Zoroastrian (Parsi) DNA

Farvahar. Persepolis, Iran.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions and possibly its first monotheistic one. It emerged in now-Iran about 3,000 years ago, but following the Arab (Islamic) conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians migrated to India, where they became known as the Parsi (from the word for “Persian.”) To be clear, where this post refers to “Parsis” it means the specific Zoroastrian community in India, and where it refers to “Iranian Zoroastrians” it means the Zoroastrians currently living in Iran.

Although Zoroastrianism was once the official state religion of Persia, today only about 190,000 believers remain (according to Wikipedia,) and their numbers are declining.

If you’re thinking that a diasporic community of monotheists sounds familiar, you’re in good company. According to Wikipedia:

Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta observed in 1563 that “there are merchants … in the kingdom of Cambaia … known as Esparcis. We Portuguese call them Jews, but they are not so. They are Gentios.”

Another parallel: Ashkenazi Jews and Parsis are both reported to be very smart. Famous Parsis include Queen Guitarist Freddy Mercury, nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha, and our Harvard-employed friend, Homi K. Bhabha.

Lopez et al have recently carried out a very interesting study of Zoroastrian DNA, The Genetic Legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into Population Structure, Gene Flow, and Selection:

Historical records indicate that migrants from Persia brought Zoroastrianism to India, but there is debate over the timing of these migrations. Here we present genome-wide autosomal, Y chromosome, and mitochondrial DNA data from Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians and neighboring modern-day Indian and Iranian populations and conduct a comprehensive genome-wide genetic analysis in these groups. … we find that Zoroastrians in Iran and India have increased genetic homogeneity relative to other sampled groups in their respective countries, consistent with their current practices of endogamy. Despite this, we infer that Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis) intermixed with local groups sometime after their arrival in India, dating this mixture to 690–1390 CE and providing strong evidence that Iranian Zoroastrian ancestry was maintained primarily through the male line.

Note that all diasporic–that is, migrant–groups appear to be heavily male. Women tend to stay put while men move and take new wives in their new homelands.

By making use of the rich information in DNA from ancient human remains, we also highlight admixture in the ancestors of Iranian Zoroastrians dated to 570 BCE–746 CE, older than admixture seen in any other sampled Iranian group, consistent with a long-standing isolation of Zoroastrians from outside groups. …

Admixture with whom? (Let’s just read the paper and see if it answers the question):

Furthermore, a recent study using genome-wide autosomal DNA found that haplotype patterns in Iranian Zoroastrians matched more than other modern Iranian groups to a high-coverage early Neolithic farmer genome from Iran

A study of four restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) suggested a closer genetic affinity of Parsis to Southern Europeans than to non-Parsis from Bombay. Furthermore, NRY haplotype analysis and patterns of variation at the HLA locus in the Parsis of Pakistan support a predominately Iranian origin. …

In (1) and (2), we detected admixture in the Parsis dated to 27 (range: 17–38) and 32 (19–44) generations ago, respectively, in each case between one predominantly Indian-like source and one predominantly Iranian-like source. This large contribution from an Iranian-like source (∼64%–76%) is not seen in any of our other 7 Indian clusters, though we detect admixture in each of these 7 groups from wide-ranging sources related to modern day individuals from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Europe, Pakistan, or of Jewish heritage (Figures 2 and S7, Tables S5–S7). For Iranian Zoroastrians, we detect admixture only under analysis (2), occurring 66 (42–89) generations ago between a source best genetically explained as a mixture of modern-day Croatian and Cypriot samples, and a second source matching to the Neolithic Iranian farmer WC1. … The two Iranian Zoroastrians that had been excluded as outliers exhibited admixture patterns more similar to the Lebanese, Turkish Jews, or Iranian Bandari individuals than to Zoroastrians (Table S8).

Parsi Wedding, 1905

If I assume a generation is about 25 years long, 27 generations was about 675 years ago; 32 was about 800 years ago. (Though given the wide range on these dates, perhaps we should estimate between 425 and 1,100 years ago.) This sounds consistent with Parsis taking local wives after they arrived in India between the 8th and 10th century CE (after the Arab conquest of Perisa.) Also consistently, this admixture isn’t found in Iranian Zoroastrians.

The Iranians’ admixture occurred about 1,050 and 2,225 years ago, which is an awfully broad time range. Could Croatian or Cypriot migrants have arrived due to the Greek/Roma/ Byzantine Empires? Were they incorporated into the Persian Empire as a result of its territorial conquests or the Arab conquest? Or were they just long-distance merchants who happened to wander into the area?

The Fire Temple of Baku

The authors found that Parsi priests had “the lowest gene diversity values of all population samples studied for both Y and mtDNA,” though they didn’t have enough Iranian Zoroastrian priest samples to compare them to Parsi priests. (I bet this is similar to what you’d find if you sampled Orthodox rabbis.)

Finally, in the genetic selection and diseases section, the authors write:

In the case of the Iranian Zoroastrians, … some of the most significant SNPs… are located upstream of gene SLC39A10 … with an important role in humoral immunity61 or in CALB2 … which plays a major role in the cerebellar physiology.62

With regard to the positive selection tests on Parsis versus India Hindu/Gujarati groups, the most significant SNPs were embedded in WWOX … associated with neurological disorders like early epilepsy … and in a region in chromosome 20 … (see Table S11 for a complete list). …

Genetic isolation and endogamous practices can be associated with higher frequencies of disease prevalence. For example, there are reports claiming a high recurrence of diseases such as diabetes among the Iranian Zoroastrians, and Parkinson, colon cancer, or the deficiency of G6PD, an enzyme that triggers the sudden reduction of red blood cells, among the Parsis.

However, the authors warn that these results are weak (these are rare conditions in an already small population) and cannot not be depended upon.

9 thoughts on “Zoroastrian (Parsi) DNA

  1. >(I bet this is similar to what you’d find if you sampled Orthodox rabbis.)

    No, rabbi is a title just like a college professor (it means “teacher”)-there’s no hereditary component whatsoever. For instance, the famous Rabbi Akiva was the son of converts.

    Cohanim, hereditary priests, should have more homogeneity-there are some Y-chromosomal markers suggesting paternal descent from one person:

    However, the maternal component won’t be heterogeneous-a Cohen can marry the daughter of a converted woman or the granddaughter of a converted man.


    • The local rabbi’s wife is the daughter of another rabbi, and her son is talking about becoming a rabbi when he grows up. (He’d be good at it.) The rabbi’s grandfather was also a rabbi (I don’t know about his father.) I know there’s not a rule saying they have to marry each other/become rabbis. It’s just a pattern I’d noticed, at least locally.


  2. Does anyone else have issues with the title of this post which is displaying in the sidebar of the blog’s front page?


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