Finnish DNA

Distribution of the Finno-Ugric languages

In honor family, Thanksgiving, and the discovery that my husband is about as Finnish as Elisabeth Warren is Cherokee, today’s post is on Finnish DNA. (No, I did not just “finish” the field of genetics.)

Finland is one of the few European countries that doesn’t speak an Indo-European language. (Well, technically a lot of them speak Swedish, but obviously that’s because of their long contact with Sweden.) Both Finnish and the Sami language hail from the appropriately named Finno-Ugric family, itself a branch of the larger Uralic family, which spreads across the northern edge of Asia.

While there is one cave that might have housed pre-ice age people in Finland, solid evidence of human occupation doesn’t start until about 9,000 BC (11,000 YA), when the ice sheets retreated. These early Finns were hunter-gatherers (and fishers–one of the world’s oldest fishing nets, from 8300 BC, was found in Finland). For a thousand years or so Baltic Sea was more of a Baltic Lake (called Ancylus Lake), due to some complex geologic processes involving uplift in Sweden that we don’t need to explore, but it seems the lake had some pretty good fishing.

Pottery shows up around 5300 BC, with the “Comb Ceramic Culture” or “Pit-Comb Ware.” According to Wikipedia:

The distribution of the artifacts found includes Finnmark (Norway) in the north, the Kalix River (Sweden) and the Gulf of Bothnia (Finland) in the west and the Vistula River (Poland) in the south. In the east the Comb Ceramic pottery of northern Eurasia extends beyond the Ural mountains to the Baraba steppe adjacent to the Altai-Sayan mountain range, merging with a continuum of similar ceramic styles.[1]

Comb Ceramic was not limited in Europe, being widely distributed in the BalticFinland, the Volga upstream flow, south SiberiaLake BaikalMongolian Plateau, the Liaodong Peninsula and the Korean Peninsula.[2] The oldest ones have been discovered from the remains of Liao civilization – Xinglongwa culture (6200 BC – 5400 BC).[3]

The Xinglongwa are from northern China/inner Mongolia.

This distribution is a pretty decent match to the distribution of Finno-Ugric and Uralic languages before the march of Indo-European (Hungarian arrived in Hungary well after the IE invasion), so it’s pretty decent evidence that the language and pottery went together. Pottery usually indicates the arrival of agricultural peoples (who need pots to store things in,) but in this case, the Comb Ceramic people were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers/fishers/herders, much like modern people in the far north.

While I usually assume that the arrival of a new toolkit heralds the arrival of a new group of people, the general lifestyle continuity between hunter-gatherers with baskets and hunter-gatherers with pots suggests that they could have been the same people. DNA or more information about their overall cultures would tell the story with more certainty.

Oddly, one variety of pit-comb ware is known as “asbestos ware”, because the locals incorporated asbestos into their pots. The point of asbestos pots, aside from aesthetics (the fibers could make large, thin-walled vessels,) was probably to accommodate the high temperatures needed for metal working.

The Corded Ware people–aka the Yamnaya aka Indo Europeans–showed up around 3,000 BC. They seem to have brought agriculture with them, though Mesopotamian grains didn’t take terribly well to the Finnish weather.

Bronze arrived around 2,000 BC (or perhaps a little later), having spread from the Altai mountains–a route similar to the earlier spread of Comb Ware pottery. (Wikipedia speculates that these bronze artifacts mark the arrival of the Finno-Ugric languages.) Iron arrived around 500 BC.

Since Finland is a difficult place to raise crops, people have gone back and forth between agriculture, hunting, fishing, herding, gathering, etc over the years. For example, around 200 BC, the “hair temperature” pottery disappeared as people transitioned away from agriculture, to a more nomadic, reindeer-herding lifestyle.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the genetics:

A new genetic study carried out at the University of Helsinki and the University of Turku demonstrates that, at the end of the Iron Age, Finland was inhabited by separate and differing populations, all of them influencing the gene pool of modern Finns.

(Gotta love how Science Daily Trumps this as “diverse origins”)

The authors, Oversti et al, actually title their paper “Human mitochondrial DNA lineages in Iron-Age Fennoscandia suggest incipient admixture and eastern introduction of farming-related maternal ancestry” :

Here we report 103 complete ancient mitochondrial genomes from human remains dated to AD 300–1800, and explore mtDNA diversity associated with hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. The results indicate largely unadmixed mtDNA pools of differing ancestries from Iron-Age on, suggesting a rather late genetic shift from hunter-gatherers towards farmers in North-East Europe. …

… aDNA has recently been recovered from c. 1500 year-old bones from Levänluhta in western central Finland18,19. Genomic data from these samples show a Siberian ancestry component still prominently present today, particularly in the indigenous Saami people, and to a lesser extent in modern Finns.

The authors have an interesting observation about a line running through Finland:

Within Finland, an unusually strong genetic border bisects the population along a northwest to southeast axis24,26,27, and is interpreted to reflect an ancient boundary between hunter-gatherer and farmer populations28. The expanse of agriculture north-east of this border was probably limited by environmental factors, especially the length of the growing season.

I thought this part was really neat:

A total of 95 unique complete-mitogenome haplotypes were observed among the 103 complete sequences retrieved: three haplotypes were shared between sampling sites and five within a site. In the latter cases, the placement of the skeletal samples suggests that the shared haplotypes have been carried by different individuals, who may have been maternally related: identical haplotypes (haplogroup U5a2a1e) were obtained from remains of a c. 5-year-old child (grave 18, TU666) and an older woman (grave 7, TU655) from Hollola.

Obviously the death of a child is not neat, but that we can identify relatives in an ancient graveyard is. I have relatives who are all buried near each other, and if some future archaeologist dug them up and realized “Oh, hey, here we have a family,” I think that’d be nice.

The authors discovered something interesting about the direction of the introduction of agriculture.

If you look at a map of Finland, you might guess that agriculture came from the south west, because those are the areas where agriculture is practiced in modern Finland. You’d certainly be correct about the south, but it looks like agriculture was actually introduced from the east–it seems these early farmers didn’t fare well in eastern Finland, and eventually migrated to the west. Alternatively, they may have just failed/given up, and more farmers arrived later from the west and succeeded–but if so, they were related to the first group of farmers.

Overall, the authors found evidence of three different groups in the ancient graveyards: at the oldest site, a Saami-like population (found further south that modern Saami populations); a non-Saami group of hunter gatherers, and Neolithic farmers.

The non-Saami hunter gatherers had high rates of haplogroup U4, which is rare in modern Finns (Saami included). According to the article:

Instead, in contemporary populations, U4 exists in high frequencies in Volga-Ural region (up to 24% in Komi-Zyryans)36 and with lower frequencies around the Baltic Sea, such as in Latvians and Tver Karelians (both around 8%)37. Taking into account that U4 have been prevalent in neighboring areas among Scandinavian10,39,40,41,42,43 and Baltic hunter-gatherers12,13,44, Baltic Comb Ceramics Culture12,13,14 and in Siberia during the Early metal period11, we might be observing ancestries belonging to an earlier layer of ancient inhabitants of the region.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, so if you’re interested in Finland or polar peoples generally, I hope you give it a read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

3 thoughts on “Finnish DNA

  1. My wife did some genealogical research and discovered that I’m only about half as Finnish as I thought – probably 3/8 or more is Swedish. Which, I imagine, explains why my Finnish immigrant grandfather looks exactly like Stellan Skarsgard.

    Liked by 2 people

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