Israel's Lost Tribes

Updated September 9, 2022 | David Johnson

Scientists discover Jewish chromosome in Zimbabwe

Related Links

According to the Bible, the Jewish leader Jacob had 12 sons. Each of these sons--Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin--became the father of a separate tribe. Known as the 12 Tribes of Israel, they settled on both sides of the Jordan River.

In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered Israel and ten tribes were exiled. They were "lost" to history. The tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained, maintaining Jerusalem as their capital. Most Jews are believed to be descended from these tribes.

What Became of the Lost Tribes?

Scholars have claimed to discover their descendants in North and South America, England, China, Japan, Burma, Africa, Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, and Siberia, among other places. Other writers assert they were never lost to begin with, that they returned to live with the tribes of Benjamin and Judah.

Despite the confusion, evidence linking certain isolated peoples to Judaism is strong:

Southern Africa: Genetic testing has determined that men of the Lemba, a black, Bantu-speaking people, have the Y chromosome of the Jewish priestly class, the Cohanim. It is rare among non-Jews. The Lemba observe kosher-like dietary laws and seem more Middle Eastern than African. They may have come from Yemen.

map of Ethiopia

Infoplease Atlas: Ethiopia

Ethiopia: Some 65,000 Ethiopian Jews from different groups have moved to Israel since 1974. Israel's chief rabbis believe they are descended from the lost tribe of Dan. Others say they are descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Many Ethiopians were so isolated they thought all Jews were black. They did not know of the standardization of Jewish law, the Talmud, or Hanukkah.



Afghanistan: Although Muslim, the 15 million ethnic Pathans of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran observe many cultural practices reminiscent of Judaism. They circumcise male babies when they are eight days old (most Muslims perform it later) and follow an array of dietary laws. Some scholars note a resemblance between the names of Pathan clans and those of the lost tribes.



Mexico: As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a tribe of Indians living 100 miles north of Mexico City claims to be descended from clandestine Jewish soldiers from Spain who arrived with Hernán Cortés in 1519. While the tribe did not follow many Jewish practices, they did possess an old Torah. They also maintained an "eternal lamp" burning with olive oil, as in Biblical times. Since their "rediscovery" thousands have been officially converted to Judaism, and learned Hebrew, while many have moved to Israel.



Khazar Empire: Descendants of the lost tribes could have arrived in Europe via the Khazar Empire. Khazaria was a Jewish state that flourished from the Ural Mountains in Russia to the Black Sea from the 8th to the 10th centuries. While many Khazars converted to Judaism in the 8th century, it is possible some of the lost tribes journeyed north from the Middle East and settled in Khazar territory. After the collapse of the Khazar state, large numbers of Jews settled in Russia and Eastern Europe.



To learn more about the lost tribes, visit or PBS's Lost Tribes of Israel.









Sources +
See also: