Lost Tribes of Israel
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NARRATOR: The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Devout Jews come to worship much as their ancestors did centuries ago. The time-honored traditions live on – the wearing of prayer shawls and head coverings, the wail of the shofar made of ram’s horn. 4,000 miles from Israel, in southern Africa, a people known as the Lemba also heed the call of the shofar. They have believed for generations that they are Jews, direct descendants of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However unlikely the Lemba’s claims may seem, modern science is finding a way to test them. The ever-growing understanding of human genetics is revealing connections between peoples that have never been seen before. Opening new windows into the past. Tonight we travel across continents and seas – and into the microscopic world of the human genome – to unravel the mysteries of the Lemba, a people who believe themselves to be a lost tribe of Israel.
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NARRATOR: On a hot summer afternoon in South Africa, anthropologist Tudor Parfitt takes the next step in his quest to solve the riddle of the Lemba – a quest that had begun a dozen years earlier following a lecture he’d given in Johannesburg.
TUDOR PARFITT: You’re called the Black Jews. Do you really think you are Black Jews?
ELDER: I believe that I’m a black Jew. Because we don’t eat pork and the Jews also doesn’t eat pork. There was distant marriages – we didn’t have intermarriage to marry a different nationality. It must be of a Lemba tribe. And whenever we slaughter, we wash our hands and we clean up our utensils, that’s what the Jews do. They do everything, whatever they do – doing kosher food, and that means everything is clean.
PROFESSOR MATHIVA: You are the great descendants of the great ancestor Abraham, the origin where your forefathers come from. From Abraham, you came up through Isaac, one of our ancestors, the son and the rightful heir of Abraham estate.
NARRATOR: The Lemba believe they descend from the ancient tribes that lived in the land of Israel 3,000 years ago. According to the Bible, the tribes were united and powerful under King David and King Solomon. But when Solomon died around 900 BC, the confederation of tribes weakened.
SHAYE COHEN: According to the biblical record, after the death of Solomon, the kingdom split into two. There was a rebellion and the Davidic line became the kings only of the southern kingdom in Jerusalem. And the northern kingdom was established by rebels against the Davidic line, who established a monarchy which lasted until the year 722 BC, when the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians. The northern tribes were then carried off into exile to points further east and at that point the mystery of the lost tribes begins, because we don’t know what happened to them.
NARRATOR: Most scholars agree that the 10 lost tribes were scattered across the Middle East, and assimilated into local populations. But throughout history, people from as far as Japan, India, and Ethiopia have been thought by some to be descendants of those long lost tribes.
SHAYE COHEN: It seems to me the simplest way to understand these claims is that Westerners come across long lost peoples, native peoples in far-flung places across the globe, and they see them, and they try to interpret them in terms with which they are familiar, and their terms are familiar from the Hebrew Bible.
For example, if an explorer or a missionary finds that a native people eat some kind of unleavened bread in the springtime or circumcise their sons, for example, or they don’t eat pork, for example, or they don’t do work on a given day of the week, they will automatically interpret that in terms of the Hebrew Bible.
PROFESSOR MATHIVA: And you were told in those laws that God forbids you to eat pork, which is the meat coming from a pig.
TUDOR PARFITT: I must say I didn’t really believe this – this whole Jewish thing. I didn’t believe that a group of Jews had left the Middle East, you know, centuries before and come to the middle of black Africa. That didn’t seem likely. There seemed far better explanations of – of the fact that they thought they were Jewish than this. One is that somehow their Jewish identity had been imposed from the outside by missionaries for whom nothing is sweeter than the idea of discovering lost tribes somewhere that you can work on. But on the other hand, there was something Semitic about them. They circumcise; there’s a whole range of animals that they will not eat, including anything which is even remotely pig-like. The other thing was the extraordinary importance they placed upon ritual slaughter of animals. Ritual slaughter of animals is not an African thing at all. Of course it’s Islamic as well as Judaic, but it’s certainly from the Middle East, it’s not African. And the fact that every lad is given a knife with which he did his ritual slaughtering throughout his life, and he took to his grave with him, that seemed to me to be very remarkably, tangibly Semitic and Middle Eastern.
NARRATOR: Until recently, there has been no way to test the Lemba’s belief in a Jewish heritage. But now a new key has been discovered that may unlock ancient mysteries: a key as basic as blood and bone, and infallible as a fingerprint – genetic markers that may confirm an age-old Jewish belief.
The Hebrew Bible says that Aaron, the brother of Moses, was chosen by God to begin a family line of priests to serve in the temple. Priest in Hebrew is “Cohane,” plural “Cohanim.” And to this day, a small percentage of Jews identify themselves as Cohanim – and believe that they are descended from Aaron.
SHAYE COHEN: According to the Bible, God selected the tribe of Levi to be the priestly tribe. And this tribe in turn was – was split into two. One line from Aaron provided the priests, another line through Moses provided the Levites who would serve as assistants in the central sanctuary. The crucial point is that the priestly line is tribal in the sense that it is transmitted from father to son. I, for example, am a priest. My last name is Cohen, or Cohane in Hebrew, and I am a Cohane because my father said that I am. His name was Cohen, or Cohane, and he said that I and my brother, we are Cohanim. One cannot join the priestly line, one cannot be appointed to the priestly line. You don’t take an exam to be accepted into the priestly line. You don’t have to pass qualifications to be in the priestly line. The only thing that matters is your heredity.
NARRATOR: Another Cohane, Professor Karl Skorecki, and his colleague Neil Bradman each had the idea that Cohanim inheritance might be able to be confirmed genetically.
KARL SKORECKI: One day sitting in synagogue, my mind was drifting perhaps from some of the liturgy and prayers, and during the synagogue ceremony, members of the priest tribe or Cohanim are called up for particular contributions to the service. So I was sitting there, and another member of the congregation was called up as a Cohane, or Jewish priest, and his origin was from North Africa. And my origin in terms of where my parents came from is from eastern Europe and Poland, and we are both Cohanim, or priests. So I thought to myself at the time, well what might we have in common other than the fact – other than this tradition that we have? So this led to the notion that perhaps we could find, somewhere in the human genome, a similarity. Well, the part of the human genome that’s also passed from father to son is of course the Y chromosome.
NARRATOR: Inside every human cell are 23 pairs of chromosomes, made up of DNA. One half of each pair comes from the mother, the other half from the father. One of those pairs determines a person’s sex. Women generally have a pair of similar chromosomes called XX, men have XY. If the father contributes his X to the offspring, it will be a girl. If he contributes his Y, it’ll be a boy. It’s the Y chromosome that determines maleness. And the Y doesn’t exchange much genetic material with its partner X, so a father passes his Y chromosome on to his son virtually unchanged.
DAVID GOLDSTEIN: To understand why we can use the Y chromosome to test the oral tradition surrounding the priesthood, let’s imagine for a minute that the oral tradition is largely accurate. So what that means is that at some point in the past, there was a priest that founded the priestly line. This individual had a number of sons and his sons had sons and so on, and the priests of today are all the descendants just through the – the paternal line of that original founding priest. If that’s in fact the case, or something very much like that is the case, then all the individuals today that consider – consider themselves Cohanim, in fact have copies in some sense of the Y chromosome that was carried by that original founding priest.
NARRATOR: To test this hypothesis, researchers went to a beach in Israel to collect DNA from dozens of young Jewish men.
NEIL BRADMAN: We obtained the DNA by taking a mouth swab – little cotton bud around the inside of the mouth. Then the cells are broken down and the DNA is extracted back in the lab. We take this DNA from individuals who are self-identifying Jews, in other words, they say that they’re Jews, and they say that so far as they believe they are either a priest, a Cohen, or they are not a priest, a lay Jew.
NARRATOR: The samples are analyzed at University College London. Liquid from test tubes containing the mouth swabs is treated with enzymes and spun in a centrifuge to separate out the DNA. The amount of DNA obtained from each person is so minute that in order to be analyzed, it must first be “amplified” – reproduced millions of times using a process called polymerase chain reaction – PCR. During PCR, the DNA is heated until its double strand splits into two single strands. Then the temperature is lowered and each single strand makes a new partner using chemicals that have been added to the liquid. The machine heats up again until these new double strands split apart. This process continues for a few hours – a chain reaction, doubling the available DNA with every cycle.
