Jews Behind The Mountains

For the last year or so, I’ve been collecting Iberian, Hispanic, and Sephardic DNA matches. My goal: to map out the segments of my genome inherited from Jews who fled Spain and Portugal, trace them to specific branches of my family (most of whose paper trails run out in the early 19th century), and maybe, just maybe, establish connections to specific places on the Iberian Peninsula.

In my last post, I conjectured that deep analysis of my Y-chromosome subclade could help elucidate my direct male line’s path across the Mediterranean, into the proto-Ashkenazi community, and out to the Polish-Ukrainian border shtetl of Luboml. In all likelihood, this is the path of most of my ancestors. But Central and Eastern Europe have never held much appeal for me; by contrast, I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and have visited both Iberian countries more than once. Focusing on my minor Sephardic ancestry keeps things interesting, and allows me to work at a manageable scale.

With the help of Kevin Brook of, I’ve managed to validate 30 significant segments of Sephardic origin, with several others of lower confidence. Each of them matches at least a few Iberians or Latin American Hispanics, plus the usual boatload of Ashkenazim, and perhaps the odd Balkan or North African Sephardi. So far, I’ve managed to find matches in all but a few Latin American countries, plus several regions of Spain and Portugal.

Some segments of likely Sephardic origin.
The red-and-green one on Chromosome 5 is the subject of today’s post.

Not all of these matches have a story to tell—for what it’s worth, we now know that Jewish ancestry is common across Latin America, and Sephardic segments are anything but rare among Ashkenazi Jews (though my 30 breaks Brook’s previous record).

Here I’d like to focus on one genetic connection, on the paternal strand of my 5th chromosome, which proves to be an exception. A simple e-mail to I.C. revealed the story of a family with deep roots in the secret Jewish community of Trás-os-Montes in far northeastern Portugal, their tenacious preservation of a forbidden heritage, and their far-flung genetic ties to the Americas, Eastern Europe, and the East Mediterranean.

I.C., it turns out, is something of a lay expert about the Jewish community of Trás-os-Montes (“Behind the Mountains”, centered around the county town of Bragança), from which her mother’s mother’s mother hailed. When A.A., a Jewess from Duas Igrejas (a village on the border with Old León), married outside the secretive community, it caused a stir—and on the eve of World War II, she and her husband raised their daughter, N.C., non-Jewish.

Relevant locations, Trás-os-Montes.

A.A.’s family, whose pedigree extends back to the early 17th century on multiple sides, hailed from a collection of villages along the Douro with a documented history of Jewish settlement and inquisitorial persecution, chief among them Lagoaça and Vilarinho dos Galegos.

The earliest of her documented ancestors: F.G. and A.R. of Quintela de Lampaças, likely born around 1600. On October 2, 1634, the Jews of their village decided to hold Yom Kippur services—after which authorities found out, issuing arrest warrants for 19 of the participants, 9 of whom they managed to capture.

Several centuries and inquisitions later, the Jews of Trás-os-Montes forgot all but a few normative Jewish practices, developing their own code of ritual in its place. In any event, the consciousness of difference persisted down into the 20th century, where in dozens of northeastern Portugal villages, everyone knew which families were Jewish and which were “Old Christian”, as well as the limits of inter-communal comity. For example, like ought to only marry like.

But considering that starting around 1500, all secretly-professing Portuguese Jews were officially baptized alongside their gentile neighbors, can we really assume that inter-communal hanky-panky was effectively socially policed and rare?

Existing studies, limited to uniparental markers, present a mixed bag. Curiously, researchers had concluded that relative to the better-known crypto-Jewish community of Belmonte, farther south along the Spanish border, Jews from Trás-os-Montes seemed to have mixed more with the Portuguese general population. But without autosomal analysis (that is, a closer look at the 23 chromosomal pairs of recombinant DNA), it can be hard to draw conclusions about population history.

