How swarthy are the Sami?

By Razib Khan | July 10, 2007 5:35 pm

renee-zellweger-picture-1.jpgSomeone asked below if the Sami are actually darker than the Finns. Since I’ve been making this assumption in previous posts I thought I’d check this out. I found this source for the Finnish Sami where they cite a 1936 paper written in German. I’ve translated the relevant table (hair and skin color) below. The source above also has data on some provinces of central and southern Finland where one presumes the Sami presence is minimal, though I can’t vouch for proper calibration of the metrics, I’ve included the appropriate snippets.

 Eye color Hair color  
LightMixedBrownnBlondeLight BrownDark BrownBlacknMales

Data from parts of southern Finland:

The study of hair and eye-colour also pointed that the people of Satakunta were mainly blond. Among men 85,5% had light eyes (blue,gray,yellowish or greenish). Brown-eyes were found in 11% of men. The frequency of brown-eyes was higher amongst women (17%). Brown haired men and women were equally found 40% among the studied individuals. Extremely blond or dark-blond (majority of light-haired people) were around 40% Red hair was rather rare. Dark men rarely had dark eyes. The most common combination was dark-blond or brown hair and light-eyes. Height and blondness did not correlate each other….
In many previous studies the Tavastians had been described as being very blond. The eye-colour among men was predominantly light (89,6%). The women once again proved to have a higher frequency of brown-eyes than men (18%). The hair was rarely extremely blond. The most common hair colour for men was dark-blond (45,1%) and brown (35,7%). Black hair was found only on 3.6%. The female hair in general was darker, however people with black hair were a few (3%)….


Comments (21)

  1. It’s funny that light eyes are more frequent in men. I just ran a quick chi-squared test on the Sami eye data (using light vs. non-light), and the sex diff favoring males is significant (p below 0.05). I assume the same sex diff among general Finns was significant (the one in the quote).
    This is clearly because Finland is a hotbed of female-choice sexual selection, much like the tropical rainforests. This must be how light eyes spread so highly among Finnish males…

  2. i think the brown-eye think in women is cross-population. i’ll look it up.

  3. also assman, oca2 (blue vs. brown eyes) is recently selected according to the pritchard paper. remember that dimorphism takes a while to evolve from a standing start. a priori we should lean in another direction.

  4. jl

    Razib, it’s clear that the Sami have darker hair and probably somewhat darker eyes (although I don’t understand the mixed category in your data on Sami eyes) than the Finns, but when I questioned the darkness of the Sami, I meant their skin color. This was because in your earlier post ( you were spefically discussing skin color. The data you posted is silent on the skin color issue.

  5. jl,
    skin reflectance data wasn’t taken. but the loci which affect eye & hair color also have some effect on skin color. in particular, the locus which seems implicated in 3/4 of the blue/brown eye color variation seems to be one of the half dozen loci controlling human skin color variation. so logically one would assume that if the sami have darker eyes they should be somewhat darker in skin color even without skin reflectance data.
    but this map does show that the sami are darker:

  6. David B

    Hmm, I hope that 1936 German paper is kosher!

  7. Yttrai

    This is purely anecdotal, obviously, but my brother and i are half Finn, half Swede,and have two great-grandparents coming from the Tornio/Kemi area. We speculate they are Sami, but have no proof. At any rate, neither of us has ever sunburned in our lives, except for cheekbones and noses, and in summer my (brunette, blue-eyed) brother is often mistaken for being Latino or Black. As a blonde i’ve never had that happen. Incidentally, my eyes are paler than his – grey versus blue.

  8. jaakkeli

    Razib, that map is nonsensical. I mean, come on, all of France is coloured as as light as Finland and lighter than northern Finland & Norway?! That’s just utterly ridiculous. Give me the original article and I’ll certainly tear it to pieces on this point. (They might have a very limited number of data points for some of this; they might have simply “corrected” the map with the knowledge that Saamis are more often dark than Finns & Scandinavians; they might have a poor measurement of lightness, eg. they might be using some reflectance data for a particular wavelength, which doesn’t capture “lightness” reasonably…)
    Saamis might be “dark”, if you compare them to Finns, but they’re certainly not dark if compared to, say, Germans. There may have been an excuse to be confused about this back before the Internet, but Razib, why don’t you go watch some pictures of Saami girls? The eye is not exactly reliable for conclusions, but it makes things a lot less abstract. Eg. here’s a photo community:
    It’s mostly Saamis, with some Finns and clicking a few nicknames, I found some Asian immigrants, too. See if you can spot the difference. (I’d bet simply clicking through enough pictures there would lead to my usual observation on Saamis – that they look like a branch of Finns who’ve absorbed some smaller Mongoloid population. They don’t look at all like Scandinavians.)
    (My favourite would be this 15-year-old Saami girl…
    …since that pic looks *exactly* like my biggest crush ever – from when I was 15. Well, except that this one has more fat and darker hair.) (Sigh. Back to working on the time machine…)

  9. Reino

    My grandfather was 1/2 Saami – an emmigrant to the US from Muonio. My father looked very much like an American Indian – short, dark brown hair, high cheek bones (which I inherited), but the bluest, most piercing eyes you can imagine. He told me that my grandfather said that Saami with brown eyes were discriminated against in Finland in the late 19th century.

