Research Article: The Genetic Legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into Population Structure, Gene Flow, and Selection

Date Published: August 24, 2017

Publisher: Elsevier

Author(s): Saioa López, Mark G. Thomas, Lucy van Dorp, Naser Ansari-Pour, Sarah Stewart, Abigail L. Jones, Erik Jelinek, Lounès Chikhi, Tudor Parfitt, Neil Bradman, Michael E. Weale, Garrett Hellenthal.


Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest extant religions in the world, originating in Persia (present-day Iran) during the second millennium BCE. 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. Using powerful haplotype-based techniques, 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. 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. Finally, we report results, and challenges, from a genome-wide scan to identify genomic regions showing signatures of positive selection in present-day Zoroastrians that might correlate to the prevalence of particular diseases among these communities.

Partial Text

Zoroastrianism developed from an ancient religion that was once shared by the ancestors of tribes that settled in Iran and northern India and is thought to have been founded by the prophet priest Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek). Since there is no context or documentation for the life of Zarathustra, his very existence is a matter for debate. Although some scholars have proposed that he lived in the 6th century BCE, i.e., during the Achaemenic period, most scholars now believe he lived around 1200 BCE, at a time when the ancient Iranians inhabited the areas of the Inner Asian Steppes (also a subject of great controversy1, 2) prior to the great migrations south to modern Iran, Afghanistan, Northern Iraq, and parts of Central Asia.3 Zoroastrianism became the state religion of three great Iranian empires: Achaemenid (559–330 BCE) founded by King Cyrus the Great and ended by the conquest of Alexander the Great, Parthian (c. 247 BCE–224 CE), and Sasanian (224–651 CE), during which time the religion as an imperial faith is best known. Zoroastrianism ceased to be the state religion of Iran after the Arab conquests (633–654 CE), although it is thought that widespread conversion to Islam did not begin until about 767 CE.4

Though recent studies have investigated the origins of different Jewish populations from India, like the Cochin Jews or the Bene Israel,64, 65, 66 little is known about the genetic structure of the relatively isolated populations found mainly in India and Iran that practice Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest extant religions in the world. We present genome-scale genetic analyses of Zoroastrians from Iran and India and provide genetic evidence for their historical exodus.6




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