Saami not descended from Swedish Hunter-Gathers

By Razib Khan | September 24, 2009 6:37 pm

A few weeks ago I posted on a paper, Genetic Discontinuity Between Local Hunter-Gatherers and Central Europe’s First Farmers.Another one is out in the same vein, Ancient DNA Reveals Lack of Continuity between Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers and Contemporary Scandinavians:

The driving force behind the transition from a foraging to a farming lifestyle in prehistoric Europe (Neolithization) has been debated for more than a century…Of particular interest is whether population replacement or cultural exchange was responsible…Scandinavia holds a unique place in this debate, for it maintained one of the last major hunter-gatherer complexes in Neolithic Europe, the Pitted Ware culture…Intriguingly, these late hunter-gatherers existed in parallel to early farmers for more than a millennium before they vanished some 4,000 years ago…The prolonged coexistence of the two cultures in Scandinavia has been cited as an argument against population replacement between the Mesolithic and the present…Through analysis of DNA extracted from ancient Scandinavian human remains, we show that people of the Pitted Ware culture were not the direct ancestors of modern Scandinavians (including the Saami people of northern Scandinavia) but are more closely related to contemporary populations of the eastern Baltic region. Our findings support hypotheses arising from archaeological analyses that propose a Neolithic or post-Neolithic population replacement in Scandinavia…Furthermore, our data are consistent with the view that the eastern Baltic represents a genetic refugia for some of the European hunter-gatherer populations.

The Saami are of interest because of their cultural and genetic uniqueness. They, and to a lesser extent Finns, have very high frequencies of mtDNA haplogroup U5, which is generally associated with the first modern human settlers of Europe. This haplogroup has been found in the papers which looked at hunter-gatherer populations in other regions of Europe. Additionally, the present expanse of the Saami is sharply contracted from heir range even 500 years ago, they were marginalized, assimilated and exterminated as Norwegians, Swedes and Finns spread north in the early modern period. But it turns out that particular lineages of found in these samples, in particular the 19 which were Pitted War Culture (PWC) are more common among the Latvians and Lithuanians. This table from the paper shows all the individuals and the frequencies in various nations. The gray are the 3 individuals from the Funnel Beaker Cultural/Trichterbecher Kultur (TRB):

pwc.pngThe issue here is that for 1,000 years, between 3000 and 2000 BCE, the hunter-gatherer culture and the farmers “co-existed.” Scandinavian is relatively marginal for many crops which were optimized for the Middle East and Mediterranean, so it is likely that hunter-gatherers in northern Europe had long experience (or at least vague knowledge) of sedentary populations over the horizon. One of the likely issues with the irruption of relatively dense living farmers among hunter-gatherers is that the historical record suggests decimation from disease, ecological marginalization, and finally outright genocide, among the latter due to the former. But if the lands which the hunter-gatherers inhabit are ecological inhospitable to farming then it is possible that the natural limit on the spread of agriculture will give the hunter-gatherers “demographic breathing” room and time to develop immunities. It seems that this sort of thing occurred in much of Scandinavia before the coalescence of a mixed-agricultural system which combined cereal production and cattle culture. By the time the farmers expanded north the hunter-gatherers likely had some coping mechanisms biologically (immunity) and culturally (diffusion can occur, and knowledge of what happened to the south would encourage caution).
I am intrigued by an “East Baltic refugia,” because this is a case where perhaps the old-line physical anthropologists were correct, as they did posit and East Baltic race. Look at this PC chart:

Southern Italy and Latvia are at two ends of the distribution. In the context of these populations the southern Italians should be the most Neolithic, that is, derived from the pulse coming out of the Middle East. It is peculiar that Lithuania and Latvia are so distal, especially in relation to Russia. Historically Latvia and Lithuania have always been relatively “late to the game,” they were the last regions to accept Christianity within Europe excepting the Saami. In some whats genetically they resemble Finno-Ugric peoples and not other Indo-European speakers (e.g., high frequencies of TAT). If there are candidates for populations who are the “original Europeans,” I think it is reasonable to add the Baltic peoples to the Saami and Basque in the list of top contenders.
There are some issues:
1) They needed bigger sample sizes for the TRB.
2) Bigger sample sizes would be nice, period, in this case.
3) mtDNA tells you only show much. It is the maternal lineage, so perhaps the paternal lineage exhibits more continuity? (I’m skeptical, but it would be nice to know)
4) The PWC samples were from an island. Islands are often genetically strange because of their isolation. A mainland site would be less concerning.
5) In general, there are lots of weird discontinuities in mtDNA from what I can tell. We might want to be careful as to the reliability of this locus in giving us a fine-grained snapshot of population history.
Bryan Sykes might want to reconsider The Seven Daughters of Eve. Looks like Lilith’s seed might have won out….
Citation Malmstro¨m et al., Ancient DNA Reveals Lack of Continuity between Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers and Contemporary Scandinavians, Current Biology (2009), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.017
H/T Dienekes


