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Bioanthropology: Tracing our genetic roots

Not long ago, cytogenetic experts stirred up a controversy with their "ground-breaking" findings on the origns of the Finnish and Sami peoples. Cytogenetics is by no means a new tool in bioanthropological research, however. As early as the 1960s and '70s, Finnish researchers made the significant discovery that one quarter of the Finns' genetic stock is Siberian, and three quarters is European in origin. The Samis, however, are of different genetic stock: a mixture of distinctly western, but also eastern elements. If we examine the genetic links between the peoples of Europe, the Samis form a separate group unto themselves, and other Uralic peoples, too have a distinctive genetic profile.

We humans inherit the genetic material contained in the mitochondrion of our cell cytoplasm (mitochondrial DNA) from our mothers, as the DNA molecules in sperm appear to break down after fertilization. Since the 1980s, tests on mitochondrial DNA have enabled scientists to establish the biological links and origins of human populations by tracing their maternal lineage. DNA tests confirm that Homo sapiens originated in Africa roughly 150,000 years ago. From there modern man went forth and conquered new territory, eventually populating nearly all seven continents.

Another fact confirmed by DNA tests is that there is only minor genetic variation between the peoples of Europe, the Finns included. Mitochondrial DNA tests have revealed the presence of a 'western' component in the Finns' genetic makeup. Meanwhile, tests on the cell nucleus indicate that Finnish genes differ to some extent from those of other Europeans. This apparent contradiction stems from the fact that the genetic diversity evidenced by mitochondrial DNA is of much older origin - indeed tens of thousands of years older - than that of the cell nucleus, whose genetic time span goes back only a few thousand years.

The Riddle of the Samis

DNA research reveals that the genetic makeup of the Samis and Samoyeds differs significantly both from each other and from other Europeans. In the case of the Samoyeds, this is not surprising, since it was not until the early Middle Ages that they migrated to northeastern Europe from the outer reaches of Siberia. It is curious, however, that the mitochondrial DNA of the Samis should differ so distinctly from that of other European peoples. The "Sami motif" which has been identified by researchers - a combination of three specific genetic mutations - is shared by more than one third of all tested Samis, but of all the gene tests conducted throughout the world, the same mutation has occurred in only six other samples, one Finnish and five Karelian. This prompts the question as to whether the ascendants of the latter-day Samis have perhaps lived in genetic isolation at some stage in their evolution.

DNA scientists class the Finns as Indo-Europeans, or descendants of western genetic stock. But because "Indo-European" is a term borrowed from linguistics, it is misleading in the broader context of bioanthropology. DNA scientists work within a time frame of tens of thousands of years, whereas the evolution of Indo-European languages, as indeed of all European language groups, is confined to a much briefer time span. DNA scientists nevertheless postulate that the Finno-Ugric population absorbed an influx of migrating Indo-European farming communities ("Indo-European" both genetically and, by that stage, also in the language they spoke). The newcomers altered the original genetic makeup of the Finno-Ugric population, but nevertheless adopted their language. This, in a nutshell, explains the origin of the Finns, according to the DNA scientists. The Samis, however, are a much older population in the opinion of DNA scientists, and their origin has yet to be established conclusively.

Philology: Tracing our linguistic heritage

Language is one of the defining characteristics of an ethnic group. To a great extent, the ethnic identity of the Finns and the Samis can be defined on the basis of the language they speak. The Finns speak a Uralic language, as do the Samis, Estonians, the Mari, Ostyaks, Samoyeds and various other ethnic groups. Excluding the Hungarians, Uralic languages are spoken exclusively by peoples inhabiting the forest and tundra belt extending from Scandinavia to west Siberia. All the Uralic languages originate from a common proto-language, but down the centuries, they have branched off into separate offshoots. The precise origins and geographical range of Progo-Uralic nevertheless remains a point of academic contention.

Previously it was assumed that Proto-Uralic, or Proto-Finno-Ugric, originated from a narrowly confinded region of eastern Russia. Linguistic differentiation was believed to occur as these Proto-Uralic peoples migrated their separate ways. According to this theory, our early Finnish ancestors arrived on Finnish soil through a gradual process of westbound migration.

When the plausibility of this theory came under doubt, various others were posited. One such theory postulates that the origins of Proto-Uralic are in continental Europe. According to this theory, the linguistic evolution that gave rise to the Sami language occurred when European settlement spread to Fennoscandia. Our early Finnish ancestors became "Indo-Europeanized Samis" under the influence - demographic, cultural and linguistic - of the Baltic and Germanic peoples.