With N.C.’s genome, we have a chance to elucidate things. Now, for a reminder: N.C.’s father was born to a gentile family in Duas Igrejas in 1890; her mother was born to a Jewish family in the same village in 1916.

Using a simple population admixture Monte Carlo simulation program, we can get an answer to our basic question: what percentage of N.C.’s ancestry is Jewish, as opposed to Portuguese? (Sephardic Jews are quite genetically distinct from Portuguese and Spanish people, as Ashkenazi Jews are from German and Polish people, and so on.)

If N.C.’s father were entirely typically Portuguese, and her mother were entirely Sephardi Jewish, we would expect to get a model of 50% Portuguese and 50% Sephardi Jewish, give or take a few percentage points.

On the other hand, if her mother had picked up some gentile Portuguese admixture over the course of 13-15 generations since the original edict of forced conversion (1497) and the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition (1536), we would expect a Sephardi Jewish share substantially lower than 50%. There is also the chance that her father might have had some Jewish ancestry, which suggests a Sephardi Jewish “maximum” above 50%.

Knowing nothing about the details of population dynamics among the secret Jews of Trás-os-Montes during the 16th to 19th centuries, one would probably assume that N.C. would come out to 25 or 30% Sephardic, maybe more, but maybe less.

As it turns out, one would be wrong. Using two-way mixes of potentially representative population averages, we yielded the following best fit in Eurogenes K13:

And its rough equivalent in MDLP K23b:

(A note: Algerian Jews are heavily Sephardic, and Galicians (from northwestern Spain) speak a dialect of Portuguese. Working with Eurogenes K13 population averages, nMonte mildly prefers Algerian Jews to Balkan Sephardim as a proxy for “Sephardic”, and prefers Galicians to the given Portuguese sample as a proxy for “northeastern Portuguese”. MDLP K23b prefers the 2 obvious populations.)

The crux:

Two models using the best amateur “admixture calculators” out there estimate that N.C. is between 47% and 58% Sephardic, and between 42% and 53% Portuguese. This corresponds strikingly to the null hypothesis of a “fully Jewish mother, plus a gentile father”—and might as well be taken as direct confirmation of a 50-50 blend.

N.C.’s mother, A.A., was likely of ~100% Jewish origin. While other Jews from Trás-os-Montes might test differently, this result is of broader relevance than just one individual’s Jewish limpieza de sangre. Because A.A.’s family originates in a wide range of locations across Trás-os-Montes, this result suggests the existence of crypto-Jewish kinship networks across northeastern Portugal that maintained very strict endogamy for ~400 years. This possibility can be further illuminated by testing more individuals of recent crypto-Jewish ancestry (it’s unlikely that there are many of full Jewish stock left, but half- and quarter-Jewish individuals, like N.C., will do).

And when you accept this finding, things begin to fall into place. Secret Jews, known pejoratively and with a wink as Cristãos Novos (New Christians), were viewed by their neighbors as necessary partners in trade, but were otherwise considered a race apart, too disreputable to marry—while they themselves took to shunning members of the clandestine tribe who got too chummy with members of the outgroup.

A caveat:

Both of these two models exceeds the ideal 2-3% distance limit, meaning that while the proportions of our models make an impressive case for Jewish endogamy in Trás-os-Montes, the degree of fit could be a bit better.

For starters, I would guess that none of the Sephardic reference populations are pure representations of the medieval Spanish/Portuguese Jewish population. Turkish, Greek, and Bulgarian Sephardim are likely to have mixed with Ashkenazi and Romaniote Jews, and all North African Jewish populations are a mix of Sephardic migrants and veteran Jewish communities.

Plus, it is possible that Trás-os-Montes Portuguese are genetically distinct from other Portuguese groups (Portuguese regional variety is not well-characterized, and Trás-os-Montes is the most isolated corner of the country), or that modern Portuguese have some Jewish ancestry, on average, making them a poor stand-in for the Portuguese gentiles of a few centuries ago.


