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Converso Ancestry Uncovered

A genetic study of more than 6,500 Latin American individuals uncovered a portion of ancestry that could be traced to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean several centuries back, which Forbes says could corroborate a number of family legends about Converso heritage. Conversos, it notes, are Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries to avoid persecution, but many of whom observed Jewish traditions and holidays in private.

An international team of researchers examined more than 500,000 autosomal SNPs typed in about 6,500 individuals who were born in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru and inferred their ancestry. As they reported in Nature Communications last week, the researchers this cohort harbored Native American ancestry that corresponds geographically to modern genetic structure among Native groups and that about a quarter shared 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including Sephardic Jews.

The researchers timed the influx of Mediterranean ancestry among Latin Americans to the Spanish colonization of Latin America. This, they write, suggests that a number of recent Conversos left Spain for Latin America, despite prohibitions against it.

"We were very surprised to find it was the case," co-author Juan-Camilo Chacón-Duque from the Natural History Museum in London tells the Atlantic.