Estonians are not like Finns

By Razib Khan | February 27, 2009 2:09 am

20081001120400!Baltic_Sea_m.jpgPolish Genetics & Anthropology points out that the Estonian Genetics Project is reporting:

The more than 25,000 blood samples collected already make it possible to conduct various background studies. For example, comparing the genetic data of Estonians with other European nations has revealed that Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and some Russians are genetically much more similar to Estonians than the Finns with whom Estonians share a similar language.

The genetic maps I post on now and then are real popular (invariably they are the ones that sites like reddit pick up), but the sample sizes aren’t that big. Often “France” means some patients in a study from Bordeaux and Paris. The goal with the Estonian Genetics Project is to collect 100,000 samples. As it is, there are only 1.25 million speakers of Estonian, so if the project is limited to ethnic Estonians we’re talking about ~10% of all Estonians. For most questions on historical-population size scales I doubt that there is any difference in power between a sample size of 100,000 and 1 million, assuming that it is modestly representative.


In any case, the finding that Estonians might be closer genetically to their Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors is not particularly surprising. Gene flow has a way of equilibrating and eliminated variation across adjacent populations. Similarities with Russians and Poles might also illustrate how water barriers build up genetic differences. Imagine for example that 3,000 years ago a group of Finnic speaking peoples crossed the Gulf of Finland. To the south, west and east are a host of non-Finnic peoples. These people are so numerous in relation to the proto-Estonians that one can think of them as nearly infinite in population size. 3,000 years is about 100 generations. Assume that there is gene flow from the proto-Estonians and into them for the past 3,000 years. Since the non-Finnic peoples are so numerous the proto-Estonians have negligible impact. But, consider the possibility that 1% of the genes in any generation are introduced from non-Finnic peoples. Iterate. After 3,000 years only about 1/3 of the genome content should be distinctively Finnic. The other 2/3 will be introgressed from the surrounding populations.
This “toy” model is probably wrong, but it illustrates how continuous gene flow over time can eliminate differences. Unlike genetics, language and cultural identity can be passed asymmetrically through parents, and changing languages can be quite abrupt and discrete. In other words, though outsiders can change genes imperceptibility from generation to generation, they may have still little cultural impact. The fact that Estonians speak a Finnic language despite being similar genetically to their neighbors may simply be a matter of “First-Settler-Effect.” There are fruitful analogies that can be made between linguistic and biological evolution, but the disjunctions are also notable and of interest.
Finally, I would like to introduce one alternative model which I find plausible. Before the rise of the Indo-European language group the center of gravity of the Finnic languages was almost certainly much further to the south and east, and that Finland itself was on the perimeter. By this model the Indo-Europeanization of most Finnic speaking peoples left the Estonians as a rump. The Finns to the north of the Gulf of Finland were already then distinct from the Estonians and other southerly peoples before this process occurred. The reason I present this model is that there is evidence that Russification up to the present day has come at the expense of the Finnic language groups.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
  • Oliver

    One more factor to consider: The conquest of the Baltic area by the Teutonic Order. It had little effect on the language, as German dialects were spoken almost exclusively in the cities, but it should have brought quite some influx of genetic material into the area. Similarly with the activities of the Hanseatic league. More, the conquest by the Teutonic Order might have promoted a mingling with the other Baltic people. So for this period, your assumption of 1% of influx would probably be extremely conservative.

  • BGC

    “we’re talking about ~10% of all Estonians. For most questions on historical-population size scales I doubt that there is any difference in power between a sample size of 100,000 and 1 million, assuming that it is modestly representative.”
    I guess Razib is perfectly aware that the representativeness of a sample is pretty-much unrelated to the *percentage* of the population sampled (at least up to very near the point when the sample becomes a total enumeration or census).
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gallup – and the famous story of the 1936 US presidential election.
    The need for a represntative sample is much more important than the need for a large sample. (Obviously, truly random samples are the best.)
    Increasing the size of the sample (only) increases the precision of the estimate, and there are diminishing returns with size so Razib’s point about there not being much difference between 100K and a million is well made. Indeed, there isn’t a great deal of increased precision above sample sizes of about 1000 – which is why this is the number usually chosen in political polls.
    Unrepresentative samples give a biased estimate – and increasing their size only gives a more precise biased estimate.
    I would like to see a lot more attention to questions of the representativeness of samples in genetic studies.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    It had little effect on the language, as German dialects were spoken almost exclusively in the cities, but it should have brought quite some influx of genetic material into the area.
    i’m generally skeptical of this. after all, there was likely more proportional settlement of swedes in finland than germans in the baltic over a longer period of time. also, the baltic germans generally emigrated over the past century, taking a lot of the new genetic material with them (i would bet that there was more germanization of the native substrate than nativization of germans).

  • Oliver

    “after all, there was likely more proportional settlement of swedes in finland than germans in the baltic over a longer period of time.”
    First of all, settlement is not really relevant for genetic interchange. It’s perfectly enough for a crewmember on a hanseatic cog to have some fun with a local maid for a night. Second, settlement of Swedes in Finland is not going to bring Finland any closer to Estonia.
    “also, the baltic germans generally emigrated over the past century, taking a lot of the new genetic material with them ”
    This is doubtful at best. We’re talking about emigration after almost three quarters of a millenium on location. Plenty of time to spread the genetic material. While there certainly will still be a bias in the genetic material, enough will have spread to account for part of the shift away from the Finnish population

  • Longma

    SOmewhat related, I recently read a book about Abram Petrovich Gannibal. He was military head and governor of Tallinn (Reval) some years after Peter The Great conquered the area. The author of the book, Hugh Barnes, cites Russian sources that stated the Baltic Germans, at least the ones in Estonia were quite xenophobic and did not seem to mix very much outside their community. I’m not sure how true this is as this was written by Russians new to the area.

  • Lassi Hippeläinen

    Genetic material certainly flowed from the German overlords to the ordinary population. In the Baltic countries the peasants were almost slaves. The nobility “had access” to local maidens, to put it kindly. In that respect Finland was very different – there was only a nominal nobility, and the peasants were practically independent esquires.
    BTW, Finnish and Estonian are not “similar” languages. They are related, but mutually incomprehensible. Even many words that look the same have different meanings. Italian and Spanish are probably closer to each other than Finnish and Estonian.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    settlement of Swedes in Finland is not going to bring Finland any closer to Estonia.
    that’s not my point. the point was that norden might have been growing closer.
    Italian and Spanish are probably closer to each other than Finnish and Estonian.
    well, those are very close languages. even a language retard like me can recognize that. would french and italian be a better analogy?

  • windy

    The Swedes settled in Estonia, too. And the Danes before them.
    Another thing to consider is that modern Estonia includes a large chunk of the historical area of Livonia (where a now practically extinct Finnic language was spoken). The Livonians would have been assimilated into both Estonia and Latvia.

  • windy

    PS. Are everyone’s comments being held for approval? Or is it because I iz Finnish?

  • Sandgroper

    No, he’s checking on the Western Australians too.

  • dougjnn

    “PS. Are everyone’s comments being held for approval? Or is it because I iz Finnish?”
    You’d better post a revealing pic, so we can chex on that.

  • http://pages.sbcglobal.net/zimriel David Ross

    Estonia is the Britanny of Eastern Europe, then?
    Britanny is an enclave of Old Cornish speakers, who came over during the Dark Ages and stuck there, speaking Breton, despite the best efforts of the French for over a millennium. I can’t speak to Breton genetics but I would expect them to look more like western French genes than like Welsh and Cornish genes.

  • PeterThaNorth

    “The Swedes settled in Estonia, too. And the Danes before them”.
    The Swedes from the segregated coastal parts of Estonia were shipped back to Sweden already during 1944. In a few months, virtually the whole Swedish community was vanished from the country.
    Anyway, I wouldn´t make too extensive conclusions prior we have the results. We must also keep in the mind the extreme genetic polarization of Finns. Western Finns differ from Eastern Finns more the Brits from Swedes. The Estonians physical antropologist Karin Mark (1964) noticed that Estonians have retained some physical traits of the Fenno-Ugrian people at much higher rate as opposed to Finns.
    Teutonic order virtually controlled the country for several centuries, Estonians were slaves, who were ofetn treated worse than dogs. I wouldn´t be surprised of the rapes of German landlords wouldn´t had left any genetic traces to such a small population as Estonians.

  • windy

    The Estonians physical antropologist Karin Mark (1964) noticed that Estonians have retained some physical traits of the Fenno-Ugrian people at much higher rate as opposed to Finns.

    Sounds fishy. How does she know what the “traits of the Fenno-Ugrian people” were? Did she unearth some “Fenno-Ugrian” skeletons? I doubt ancestral character reconstruction methods were that advanced in 1964.

  • David Holmberg

    As a point of interest, my mothers family were from Hiiumaa, while they bore a Swedish surname they had married into the local Estonian population for generations. My maternal line is definitely Estonian, for a least 5 generations. I have a friend on the island with the name Pass, who rumour goes, is the descendant of one of Baron Urngern-Sternberg’s mistresses, (he kept a harem of local girls). Despite this mingling I noted we shared very flat, broad, long toed feet, (which people always comment on), and while there I saw the spitting image of my half-brother who is 3/4 Estonian, 1/4 German (with of course, a trace of Swede).

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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