The segment I share with I.C. and her grandmother, N.C., is also shared with several Ashkenazim, Mexicans, and New Mexico Hispanos, as well as a Chilean, a Brazilian, and an Alexandrian Sephardi Jew. It is very likely that the most recent common ancestor was a Spanish Jew, and that at least some share of N.C.’s Jewish ancestry derives from the wave of Spanish Jews who fled to Portugal around the turn of the 15th century. However, the segment of DNA we share is quite long to be 500 years old, so the possibility of a later flight from Portugal to Eastern Europe can’t be ruled out.

After the ritual “clearcut”, bloom

All rituals look to have been “clearcut” in the modern world, because few rituals are well-adapted to the new technological human reality. But this new reality may also be seen as an island: a pristine space, unoccupied by past rituals and very leisurely by historical standards, where sensory exploitation selection may flourish: rituals may serve the emotional and aesthetic needs of humans more than ever before, because they are under fewer constraints. Only a tiny percentage of the population is now needed for the production of food, fuel, and other necessities; selection for collective action in unpleasant areas has been dramatically relaxed. There is more room for arbitrary beauty.

— Sarah Perry, “An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

Social cognition and “no-self”

To put it in more sociological terms: Reasons are social constructs. They are constructed by distorting and simplifying our understanding of mental states and of their causal role and by injecting into it a strong dose of normativity. Invocations and evaluations of reasons are contributions to a negotiated record of individuals’ ideas, actions, responsibilities, and commitments. This partly consensual, partly contested social record of who thinks what and who did what for which reasons plays a central role in guiding cooperative or antagonistic interactions, in influencing reputations, and in stabilizing social norms. Reasons are primarily for social consumption.

– Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma of Reason

It seems to me (but what do I know) that the things I cling to most tightly are the things I perceive as most inseparable from my unique self—memories (and the sense of having a sharp memory), quirks, moral traits, and as Mercier and Sperber remind me, reasons. Reasons on all tiers, for all objects: reasons for supporting decentralized governance, reasons for abstaining from pork, reasons for trusting A and not trusting B. Turns out, all of these things are inaccurate by design, hazy at best.

The good news is that even a momentary release from identification with them—whether experienced or merely conceived—feels very freeing. I want more of where that came from.

This is not to distort Mercier and Sperber (or any descriptive attempts at cognitive psychology) toward the end of an idealized post-self that overcomes its “deceptive” programming, and casts off the shackles of narrative once and for all. We are built to deal with our environment exactly as we need to, given the constraints of our evolutionary history. There is nothing sinister about this.

And even if there were, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought there was a way out. That said, our self-awareness shouldn’t be limited to the psych lab and the page. An honest appraisal of why we tell the stories we tell about ourselves reveals a bundle of fictions. What does that mean for that grand frame story, identity?

1. That it’s functionally important, and largely for social reasons.
2. That it’s not so important that we should let it hurt us.

The work of taking our attachments (and the I they add up to) less seriously is what we might call a “mental health hack”, with roots as far back as the Gangetic Plain, 2,500 years ago. Studying cognitive psychology, and chewing on its ideas, wherever we find ourselves, can be part of this work.

America in decline: nothing personal

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978…

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

— Peter Turchin, “1977-2017: A Retrospective

Our moment is the first in any living person’s lifetime (or in America’s lifetime, most probably) of convergence between structural-demographic “disintegration” and imperial decline. How does this manifest in today’s politics? “Make America Great Again” as an all-purpose banner for fear of emasculation and obsolescence.

Not being the sole (or even primary) geopolitical superpower isn’t a tragedy. Just ask the happy, prosperous folks in Denmark, or the happy, piss-poor folks in Bhutan. But for people who lived the unipolar moment of the fabled 90s, disorientation is to be expected.

To what degree is international status anxiety contributing to America’s internal “disintegrative” trend by making people feel like dispensable losers? It’d be hard to gauge. To be sure, it’s not the main driver of our spike in partisan rancor, mass shootings, fatal overdoses, and endemic complacency.