  10. windy

    The source above also has data on some provinces of central and southern Finland where one presumes the Sami presence is minimal…
    Currently yes, but areas like Tavastia in Southern Finland were probably the contact zone of Finns and Sami around the Iron Age. Many place names have been interpreted to be of Sami origin, for example (although interpretations vary…)
    The admixture back then shouldn’t be of much consequence to the genetics of modern Tavastians since the Sami population size was probably swamped by the Finns, but it’s interesting anyway considering the present range of the two “populations”.

  11. pconroy

    I met a girl here in New York and she looked stereotypically Mediterranean, dark brown hair and eyes, oval face, prominent aquiline nose, short (5′ 1″), big butt, overall hour-glass figure…
    I was surprised to learn that she was half Italian and half Saami.

  12. I was surprised to learn that she was half Italian and half Saami
    Big butts are dominant: look at light-skinned Brazilians.

  13. Big butts are dominant: look at light-skinned Brazilians.
    well, one can make easy adaptive explanations for adipose deposits in the rear….

  14. Ted G.

    What does this say about a theory I read somewhere that went something like: “The Saami are racially different from the Finns. They appear to have adopted the Finns’ language sometime around 2000 years ago”?
    Reading that, it struck me as more plausible that the Saami represented the original Finnic racial type, and the Finns have been highly intermarried with Scandinavians and other non-Finnic people. Why would some scholars assume the Saami to have been originally non-Finnic? To my admittedly not well practiced eye, Finns look indistinguishable from Scandinavians to me. Though I did have a friend who said he could always tell if someone was Finnish before they opened their mouths.

  15. jaakkeli

    Ted G., for one thing, there are a lot more Finnic peoples than just Finns and Saamis. The very closely related peoples left in Russia who have barely met Scandinavians look the same as Finns. For an example of the more distant “relatives”, here’s a random load of pictures of Mordvinians I Googled up:
    Mordvinians are the southernmost of Finnic peoples. They’re a lot swarthier than Finns (but they still have natural blonde hair and so on occasionally), but not more Mongoloid-looking (more Caucasoid-looking than Finns, if you ask me). In cultural history, we branched long ago into a bunch that became the Mordvinians and a bunch that became Finns and Saamis. If you’re trying to fit this into some sort of racial branching, it makes no sense, unless you assume that northern Finns/Saamis have mixed some other Mongoloid population (which, of course, may even have been Finno-Ugric). But then, things make even less sense if you look at the other Finnic peoples – the only pattern there is that those peoples who live closer to the tundra are more Mongoloid and this pattern doesn’t follow the cultural branchings in any neat way. It looks neat if you only look at Finns, Saamis and Scandinavians, but that neatness gets destroyed if you have any idea what the other Finnic peoples look like.
    Then, if you’re going to try to explain Finnish non-swarthiness by Scandinavian admixture, you’ll first run into the problem that Finns are lighter than Scandinavians! The parts of Scandinavia that are as light as most of Finland are also the ones that have non-neglible Finnic admixture. For a simple estimate of admixture (unreliable, but should work for recent admixture), you can try eg. the simple lineage studies. For the past couple of millenia, FU peoples have been in every way worse off than the non-FU neighbours, so intermarrying would be biased towards non-FU males and FU females. The majority of Finns belong into a paternal lineage that’s not found in Scandinavia at all – and in the lighter parts of Finland the percentage gets very high. There isn’t that much recent Scandinavian admixture there and the parts of Finland with the highest Scandinavian admixture (ie. Swedish-speaking coastal areas) are not at all lighter (back when everyone was very interested in this stuff, there were some pretty detailed studies and those that I have checked found the Swedish-influenced coastal areas to be the swarthiest parts of southern Finland) (hey, even the data Razib is quoting agrees, even if it’s meaningless here, the more coastal area is darker).
    And by eyeballing, I can usually tell groups of Danes and southern Swedes/Norwegians from Finns. Russians are often easy to unmistakeably identify on the streets even when alone. Estonians and Saamis are the neighbours that I can’t separate from Finns with any consistency (unless I use other clues, like fatness or drunkenness – those work very well for spotting Finnish tourists in Estonia…).

  16. Ted G.

    Jaakkeli, thanks. That is quite interesting. Do you think there’s any reason to give the Finns the language priority over the Saami, as that theory did? Also, could you give a URL for pictures of Samoyeds? I’ve tried to find pictures on the Web before and never could. Maybe because I don’t know the languages that would be required to find them. Are they light, too, or more Mongoloid in appearance? Those pictures of the Mordvinians were interesting.