Meanwhile, a researcher prepares a special gel to receive the amplified DNA. A liquid is carefully injected between two sheets of glass and spreads out to form a thin membrane. Once the gel is set, it is mounted vertically so the DNA – which has an electrical charge – can migrate down through it when a current is applied to the gel. A sample – dyed blue – from one individual is injected into the gel, then another DNA sample next to it, and so on down the row.
DNA is made up of four chemical bases: thymine, adenine, guanine, and cytosine – known by their initials: T and A, G and C. The specific arrangement of these bases on the Y chromosome is passed on almost intact from father to son. But small differences caused by genetic mutation allow scientists to tell chromosomes apart.
NEIL BRADMAN: One way in which you can tell one Y chromosome from another Y chromosome is that in a particular place the T may have changed to an A. That happens very, very rarely, perhaps only once in the course of human evolution it would have occurred at the same place. Another type of change is where some of these letters, for example, GATA, appear as repeats: GATA, GATA, GATA. That may change a little bit more frequently to be – say nine repeats. It may reduce to eight repeats or it may go up to 10 repeats, and the combination of these letter changes and repeats together will enable us to differentiate one Y chromosome from another Y chromosome.
NARRATOR: Each vertical line of colored dots represents a piece of DNA from the Y chromosome of one individual. The rate at which the DNA moves through the gel depends on its precise chemical make-up – the order and number of its As, Ts, Gs, and Cs. DNA with the same chemical make-up will display the same colors at the same places along the vertical lines. These lines can also be displayed as graphs which highlight the differences and similarities between Y chromosomes.
The results are stunning. A group of genetic markers – a distinctive combination of letter changes and repeats, dubbed the Cohen Modal Haplotype – is seen in about 10% of the general Jewish population and in over 50% of the Cohanim. The long-held Jewish belief that priestly status is passed from father to son over the centuries seems to be confirmed in the genes.
DAVID GOLDSTEIN: What it appears is that that particular chromosomal type was a component of the ancestral Hebrew population, and because it was a component of that population it got into the major Jewish – the major contemporary Jewish communities, and also got into the priestly line. And because that chromosomal type is hard to find in non-Jewish populations, its presence in a population would be suggestive of Jewish ancestry.
NARRATOR: The Cohanim study has far-reaching implications for Tudor Parfitt. If the Cohen Modal Haplotype is found among a significant percentage of the Lemba, their claim to Jewish ancestry will suddenly become more credible.
TUDOR PARFITT : I got very intrigued by the possibilities of genetics when I met Neil Bradman. He wanted me to join in his research because in some ways we had things in common. I was interested in scattered Jewish communities for one reason, and he was interested in scattered Jewish communities for another. But it did occur to me that here was the most extraordinary tool for really solving the Lemba problem.
TUDOR PARFITT (in the field): Samuel, could you be the next one? I am just going to put these gloves on. I don’t want my Welsh Y chromosomes getting mixed up with your Lemba Y chromosome. Professor Mathiva –
NARRATOR: The Lemba are divided into clans. Parfitt records each man’s clan along with his sample.
TUDOR PARFITT: I’m just going to take a photograph.
NARRATOR: Professor Mathiva belongs to the Buba Clan – descendants of an ancient leader who, according to the oral tradition, brought the Lemba out of Judea and eventually to Africa.
TUDOR PARFITT: We are now going north from South Africa, trying to get to the heartlands of the Lemba. Because of the nature of the traditional leadership, we have to get permission to do this DNA testing, and that will certainly go through a number of very complex channels, and I simply hope that works out well.
NARRATOR: Parfitt’s destination is the village of Chigato, where he has heard Lemba traditions are particularly strong.
LEMBA MAN: He’s saying the permission comes from the chief. (inaudible) want to do any of this. It is the chief who is to give the permission.
TUDOR PARFITT: We will have to go and see the chief this evening I think.
LEMBA MAN: He says he will be very pleased.
TUDOR PARFITT: Yes, we must go there, we planned to go there in fact. But we wanted to come to Sevias first.
LEMBA MAN: He says that’s very good.
TUDOR PARFITT: Great, so that’s – that will be marvelous.