But the degree to which Americans cling to exceptionalism can’t be psychologically healthy (Hell, I voted for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, and the thought of America not being #1 even stings me a bit!). And when this clinging plays out at the ballot box, tectonic plates shift—and never in our favor.

How can we convince people that changes in the global order needn’t be experienced as personal tragedy?

Metaphysical musings from the Playa

Suffice to say that under qualia formalism both the feelings of oneness and separateness come from the properties of the mathematical object isomorphic to the phenomenology of one’s experience. In particular, the topology of such an object (and its orientability) may determine the degree to which one feels a self-other barrier. This is highly speculative, of course.

Analogous to the planetary habitable zone (neither too close to a star and thus burning nor too far and thus freezing), there might be a psychologically tolerable range for how much you believe in universal oneness. That is, it’s best to feel neither completely merged nor completely separate. Close enough that one can relate to others and not feel separate, but not so close that one’s existence feels redundant and cosmic loneliness sets in. Incidentally, this seems to be roughly the place at which Burners see themselves relative to other humans.

This from Qualia Computing, a true powerhouse of Whitmanic dynamism.

Why technology needs speed limits: confessions of an ex-libertarian

Used to think of myself as a techno-libertarian. Because when you’re 17 or 18, and a few years closer to the flat part of the exponential curve, it’s hard to imagine what could go wrong, or to care about collateral damage—and to this day, hard to have faith in government handling it constructively.

I’m still excited about the superintelligent, super-networked future, and I still believe that barring systemic crisis (this is a non-trivial caveat), it’s inevitable in one form or another. I’m not bitter about that.

But as I’ve grown out of ca. 1991-2008 “end of history” liberal triumphalism, I’ve come to realize that there’s *no guaranteeing* the valence that information super-technologies will have, and *no predicting* what values, if any, a strong AI will tend to express.

Even back in my Ray Kurzweil-boosting days, I could tell that the pure optimists were giving short shrift to questions of ethics and ideology. Nick Bostrom does a good job of mapping out the range of possibilities on this front in “Superintelligence”, all the while admitting that there’s only so much we can know.

I left Superintelligence a few years back convinced that the best we could hope for, as far as endowing the technologies of the future with benign values, was to have a frank, culture-wide conversation.

How is information technology already changing us today, and how will it more and more steeply change us in the decades to come? Note: the key question, over which we might be able to exert some control, is not If—it’s How.

Fast-forward a few years. The conversation has clearly broken out of Silicon Valley, but it remains an elite concern.

And even if it weren’t for the Trump circus, it would’ve continued (for natural, unsurprising reasons) to lurk in the background, churning along, while idiot lawyers and preachers stoked primal identity-based resentments and caricatured 18th-19th century economics.

Meanwhile, the largest handful of corporations in the world—mostly brand new money, unencumbered by the push-and-pull of regulatory politics—are leapfrogging ahead (as is natural), making the decisions for all of us, without our consent.

They are deploying the best engineering minds and the best algorithms in existence to build the most addictive, insidious products possible—taking advantage of the same neurochemical pathways as drugs, junk food, and sexual compulsion.

They are precipitating a mental health crisis at worst, and radically reshaping society, without the coordination of any of its other stakeholders, at best.

Like many people, I’ve struggled to figure out a healthy information technology regimen. One of my major personal goals right now is to develop a practice of mindfulness around my use of the internet, social media, and smartphones—but it’s a bitch.

As an instinctive libertarian, I think that developing our own personal ways of coping is all we can really count on, at the end of the day. But I’m not optimistic. Today’s information technology is just too well-engineered, attention spans have been shot to shit, and designing systems and regimens is something not many people are good at.

That’s why I think the obvious answer, speaking as a naive non-lawyer, is strict regulation (or, I’ll emphasize, *protection*) for the public good. We’ve come to a consensus that when it comes to anything with sufficient power to harm—cars, cigarettes, alcohol, factory mechanisms, food production pipelines, toxic waste—market mechanisms alone are not enough to stave off abuse and disaster.