The "contact theory," again, suggests that the proto languages of the language families of today developed as a result of convergence caused by close interaction between speakers of originally different languages: the notion of a common linguistic birthplace thus goes against its premises. According to a recent variant of the contact theory, Proto-Uralic developed in this way among the peoples inhabiting the rim of the continental glacier extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, while Progo-Indo-European developed correspondingly further south. The Proto-Indo-European peoples later mastered the art of farming and gradually began to spread throughout various parts of Europe. In this process, Indo-European languages not only began to displace the Uralic languages, but also to significantly influence the evolution of those not yet displaced.

However many linguists support the notion that the Uralic languages have so many points in common in their basic structures - both in grammar and vocabulary - that these similarities cannot plausibly be attributed to interaction between unrelated language groups across such a broad geographical range. Rather we must presume that they share a common point of origin whence they derive their characteristic features and whence their geographical range began to expand: as it expanded, speakers of other languages who fell within its range presumably changed their original language in favor of Proto-Uralic. The same would apply to the Indo-European family of languages, too.

Archaeology reveals the age of ancient settlements

Archaeological evidence confirms that Homo sapiens first settled in Europe between 40,000 and 35,000 BC. These early settlers presumably originated from common genetic stock. Genetic mutations like the "Sami motif" have indeed occurred down the centuries, but no other has had quite the same implications. It is of course conceivable that only the ancestors of the present-day Samis lived in a sufficient degree of genetic isolation for this chance mutation to survive.

Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe during a relatively warm spell in the Weichsel Glacial Stage. Between 20,000 and 16,000 BC a period of extreme cold forced settlers back southwards. Central Europe became depopulated, as did the region of the Oka and Kama rivers. After this cold peak, the climate grew milder, but with occasional intervening periods of harsh cold. Gradually people began returning to the regions they had abandoned thousands of years before. Meanwhile, the ice cap progressively withdrew northwards, opening up new territory for settlement. The Ice Age came to an end with a phase of rapid climate change around 9500 BC. Scientists estimate that the average yearly temperature may have risen by as many as seven degrees within a few decades. What remained of the continental glacier vanished within another thousand years.

Radical environmental changes followed from the warming of the climate. The tundras that once fringed the glacier now became forest, and elk appeared in the place of the wild reindeer that formerly roamed the rim of the glacier. The transition from the Palaeolithic period (Early Stone Age) to the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age) around 8000 BC was a phase marked by man's endeavors to adapt to the many changes occurring in his environment. This was the period when the Uralic peoples settled in the regions of northern Europe in which we find them today.

Scandinavia settled by continental Europeans

A substantial proportion of the world's water was tied up in the continental glaciers during the Ice Age. As the sea level was much lower than it is today, expansive tracts of land which now lie underwater were once the site of coastal settlements. The North Sea Continent between England and Denmark is a case in point: underwater finds prove that this region was the site of human settlements in the late stages of the Ice Age.

Norwegian archaeologists believe that the first pioneering settlers to leave the North Sea Continent were sea-fishing communities which advanced rapidly along the Norwegian coastline to Finnmark and the Rybachy Peninsula around 9000 BC at the latest. Many archaeologists formerly believed that the earliest settlers on the Finnmark coastline, who represented the Komsa culture, migrated there from Finland, east Europe or Siberia. More recent archaeological evidence does not support this theory, however.

The pioneers who settled on the coast of Norway appear to have gradually advanced inland toward north Sweden, and presumably also to the northernmost reaches of Finnish Lapland. Around 6000 BC, a second wave of migrants from Germany and Denmark worked northward via Sweden eventually, too, reaching northern Lapland. The Norwegian coastline remained populated by its founding settlers, but the founding population of north Scandinavia was a melting pot of two different peoples. Does the fact that the "Sami motif" confines itself to a particular region of nrothern Scandinavia then suggest that the mutation occurred not before, but after, northern Scandinavia became populated?

Grave findings have shown that late Palaeolithic settlers in central Europe and their Mesolithic descendants in the Scandinavian Peninsula were Europoids, who had compartively large teeth - a seemingly comical detail, but nevertheless an important factor in identifying these populations. Although it is very unlikely that the language of these settlers will ever be identified, I cannot see any grounds for the theory that either of these groups spoke Proto-Uralic.

Eastern Europe: a melting pot

If we now turn to the early settlements of northeastern Europe, their history is more complicated than that of Scandinavia, as the peoples who settled there appear to have migrated from several different directions.

The Palaeolithic peoples of southern Russia originally inhabited the steppes, but as the Ice Age drew near its end, the easternmost steppes became arid. Central Russia meanwhile became richly forested, providing a more hospitable living environment than the parched steppes. The Palaeolithic settlements of the river Don evidently died out when their communities migrated to the region of the rivers Oka and Kama. The archaeological remains of late Palaeolithic pioneer settlements in central Russia nevertheless provide only indirect circumstantial evidence rather than any hard proof of this theory.