NARRATOR: It is morning before Parfitt finally gets permission to take genetic samples. It’s an important day in the village. There is to be a circumcision ceremony and a feast to honor the ancestors. These practices include elements of Jewish ritual, but could have evolved from other sources. Circumcision is a widespread African custom. Some scholars believe the Lemba were the first to introduce it to the southern continent. But Jewish custom requires that circumcision take place when a boy is eight days old, and these youths are between seven and 15 years old. That’s a feature of Muslim tradition.
That afternoon, the Lemba men gather in a hut for Parfitt to collect genetic samples. Despite the formalities involved in obtaining the chief’s permission, the villagers themselves are anxious to cooperate.
TUDOR PARFITT: There has never been any difficulty with the Lemba, taking their samples, because they were so keen to get some definitive proof that they were Jews. After all, for years the white Jewish community of South Africa had refused to believe any of their stories, and they really felt that here they might have the proof that they’d been looking for.
TUDOR PARFITT (in the field): The place of your birth? And your cultural identity? Ah, yes, that’s something I forgot to put down on the others – so your clan is Sadiki.
NARRATOR: Many of the Lemba’s clan names sound similar to words in Arabic or Hebrew: names like Hamesi, Sadiki, Sulamani. Parfitt is convinced the Lemba must have Semitic ancestors. But were they Jews? The DNA analysis may yield a clue.
In London, scientists anxiously await the package from Africa – samples from dozens of Lemba men representing six different clans from towns and villages throughout the southern continent. They’ll soon know if there’s any hard evidence behind the Lemba oral tradition of Jewish ancestry.
NEIL BRADMAN: When we analyzed the Y chromosomes of the Lemba, what we noticed was that amongst these Semitic Y chromosomes, there was a high frequency of Cohen chromosomes, what’s technically called the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
NARRATOR: Another stunning result: the distinctive Cohanim markers appear in the Lemba at the same frequency as they do in the general Jewish population, far more frequently than in any non-Jewish population tested.
DAVID GOLDSTEIN: Something just under one out of every 10 Lemba that we looked at in fact had this particular Y chromosomal type that appears to be a signature of Jewish ancestry. Perhaps even more striking than that, there was in fact an association between that particular Y chromosome type and one of the Lemba clans.
NEIL BRADMAN: There was one particular clan, the Buba, which is, we understand, the premier clan amongst the Lemba, where the frequency of the Y chromosome was very high. In fact, almost 50%.
TUDOR PARFITT: The fact that we found this in such high concentrations in one of the Lemba subclans, much higher than the general Jewish population incidentally, seemed finally to provide a real link – a really useable link between the Lemba and Jews, and that was really the first hard piece of evidence that we got.
NARRATOR: The Cohen Y chromosome type shows up in the Buba clan about as often as in the Cohanim – in about half the men. Does that imply the Buba are Cohanim? What else might explain the frequency of these genetic markers in the Lemba leadership clan? Perhaps Jewish traders – including members of the priestly class – interbred with Buba women in Africa. Though men from the outside have never been welcome into the Lemba tribe – especially among the Buba.
TUDOR PARFITT: No man could in fact ever become a Lemba, could he?
PROFESSOR MATHIVA: No, no man can ever become a Lemba. Only women could qualify to become a Lemba after going through a process of initiation and acceptance.
NARRATOR: Exactly how and when the Lemba came to carry the Cohanim markers remains uncertain, but locating their place of origin might help fill in the picture. Parfitt has promised to find the long-lost Lemba homeland – a city somewhere to the north, called Sena – where the Lemba say they lived before coming to Africa.
TUDOR PARFITT: Professor Mathiva specifically asked me on one occasion to go and find Sena, which acts as a place of origin, but also the place to which they go. They refer to Sena in the same way that we would refer to paradise or heaven. And they say we’ll – they say we’ll – we’ll meet – we’ll meet again in Sena, and this kind of thing. It seemed to me that the whole tradition, the whole story was – was magical. And their lack of this information which they act out through plays and songs is one of the most haunting and poignant features I think of their current practice.
TUDOR PARFITT: This is extraordinary. What’s it about?
PROFESSOR MATHIVA: It’s what they – they teach their children not to forget. It’s a sad reminder that when they lose their customs and everything, they will not be people at all. And therefore if they live amongst strangers, they must never forget who they are. Then he says, my grandchildren, stick to what I am telling you. You see here, that’s where we come from; that’s where our ruins are. Come nearer; you see the graveyard – there lies your grandfather who begot me, your father. So don’t cry, let’s kneel down. That’s why he is talking to the ancestor here. To show them the way: the way to Sena.
NARRATOR: Parfitt may uncover more clues to the Lemba’s origins if he can find Sena. Did Jewish populations live there in the past? Do today’s inhabitants have any genetic similarities to the Lemba or the Cohanim? His next stop is the village of Sintamule to visit a local expert on Lemba history, William Masala.
TUDOR PARFITT: William, what proof is there that the Sena that you talk of, the people of Sena that you talk of, are connected in any way with the people of Israel?
WILLIAM MASALA: It’s in the Bible.
TUTOR PARFITT: In the Bible? Where?
WILLIAM MASALA: Nehemiah 7, verse 38.
TUDOR PARFITT: This is talking about the children of Israel coming back from Babylon, is that right?
WILLIAM MASALA: That’s right, yes.
TUDOR PARFITT: And there is a reference to Sena there?
WILLAIM MASALA: Yes, yes, in the Bible. “The children of Sena, 3,930.”
TUDOR PARFITT: Now, you talk about Sena. Where is – where is Sena?
WILLIAM MASALA: This book tells us that Sena is in Jericho.
TUDOR PARFITT: In Jericho, in Israel – in Palestine actually, it’s part of the Palestine authority.
WILLIAM MASALA: Yes. Jericho, near Jerusalem.
NARRATOR: Based on his biblical dictionary, William Masala places Sena near Jerusalem. But the Lemba oral tradition is much less specific.
TUDOR PARFITT: What they essentially say is that they came from the north, they came from possibly Judea, they subsequently went to a place called Sena, then they crossed from Sena to Africa via Pusela, we don’t – we don’t know what that is and they don’t know what that is. But they say, we crossed Pusela. We came to Africa. And then they say, we rebuilt Sena and then we went inland and had something to do with the construction of a great stone city. At that point we broke the law of God, and we ate mice which were not ritually fit for Lemba consumption. And at that point they were scattered, as they put it, among the nations in Africa.
TUDOR PARFITT (in jeep): I was very moved by William. He was clearly very convinced by his story and he’s genuine in his belief that he’s Jewish, and his people are of Jewish extraction. And it’s interesting, he keeps talking about this – this Sena, this Sena myth, this Sena legend. But it’s still quite unclear where it is or what it is.
SHAYE COHEN: The town of S’na’a, or perhaps Sena, is mentioned only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible. All three passages are in the books of Ezra Nehemiah. These books, Ezra Nehemiah, describe the return of the Jews from Babylonia to Judea in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. And we have a list of families and clans that joined in the return from Babylonia to Judea. Sometimes the lists give us names of clans, sometimes the lists give us the numbers of people who come from a certain town. And among these towns that are listed, the towns in the land of Israel whose native sons returned back to Israel, are the sons of S’na’a, or the sons of Sena. [reads Hebrew]
NARRATOR: The sons of Sena were among thousands of Jews freed by Cyrus, King of Persia, and allowed to return to Jerusalem starting in 538 BC to rebuild the temple the Babylonians had destroyed. It may be no more than coincidence that this biblical town had the same name as the Lemba homeland, but if the Lemba did come from the Middle East, why did they leave and migrate down into Africa? Perhaps their motivation was trade, centered in the “Great Stone City” of their oral tradition.
Between the Lemba heartland and Africa’s east coast lie the ruins of an ancient civilization called Great Zimbabwe. Lemba legend holds that they built this place before moving on to other parts of Africa. Zimbabwe means “great house of stone,” and is the largest ancient ruin in sub-Saharan Africa. Its walls are up to 20 feet thick and 36 feet high, made of over a million blocks hewn from local granite.
TUDOR PARFITT: Great Zimbabwe is central to Lemba belief about themselves. They claim that one of their tribes, the Tovakari, were the actual builders of Zimbabwe. And everything that we can construct about their history indicates that they played something of a role in this stone-building civilization.
NARRATOR: At its height, Great Zimbabwe is thought to have had 18,000 inhabitants, spread over three square miles – a bustling center of trade.
TUDOR PARFITT: The essence of this trade was importing stuff from the Arab coast and then exporting gold, ivory and so on, probably slaves as well. So the very fact of this trade implies a meeting of the Semitic and the African world.