Comments (9)

  1. The Dude

    If, anthropometrically speaking, the extant Balts closely approach the classical Cro-Magnon type, and also happen to be the fairest people on Earth (the incidence of light eyes and hair — necessarily skin also), and are now suggested to be the remnants of Europe’s original stock, should we still attribute agriculture as the agency behind Europe’s “whitening”?

  2. should we still attribute agriculture as the agency behind Europe’s “whitening”?
    good point. though, the balts did end up picking up agriculture, and the largest effect light skin causing gene, slc24a5, seems to have swept to fixation relatively recently (probably less than 10,000 years ago). oca2, which causes blue eyes and probably lighter skin & hair too, pops up sometimes in as a late sweep too. so perhaps not agriculture, but something later. the saami and basques probably have a deep history in europe too, and they aren’t pale.

  3. JL

    the saami … aren’t pale.
    Says who? They’re certainly paler than Southern Europeans. Most have fair eyes, and blond hair is common.

  4. ^^ The Balts don’t closely approach the Cro-Magnon “type”. Scandinavians do. See Brice et al.
    The whole Alpinid/Baltid = Cro-Magnon stuff is an old anthro myth not supported by any recent studies.

  5. Says who? They’re certainly paler than Southern Europeans.
    no shit. and they’re paler than sudanese too. don’t be an ass, they’re not pale *in their local context* in the course of discussing the relationship between complexion and aboriginal peoples the difference between the balts and saami is the point of interest, not that the saami are pale in the worldwide context. i really hate it when people purposely misconstrue to make a point which wastes everyone’s time.

  6. Rachel

    Let us not ignore the huge Mammoth (hunter) in the room.
    Haplogroup H is a Hunter-Gather genotype. NOT a neolithic agricultural genotype. Of the two Cro-magnons I know who have been typed one was Haplogroup H. Haplogroup H was in Europe at the time of the last glacial maximum (long before the arrival of agriculture) and dominates modern Western Europe, including Sweden.
    If we consider that the first farmers in the area are defined by the funnel beaker culture (a big if)then the very presence of Haplogroup H (frequency 0.333) is testament to the conversion of Hunter-Gathers to agriculture rather than their replacement by agricultural people from the east. H subclades left behind in the east are completely absent from the Funnel beaker culture (eg H6 and H8).
    Haplogroup J is also high in the Funnel Beaker culture (0.333) and a mere 0.091 in modern Sweden, closer to the Pitted Ware Hunter-Gather proportion (0.54). By this you could argue the reverse, that the Hunter-Gatherers prevailed. The results for Haplogroup T are the same.
    The area sampled does not even seem to be Saami territory so it escapes me as to how any conclusions can be drawn about the Saami.
    As Dienkes said. 19 samples is not enough to conclude anything. Particularly of the 3 Funnel Beaker individuals (1 is a known Hunter Gatherer and the other 2 are substantially lower levels now in Swedon than they were in the farming populations).
    A triumph of bias over good sense.

  7. 19 samples is not enough to conclude anything
    yes, it can be, as long as it is representative (which this might not be). just depends on how big the difference is. e.g., the lactase persistence allele in ancient north central europeans (or lack of) was with very few individuals, but since it is close to fixed today, and was absent then, it turned out to be statistically significant. if you sequenced 19 individuals from gotland circa 2000 BCE, and they turned all turned out to be more closely related to han chinese than modern europeans, i’m pretty sure people, including you, wouldn’t make a big deal about how the sample size was small. the issue isn’t the N, as much as representativeness and the not-so-stark differences.

  8. p.s. the authors of the paper admit they can’t say anything about the funnel beakers and their relation to modern populations. just in case people are confused by the comment above.

  9. Rachel

    She also claims in a press conference that the paper means that the modern scandinavian population is not directly descended from the original hunter gathers.


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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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