At the end of the Ice Age, the eastern parts of southern Russia were sparsely populated wasteland, but in the west, in the region of the River Dneper, a Palaeolithic culture flourished. From there, settlers migrated to the forest belt of central Russia. As the late Palaeolithic peoples of Poland, Lithuania and west Belarus adapted to forestation, they too commenced migrating to central Russia. At the beginning of the Mesolithic period, peoples of three different origins appear to have competed for a livelihood within the same region of central Russia.

As the northern conifer forests (or taiga belt) spread northward, this melting pot of settlers followed, eventually attaining a latitude of 65 around 7000 BC. After that, they began to populate the northernmost fringes of Europe. On the North Cap of Fennoscandia, a 'frontier' appears to have stood between the peoples who migrated north via Scandinavia and those who migrated via Finland and Karelia. Russian archaeologists in turn see no evidence of Palaeolithic or Mesolithic westward migration from Siberia.

Two different types of skull, Europoid and Mongoloid, have been discovered in excavated Mesolithic grave sites in northeast Europe. The two skull types have been cited as evidence for the theory that an early group of settlers migrated to Europe from Siberia. The 'Siberian' element found in Finnish genes is believed to furnish further evidence to back up this claim, but the theory is rendered doubtful by the fact that there is a lack of corroborating archaeological evidence.

According to more recent theories, the two types of skull found in Mesolithic graves do not suggest the presence of two different populations as was formerly believed, but rather they indicate a wide degree of genetic variation within one and the same population. All in all, the peoples of the northeast were very different from those of the west. The decisive difference is in the teeth.

East Europeans have small teeth compared with the relatively large teeth of the Scandinavian, a peculiarity deriving from an age-old genetic distinction. Ancient skulls tell usthat the early settlers of east Europe were mostly descendants of an ancient east European population which lived in prolonged isolation from the Scandinavians. Perhaps the "Siberian" element in Finnish genes is, in fact, east European in origin?

The Samis, too, have comparatively small teeth, which has been cited as evidence that they are descendants of the small-toothed Mesolithic population of east Europe. Archaeological findings and genetic evidence nevertheless fail to back up this theory. Have the small teeth of the Samis evolved in isolation, or are they a later genetic trait? If we take the latter alternative, we should perhaps consider the contributing role of those settlers who migrated to the Sami region from the northern parts of Finland and east Karelia. There is archaeological evidence of such northbound migration from the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age.

Proto-Uralic stems from eastern Europe?

How, then, are we to explain the fact that Finnish belongs to the Uralic group of languages? I believe that the evolution of Europe's modern languages began in the Palaeolithic period during a phase of adaptation to the socio-economic changes brought by the end of the Ice Age. My theory is that Proto-Uralic has its roots in eastern Europe, where, after a period of expansion following the Ice Age, it became the common language of a particular east European population, eventually replacing all other languages appearing in that region.

When settlement began in earnest, Mesolithic cultures sprang up between the Baltic Sea and the Urals, where Proto-Uralic, too, began to branch out into its various offshoots. In my opinion, archaeological evidence of later movements and waves of influence suggests that the linguistic evolution of Uralic languages did not follow the classic "family tree" model: "family bush," as suggested by linguists, would be a more appropriate metaphor.

North Finland's early settlements were established by a founding population of east Europeans who migrated as far north as the Arctic Circle. Early Proto-Finnish - the "grandmother language" of the Finnic and Sami languages - traces back to the period in which the "Comb Ceramic" culture spread throughout the region around 4000 BC. Proto-Sami and Proto-Finnic parted ways when the "Battle-Axe or Corded Ware culture" arrived in southwest Finland around 3000 BC. This linguistic differentiation continued during the Bronze Age in about 1500 BC, when the Scandinavians began to exert a tangible influence on the region and its language, which explains the appearance of the Proto-Baltic and Proto-German loan words, for example.

From here began the evolution of Proto-Finnic and, further, the differentiation of the Finnic languages. The linguistic evolution leading to the genesis of Proto-Sami occurred in the eastern, northern and inland regions of Finland, where the Baltic and German influence was weak, but the east European influence was comparatively strong. As a commonly spoken language and a language of trade, Proto-Sami spread from the Kola Peninsula as far as Jämtland in the wake of late Iron and Bronze Age migrations.

I believe, then, that the peoples inhabiting Norrland and the North Cap changed their original language - whatever it may have been - in favor of Proto-Sami in the Bronze Age. The present-day Samis thus stem from a different genetic stock and a largely different cultural background than the original "Proto-Samis" who later became integrated with the rest of the Finnish population. Our early Finnish ancestors did not change their language, but they changed their identity as they evolved from hunters and trappers into farmers in the "corded ware" period and under the influence of the Scandinavian Bronze Age.

By Christian Carpelan, a licentiate in archaeology and a researcher at the Univeristy of Helsinki. From Finnish Features, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of Press and Culture.

June Pelo

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