NARRATOR: Europeans first described these ruins in detail in the late 19th century. Influenced by the racist attitudes of the day, they couldn’t imagine that such magnificent structures had been built by black Africans. Explorers had long dreamed of discovering a lost white civilization in “darkest” Africa, and this, they thought, must be it.
TUDOR PARFITT: There’s an extraordinary character called Karl Mauch who got here in 1871, after traveling throughout Africa for several years in a continuous journey. And when he got here, the first thing that he assumed as he wrote his diary that evening, was that this place was nothing more or less than the palace of the Queen of Sheba, built perhaps by King Solomon. And all kinds of small things within the structure, from the wooden lintels which he thought probably came from Lebanon, where cedar of Lebanon was used in the construction of the temple, to all kinds of other features. He had been told that day, in fact, by some local tribesmen that the great enclosure was in fact the temple of the great woman. And he assumed that the great woman was the Queen of Sheba.
NARRATOR: The legend of the light-skinned African queen joining forces with the last great king of Israel suited the preconceptions of white colonialists. But by 1932, a team of women archaeologists from Great Britain proved, through a series of painstaking excavations, that Great Zimbabwe was built – not in biblical times – but between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Subsequent research leaves no doubt that Africans built Great Zimbabwe as the center of a thriving civilization, based upon wealth from cattle, ivory, and gold. The Lemba belief that these builders were their ancestors is impossible to prove. But the story of their exodus from Sena could be connected to this great ruin, and to the ancient trade routes that once flowed with African gold, spices from India, porcelain from China.
TUDOR PARFITT: It was this route linking the great civilizations of the Indian Ocean with this place that certainly would have been the route that they would have chosen to enter the country. So from here I think what we should be doing is following the route of the Lemba in reverse and taking the road that they certainly would have taken from wherever their Sena was, from the coast and inland into Zimbabwe.
NARRATOR: Parfitt heads east from Great Zimbabwe, through Mozambique, to the coast. If the Lemba came from the north by sea, the prevailing winds would have brought them here.
TUDOR PARFITT: The Lemba would have been served by ports that served the traffic between Arabia and Africa, because for one part of the year there are winds that whiz you right down the African coast, and then for the rest of the year there are winds that whiz you back, so it really was a kind of superhighway, this piece of water.
NARRATOR: 500 years ago, Arabian vessels plied the Indian Ocean, part of a vast trading empire. The monsoon winds were the critical factor in controlling the flow of trade. During monsoon season, the winds blew down the coast of Africa, and for the rest of the year, the winds reversed. Perhaps Sena lay at the northern end of the trade route – in the Yemen.
The Yemen has a rich and complex past. According to legend, Sanaa, the capital, was founded by a son of Noah after the Great Flood. Jewish communities flourished here for several centuries before the rise of Islam.
SHAYE COHEN: Today, we think of Yemen as a heartland of Arabs and Islam, but we often forget that until recently Yemen was home to a very large, very important Jewish community. In modern times, almost all Yemeni Jews have gone to the land of Israel, but until very recently, throughout the whole Middle Ages and well back into antiquity, the Jewish community of Yemen was a community to reckon with.
NARRATOR: Could this city – Sanaa – be the Lemba’s Sena? The Lemba may have roots in the community of Jewish traders who left here for Africa. But Parfitt thinks it’s unlikely, for this bustling city has never had strong traditions of emigration – unlike other parts of the Yemen.
This forbidding desert valley, southeast of the capital, is called the Hadramaut, which means “courts of death.” The harsh cycles of drought here often force people to abandon the land, head for the coast, and ultimately leave for Africa. Was Sena an ancient village somewhere in this rugged desert?
At one end of the valley stands the town of Seiyun, and a famous Islamic library. Here Tudor Parfitt has arranged to see a noted local scholar, Mohammed al Sacaf, and enlist his help in the search for Sena.
TUDOR PARFITT [subtitles]: There’s a tribe in Zimbabwe. They are called the Lemba. People say they are originally from Sena. I don’t know where Sena is. I wonder if Seiyun is Sena…
MOHAMMED AL SACAF [subtitles]: Seiyun is not Sena. Sena is three hours east from here. Close to a place called Qabr Hud. Near there you will find Sena. You can see it on this map.
