Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 24, 2018

The conversos in the Spanish Empire and undoing anthropological mythologists

Filed under: converso,Human Population Genetics — Razib Khan @ 10:49 pm

A new preprint in bioRxiv reports on the high likelihood if elevated Sephardic Jewish ancestry in New World populations, Latin Americans show wide-spread Converso ancestry and the imprint of local Native ancestry on physical appearance:

Using novel haplotype-based methods here we infer the sub-populations involved in admixture for over 6,500 Latin Americans and evaluate the impact of sub-continental ancestry on the physical appearance of these individuals. We find that pre-Columbian Native genetic structure is mirrored in Latin Americans and that sources of non-Native ancestry, and admixture timings, match documented migratory flows. We also detect South/East Mediterranean ancestry across Latin America, probably stemming from the clandestine colonial migration of Christian converts of non-European origin (Conversos)….

I’ll not focus too much on the genetics in this post. The haplotype-based methods are very good, and these researchers have access to a massive genotype database. The results are also not entirely surprising to people in the genetic genealogy community. As direct-to-consumer genomics has become more popular, suggestions of Jewish ancestry in Latino customers were not uncommon. Showing enrichment via haplotype-based methods really hammers home the nail (I myself when I consulted with FamilyTree DNA analyzed customers who seemed to show patterns that genuinely indicated affinity to our Sephardic samples, though they were from mestizo families with deep roots in the New World).

The historical reason why this might occur is well known to anyone familiar with this period of history: migration to the New World was one way “New Christians,” some of whom were crypto-Jews in reality, could avoid social opprobrium and the attention of the inquisition. The author of the paper notes that with the methods they used it’s hard to dispute a greater representation of Sephardic ancestry in these populations than Spain proper.

Additionally, there cultural and historical suggestions that some of these conversos settled in the Southwest of the United States when it was Spanish territory, and maintained Jewish traditions. Some of these people are now coming back to Judaism.

But over 15 years ago The Atlantic published a piece, Mistaken Identity? The Case of New Mexico’s “Hidden Jews, which presented a revisionist argument that these people were not the descendants of conversos at all. Rather, they were Judaizers who created a history out of their yearnings.

Here’s a representative portion:

Neulander thinks they are doing it because they are, in effect, racists. Colonial Spaniards were obsessed with proving they had “pure” blood, untainted by that of what they regarded as inferior peoples. The same has been true for many New Mexicans, and Neulander believes that the concern for purity — limpieza de sangre — is intensifying, now that Hispanos are being boxed in by Anglo newcomers and Mexican immigrants. As noted, Hispanos have always been loath to be called Mexicans. But that is how Anglos in the region have identified anyone who speaks Spanish. So, Neulander theorizes, some Hispanos are using crypto-Jewish identity as a postmodern marker for ethnic purity. What better way to be a noble Spaniard than to be Sephardic, since Sephardim almost never marry outside their own narrow ethnic group — and would certainly not intermarry with Native Americans? Neulander also comes at the racism issue from another, not quite compatible angle. She stresses that Protestant lost-tribes logic is deeply anti-Semitic. Below its Judeophilic veneer lies the belief that because they reject Jesus, most of today’s ethnic Jews will in fact go up in flames at the Apocalypse.

The thesis is a mishmash of what are now fashionable ideas that one can understand the culture of people like the Hispanos of the Southwest in postcolonial terms, that is, how they reacted and engaged with white Anglo oppression, and also the internalized racism inherited from the Spanish.

The irony is that I believe in fact the American anthropologists and journalists were the ones engaging in myth-creation, sweeping aside the reality of genuine Sephardic Jewish cultural traits in New World Latinos, and putting its place the idea that these post-converso people were really just indigenous Americans who had adopted a Spanish culture and adapted to American racism. They erased the likely real history of American conversos and substituted something that was more intelligible to white Americans (non-white history as a great chain of reactions to the agency of white people).

We can’t know if these methods will vindicate the conversos of the Southwest, though I’m 95% confident that the signal of enriched Sephardic ancestry south of the Rio Grande is correct. But at this point, the converso model seems far more likely on genetic grounds than the anthropological revisionism.

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