Neurochemically and emotionally, this algorithmic crack is on another level. Sadly, I see just as little evidence of us dealing with this challenge frankly and maturely on a collective scale as I do on the individual scale. And remember, smartphones and Snapchat are just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if you disagree with them on *everything else*, I think this is a strong case for supporting economic progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Because with anyone else—the alt-right, the corporate right, the Clinton-Zuckerberg technocrat-naifs—you can be sure that the conversation won’t happen. How we handle our exponential journey past computation’s inflection point is a decision we have to make democratically—lest we cede it to a few soon-to-be-trillion-dollar companies.

Nobody serious—not Warren, not Sanders, and certainly not me—is talking about smashing the market. That would bring unspeakable tragedy, and if you wish for it, you must feel very safe in your social standing.

But the market and culture (here’s where cultural conservatives, of the Rod Dreher variety, have a point too) are accelerating so fast, ripping apart communities and soldering together networks of capital so astonishingly, that taking a breath, having a democratic conversation, and doing what we can to slow things down until we can get a grip is the least we can do.

Because if a superintelligent computer with dubious motives were to manifest right now in front of all of us, it’d be all too obvious we don’t have our shit together.…/our-minds-have-been-hijacked-by-ou…/…/has-the-smartphone-de…/534198/

Hearing the self as sound, not meaning

Ego dissolution offers vivid experiential proof, not only that things can be different, but that the self that conditions experience is just a heuristic, not an unchangeable, persisting thing.

Philip Gerrans and Chris Letheby at Aeon on psychedelics as a spur to work more constructively with the bundle of cognitive mechanisms we call the self.

One of the more exceptional pieces in the flood of recent popular work on psychedelics and cognitive psychology.

For the love of Coimbra

I was originally planning on 2 nights here, but I instantly fell in love and extended to 5, moving from a mother’s house on a ridge on the north bank of the river, to a daughter’s on the south bank.

At first I thought it was a matter of Coimbra resembling Granada: the live music (substitute fado for flamenco, they say, and you’ll instantly grok the difference between Portuguese and Spanish temperaments) on hilly side-streets, the vague intimations of a Moorish past (much, much stronger in Granada, because there were 400+ more years of it), the spectacle of the gleaming monument quarter, an Iberian acropolis, looming over every point in the city.

But it was the early August weather, 90 and dry by day and 60 with a breeze at night, that clued me into the ghost’s actual identity: summers in Jerusalem. A friendly Brazilian goth who took care of my apartment in Porto warned me to choose Braga instead of Coimbra for my next stop, but that could not have been more wrong for me. Galicia and northern Portugal are humid and hewn of dark stone.

In Coimbra, the unsparing summer sun reflects off white stone squares and whitewashed façades—achieving a similar effect to the slightly golden limestone that by statute must cover everything in Jerusalem. Even the cathedrals here are bright, airy, and inspiring of contemplation; normally the aesthetics of medieval Western Christendom don’t do it for me at all.

Even the Coimbra fado, “Fado Dos Olhos Claros”, which hypnotized me as I heard it performed on the steps of San Tiago Church, rang with notes of the Jewish liturgy. Student and alumni troubadours ply their melodies on Coimbra’s streets wearing impossibly hot and heavy black cloaks, much like half of Jewish Jerusalem. And yesterday over mediocre falafel, the sight of a white trailer across the street announcing Aqui fazem-se milagres, no metal (“Here, make yourself miracles—in metal”) inspired me to write a strange poem about language and metallurgy in the Proto-Semitic community of the 4th millennium BCE:

In this trailer by the River Mondego,
miracles in metal
are blueprinted and set
in kludgy type—

in the beginning was
the three-letter root
which unfolded like protein
ripe for diverse expressions
and levels of analysis—

a formless aleph
innocent of glottal dreams
trailing black copper slag
into the Dead Sea.