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Gene Study Questions Spain’s Ancestry


There have always been two views of Spanish history: one that says Spain is a Catholic civilization that has been influenced by Jewish and Muslim cultures; another that says Spain is a melting pot of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim cultures. Now a new genetic study suggests that it is more the later than the former.

Some historical context is required to understand the issue. In the 8th century, Spain was conquered by Muslim armies. By the 12th century, it is estimated that 90% of the world Jewish population lived in Spain. Spain continued to be ruled by various Muslim regimes until the 15th century, when Catholic forces united to expel the Muslim rulers from Spain. In 1492 (the same year Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World from Spain), Jews living in Spain were ordered to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion. Soon after, Muslims living in Spain were given the same ultimatum. These episodes occurred during what is now known as the Spanish Inquisition.

Now, back to the two views of Spanish civilization. The first view (Spain is a Catholic civilization) assumes that most of the Jews and Muslims were either expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition or that the proportion of the population that was either Jewish or Muslim was never that large. The second view (Spain is a melting pot of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim cultures) says the first view seriously undercounts how many Jews and Muslims were converted to Catholicism by force.

As reported in the International Herald Tribune, a recent genetic study of the Spanish population provides direct evidence that the second (melting pot) view is more accurate. The study showed about 20% of the population of Spain has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11% have Muslim ancestry. This strongly suggests there was mass conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. To put this in perspective, about one-third of Spain has at least some non-Catholic ancestry.

For people with Spanish ancestry, it is difficult to determine whether your ancestors would have been affected by the Spanish Inquisition. There is, however, one tantalizing clue that may be helpful. People who converted to Catholicism during this period often adopted the name of the town they lived in as their new last name in order to hide their past. This practice, however, was not exclusive to people who converted to Catholicism.

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