Was a Jefferson ancestor Jewish?

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Researchers studying Thomas Jefferson's Y chromosome have found it belongs to a lineage that is rare in Europe but common in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the third president of the United States had a Jewish ancestor many generations ago.

No biological samples of Jefferson remain, but his Y chromosome, the genetic element that determines maleness, is assumed to be the same as that carried by living descendants of Field Jefferson, his paternal uncle. These relatives donated cells for an inquiry into whether Jefferson had fathered a hidden family with his slave Sally Hemings, a possibility that most historians had scoffed at.

But researchers reported in 1998 that the Jefferson family chromosome matched perfectly that of a male line descendant of Eston Hemings, one of Sally Hemings' sons. The genetic evidence was not conclusive by itself but made a strong case combined with the historical evidence that Hemings had indeed become Jefferson's mistress after the death of his wife, Martha.

Geneticists at the University of Leicester in England, led by Turi King and Mark Jobling, have now undertaken a survey of the branch or lineage to which Jefferson's Y chromosome belongs.

Jefferson's Y chromosome belongs to the branch designated K2, which is quite rare. It occurs in a few men in Spain and Portugal and is most common in the Middle East and eastern Africa, being carried by about 10 percent of men in Oman and Somalia, the geneticists report in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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