"Lost Tribes" of Israel

by Gad Nahshon

Israel and southern Africa are separated by 4,000 miles of deserts, mountains, rain forests, savanna, and open sea. Yet there are intriguing clues that centuries ago a band of Jews found their way to a remote corner of Africa and kept their traditions alive. NOVA retraces the scientific trail of evidence for this remarkable migration, on "'Lost Tribes of Israel," which first aired on February 22, 2000 on PBS.

Israel's lost tribes were swallowed up by history after conquering Assyrians banished them from the Kingdom of Judah in 722 BCE. Since then, countless conjectures and fantastic theories have been proposed to account for their fate.

Well aware of the spate of such theories, anthropologist Tudor Parfitt of London University was duly skeptical when he heard that a black African tribe called the Lemba claimed to be practicing Jews and descendants of the Biblical patriarchs. Nonetheless, he decided to investigate.

After many years of collecting Lemba oral traditions, Parfitt embarked on a new phase of this research using a recently discovered genetic marker that appears to be linked to an ancient Jewish population.

Jewish tradition has long held that men with names like Cohen or Kahan are descended from a hereditary priestly class that passed their profession from father to son. Analysis of the male "Y" chromosome of such men shows that they have a unique genetic signature, revealing a pattern of paternal inheritance that extends back many generations.

This discovery provides a distinctive marker to trace descendants of the ancestral Jewish population and, for Parfitt's purposes, to test the claims of the Lemba.

NOVA accompanies Parfitt on an anthropological odyssey that takes him from Sowetto just outside of Johannesburg, northward across Zimbabwe, through war-torn Mozambique, and beyond-as he interviews Lemba elders and collects genetic samples from males by means of a swab of saliva from the inside of the cheek.

One key but elusive goal is the semi-mythical town of Senna, from which the Lemba people trace their origins. However, none of Parfitt's informants is exactly sure where it is. Furthermore, there are three different Sennas in Lemba tradition.

At times, the Senna trail grows cold. But it heats up again in surprising places, as Parfitt continues up an ancient trade route along the African coast to Southern Yemen on the Arabian peninsula. There, on the lunar-like desert canyons of the Wadi Hadhramaut, in a nation of devout Muslims, he chances across what may be the final clue. Now in its 26th season, NOVA is produced for PBS by the WGBH Science Unit. The director of the WGBH Science Unit and executive producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.

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