  17. jaakkeli

    You’ll have an easier time if you Google up with Nenets or Selkup; Samoyed just gives you pictures of dogs. They look like slightly European-influenced Mongoloids. This photographer dude’s site is good for some pictures:
    and so on. Hey, he also has pictures of Finnic people, here are some Komis:
    By language, they’re from the most distant branch of Finnic languages – and funnily, they seem to pass for Finns much more easily than the more closely related Volga-region Finnics like those Mordvinians. It’s a nightmare trying to fit looks with language branching! (Oh, yeah, and pigmentation does even funnier jumps – I wish the Russians would do a good survey before they’ve entirely obliterated the more distant Finnic groups, as some of those are notorious for being super-red-headed and I want to know if the crown for the most red-haired people should actually go to a Finnic and not a Celtic group.)
    I’m not sure what you mean by “giving the Finns the language priority”. Finns and Saamis were, as far as language is concerned, one people a few thousand years ago. The languages have branched in place. It’s *possible* that there was some event where the proto-Finno-Saamic group encountered another people who took the invaders language and became Saamis/Finns while the invader became Finns/Saamis, but no one knows. It’s also possible that the original inhabitants of the area looked more Mongoloid and as the proto-Finno-Saamic language spread, the proto-Finno-Saamic people took a gradient of appearances which then ended up making Finns and Saamis somewhat different looking once the languages branched. (There’s certainly a gradient now – Finns get occasionally Mongoloid-looking when you get to the north. It’s not only a Saami thing. Besides, today’s Saamis are just a remnant, as most Saamis that once existed were absorbed by Finns and Scandinavians – if the more southern Saamis looked less Mongoloid, Saamis in total might’ve actually looked LESS commonly Mongoloid in the past!) Or maybe northerners have interbred with a Mongoloid-looking group that arrived after the Finno-Saamic people (they certainly have, but the question is to what extent). Or maybe it has partly developed after Finno-Saamic languages arrived here. Much of the difference is just swarthiness – I know some Finns who look pretty Mongoloid but don’t get read as such because they’re very pale with light hair and eyes; some of those Samoyeds would pass in Finland effortlessly if they were light. Or…

  18. Ted G.

    Thanks for those pictures. I was struck by how much Selkup and Nenets people looked like American Indians. As opposed to Eskimos, who have a “purer” Mongoloid look, I think. Interesting that some Finns have Mongoloid characters, too. After sending the last message, I realized you’d somewhat answered my “language priority” question already. As you say, the Finns and the Saami were the same people a few thousand years ago.
    One other thing I’ve been curious about: I understand there are also quite a few Finns living in Northern Norway, along with many Saami. Is that something that goes far back in history? Have both Finns and Saami inhabited polar areas for a long time? Do they get along well? I realize that’s an over-general question. Basically, I’m just asking if there’s a history of a lot of conflict between them in those areas. And what role do the Norwegians play in relations between them? Sorry if these are confusing questions or too far off the topic of genetics. Just some things I’m curious about.

  19. jaakkeli

    Most of the Finns of Norway have moved there during the past few centuries, although some Finnish presence goes so far back that nobody really knows how far back it goes. The Norwegians call those Finns “Kvens” (and BTW they call Saamis “Finns”); you’ll find lots of info if you Google/wiki that up. Norwegians are all late arrivals in the north (or assimilated or half-assimilated Finns and Saamis) and the Finnish claim to priority in the area (conveniently forgetting the Saamis, of course) was a source of some tension in the early 20th century: Norway was hysterical about the danger that Finland might move to annex the north and, well, some people in Finland were interested, especially since Norway tried to fight this fear with ethnic repression and forced Norwegianization of Finns/Saamis, which of course pissed off Finns, and… these things might have spiraled into war, but didn’t, and a lot of things have changed, mainly by WWII (with Norway in NATO, it’ll take us Finnish imperialists a longer time to collect enough guns, since we have to take down their friends as well). Norwegian hostility towards Finnishness/Kvenness/Saaminess has only eased in recent decades.
    I don’t have much of an idea on what people on the ground think of each other up there, having grown up in the south (actually from the border of those two regions Razib cited data for) where Norwegians were super exotic guests that every kid in the town wanted to see and Saamis were mainly remembered in old folk tales together with the goblins and giants that also used to live all over the place.

  20. Ted G.

    Thanks. Interesting that Norwegians would call the Saami “Finns.” Apparently, the word Finn comes from an old Germanic root that meant “nomads” or “hunter-gatherers.”
    So maybe that’s actually a more appropriate use of the word than for the Finns. Here’s another Wikipedia page on the Kven which has some discussion of their relations with the Saami and Norwegians.

  21. Mike

    I’ve read in many places that the mongoloid phenotype is relatively recent in the western parts of the Eurasian continent. So perhaps a more mongoloid genetics had an admixture on the original Finnic populations? Hopefully someone could shed some light on this.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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