzed had a much higher similarity of DNA sequence at the “disease genes” to modern Ashkenazis than to other populations. As the authors note:
To explore this further, we formulated a likelihood function to calculate the exact probability of the six individuals’ observed allele reads at the 159 disease loci, given the allele frequencies of any proposed population.
. . . The maximum likelihood read error rate estimates are notably similar (0.87% and 0.94%, respectively), and crucially these results show that the data are 4,615 times more probable under a model that these individuals were sampled from the modern Ashkenazi population than they were sampled from the modern non-Finnish European population. This approach assumes the six individuals are randomly sampled from either population. Further assessment of the effect of this assumption given that three individuals are siblings suggests that in the case of these data our assumption has a conservative effect on the likelihood ratio
This is scientific jargon saying that, in the end, there’s a much higher likelihood that these genes came from Ashkenazim (modern ones) than from modern European populations. (I’m not sure why they exclude Finns, save that Finns have a high proportion of genes from ancient Siberia.) The high frequency of alleles that, when homozygous (two copies needed), cause genetic disease, suggest that any “bottleneck” in population size of the Ashkenazi must have occurred before these individuals were killed. That’s several centuries earlier than historians have suggested.
The best guess, then, is that the 17 individuals were Ashkenazi Jews killed by Crusaders who wanted to do in a few Semites on their way to doing in some Muslims in Constantinople. But not every scientist agrees. The Smithsonian piece quotes a dissenter:
Speaking with Nature, Eran Elhaik, a population, medical and evolutionary geneticist at Lund University in Sweden, casts doubt on the DNA analysis, arguing that the team identified the individuals as Ashkenazi Jews “because that was the only population that they considered.” In response, co-author Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum, tells Nature that local archaeologists and historians know of few other “plausible alternatives” in terms of “other groups that might [have been] in medieval Norwich at the time.”
Given that the paper compared the skeletons in the well with modern populations, most of which were not Jewish, I’m not sure what Dr. Elhaik is on about, but he has published a paper claiming that principal-components analysis is faulty and can be biased to get the results you want. That said, the confluence of the historical and genetic data, and the lack of any other plausible explanation for this slaughter (plus the spot-on estimates from carbon dating to the same period where Jews were being killed in the area), convinces me that the authors are probably right.
Here is an hourlong “Cold Case” video from 2018 about the finding of the bodies, made before any genetic work was done. I haven’t watched the whole thing straight through, but you can see the discovery of the skeletons, other forensic estimation, and people’s best guess at the time what the mass grave told us:
Brace, S. et al. 2022. Genomes from a medieval mass burial show Ashkenazi-associated hereditary diseases pre-date the 12th century. Curr. Biol. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.08.036