genetic code

A research team solved the 1,000-year-old mystery of the Druze people’s origin – with a genetic GPS

Illuminating the origins of one of the oldest peoples in the Middle East.

For a thousand years, the mysterious origin of the Druze people – who live almost exclusively in the mountains of Syria, Lebanon and Israel – has captivated linguists, historians, and sociologists, who have not been able to agree whether the Druze are of Arabian, Turkish, Caucasus or Persian origin. But thanks to our new research that mystery may now have been solved, with the use of a genetic GPS system – that works in a similar way to the Sat Nav in your car.

There are thought to be around 1m Druze people in the world today, whose secretive religion was developed in 986 AD as a movement within Islam. While the spiritual elements of their religion are highly guarded and known only to the elders, the known practices are made up of various religions which include Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This variety is most likely based on historical gatherings that are typical of nomadic tribes.

Previous research has always placed the origins of the Druze in the the Near East region. And by zooming in on the area, our genetic GPS traced most Druze to the region that overlaps northeast Turkey, Southwest Armenia and northern Iraq. This area borders the Zagros and the Ararat mountains and is the tallest region in Turkey.

This was discovered by applying our GPS tool to the genomes of over 150 Druze, along with Palestinians, Bedouins, Syrians and Lebanese to compare their ancestral origins.

Mountain dwelling warriors  

Throughout history, the Caucasus region – which borders Europe and Asia – was subjected to political, military, religious and cultural conflict, which prompted many tribes to seek refuge in remote regions. The Druze were no different.

It is thought that the first Druze worshippers probably lived in Cairo, where Druzism was adopted by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah who ruled in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean – known as the Levant – between 996 and 1021. But after his sudden disappearance, his successor prosecuted the Druze ruthlessly and abolished the faith in Egypt. By that time, however, the faith had already spread outside Egypt and become accepted among several Levantine groups.

Divers recently found gold coins from this period at an ancient port in Caesarea, that were produced in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa. Most of the coins carry the name of Al-Hakim. Carla Amit, Israel Antiques Authority
Divers recently found gold coins from this period at an ancient port in Caesarea, that were produced in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa. Most of the coins carry the name of Al-Hakim. Carla Amit, Israel Antiques Authority

The Druze were first recorded by the 12th century Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela who described them as fearless, mountain-dwelling warriors who favoured the Jews. And by that time, because of earlier persecutions, their faith was closed to new followers and they opposed marriage outside of the Druze faith.

The remote mountainous regions provided the Druze with protection and allowed them to maintain the close societal structure that is integral to their religious practices. Like other Caucasus populations, the Druze may even be genetically adapted to cope with the thinner mountain air allowing them to live comfortably in these remote parts.

Druze meet the Jews  

Though the Druze have previously been considered to have little genetic mixing – known as a
population isolate” by some geneticists – this is actually incorrect. And in fact by exchanging their diverse Near Eastern genes with Middle Eastern populations – such as Syrians and Palestinians – the Druze people created a more mixed genome than their ancestors, or other Middle Eastern populations.

Genetic evidence also suggests that over the years non-Druze tribes and individuals have contributed and enriched the Druze gene pool.

Previous research has also shown that Ashkenazic Jews and Druze are genetically closer to one another than Middle Eastern populations – but until now, it was not clear why. Combined with our earlier research showing the northeastern Turkish origins of Ashkenazic Jews, we can explain that genetic similarity via the shared origin of Ashkenazic Jews and Druze. Medieval Ashkenazic Jews lived in ancient villages in northeast Turkey known as “ancient Ashkenaz” – which was close to the mountainous homeland of the Druze.

Our findings explain a 1,000-year saga of two people living side by side in these lands. And as the Ashkenazic Jews moved northward into the Khazarian Empire, the Druze moved southwards to Palestine – only for both people to reunite hundreds of years later. And although by that time, neither one recalled their common roots, both retained the evidence in their genes.

Eran Elhaik, Lecturer in population, medical and evolutionary genomics, University of Sheffield.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.