TUDOR PARFITT [subtitles]: Is there a place called Sena in the Hadramaut?
MOHAMMED AL SACAF [subtitles]: This area is called Sena. It’s a Bedouin area.
TUDOR PARFITT: This is very interesting!
NARRATOR: Al Sacaf is familiar with a city called Sena – not shown on most maps. It’s in an ancient and undeveloped region of the Hadramaut Valley. Encouraged by this new information, Parfitt asks if the Lemba clan-names sound at all like family names here in the Yemen.
TUDOR PARFITT: Sadiki, Namesi, Mahdi, Salimani…
MUHAMMED AL SACAF [subtitles]: Yes, these names are similar to ones in the Hadramaut. Here there are ba-sadik, ba-khamis…. Ba- defines a family name used by tribes in this area. These are well-known names here.
TUDOR PARFITT [subtitles]: These names are used in Zimbabwe.
MUHAMMED AL SACAF [subtitles]: This is amazing!
TUDOR PARFITT: This is really very exciting to discover that there really is a place called Sena in the Hadramaut which for a number of rather convincing reasons is connected probably with the Lemba.
NARRATOR: The road to Sena passes through desolate, dangerous country – the scene of several kidnappings in recent months. Parfitt has arranged for an armed escort.
The road winds out past a shrine to a pre-Islamic prophet called Hud. The shrine is a visible link to Yemen’s Jewish past. Although Hud holds a place of honor in Islam, the prophet himself had Jewish ties: the name Hud derives from Yahud – the Arabic word for Jew.
TUDOR PARFITT: Even at the beginning of Islam there were Jews in Arabia. There are references in the Islamic texts of Jews living here at the time of Mohammed. In this area there was a Jewish kingdom and the legendary king, Dhu Nuwas, who fought against the Ethiopians and died driving his charger into the Red Sea. So the whole place is redolent with Jewish history.
NARRATOR: The following day, Parfitt continues on to what he hopes will be the legendary homeland of the Lemba – Sena. Today Sena is dusty and dry – not the sort of place one would think of as paradise. But according to local legend, the city once was lush and teeming with life – until its great stone dam cracked, leaving the town without proper irrigation. About a thousand years ago, people began to leave in great numbers – including, perhaps, the Lemba.
TUDOR PARFITT: It was a very exciting moment when all of these pieces seemed to come together. There are tribal names in that area which are identical to the tribal names of the Lemba. In addition to that, the way of getting from Sena to the sea is via a valley called the Masilah, which sounds rather like the Pusela of the – of the Lemba legend. And then in addition to that, once you get to the sea, it’s actually very easy to get to – to Africa.
NARRATOR: Once shrouded in mystery, the Lemba’s past is becoming clearer. Parfitt seems convinced he has found Sena – the ancient homeland of their oral tradition. And the startling genetic discoveries make a plausible case for the Lemba’s claim to Jewish ancestry. But the genes cannot tell us exactly when the Lemba left the Middle East for Africa, nor when they acquired the distinctive Cohanim markers. The one certainty is that the priestly line of Cohanim began in antiquity, somewhere between 600 and 5,000 years ago. This is revealed through a biological clock, calibrated by the slow accumulation of genetic changes, or mutations.
DAVID GOLDSTEIN: If we have an estimate of how frequently mutations occur from one generation to the next, then essentially what we can do is look at the amount of differences that we see among the Y chromosomes carried by the Cohanim, and we can relate that to how many generations have gone by since the founding of the line. And when we do that, the estimated time that we get is about 3,000 years before the present. And that’s of course a number that generates a lot of – a lot of interest. But I – I need to – to emphasize that that’s an estimated time and it has a great deal of statistical uncertainty associated with it. But what we can say with some confidence is that it was not founded recently.
NARRATOR: Modern genetics seems to confirm the age-old Jewish belief that a paternally-inherited line of priests – the Cohanim – began centuries ago. Possibly even in biblical times. Other long-held beliefs, however, are beyond the reach of science. The fate of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, expelled from Judea nearly 3,000 years ago, is so obscured by myth it may never be known – let alone be connected to a group of living people. But ongoing detective work – both in the lab and in the remote reaches of Africa and the Middle East – will continue to reveal unexpected truths in the legends of ancient peoples.
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