Around the great northern circle

By Razib Khan | November 7, 2010 3:26 pm


Recently there’s been some talk about how the Mercator projection distorts our perceptions of the world, in particular how it makes Africa seem very small in relation to North America, and about the same size as Greenland. But there’s another artifact of the Mercator projection as well: it misleads us in terms of our perception of how expansive and dispersed the Circumpolar region is. And it also allows for more surprise than should be the case in terms of the demographic and cultural exchanges which have occurred between the western and eastern antipodes of Eurasia.

Earlier this week I posited that there were broad similarities of culture and populations along the northern fringe of Eurasia which arose in the retreat of the ice sheets after the Ice Age. Those similarities were subsumed in some regions by the expansion of peoples practicing agriculture who pushed from the south. In the case of Russia the expansion of ethnic Russians east was a historically attested case of this. With modern transportation and comparative advantage coming to the fore Siberian Russians were less dependent on primary production in the local hinterlands around their settlements, so the ecological constraints which had preserved the northern peoples Siberia were to some extent removed.

Dienekes Pontikos has been doing some great work on collecting and analyzing genetic data from groups which academia has generally not focused on too much. Today he has posted an analysis of various Siberian groups, along with some Northern Europeans and East Asians. Below are the two primary visualizations, and MDS which illustrates genetic variance on a two-dimensional plot, and an ADMIXTURE derived bar plot which has ancestral quota for the total population sets.

[zenphotopress album=212 sort=sort_order number=3]

Dienekes notes:

The correspondence with geography and language is striking. Siberian isolates from the extreme north and east, Koryak and Chuckhi are on top; HapMap Chinese at the bottom. Between them are Uralians (Selkup, Yukagir, Nganassan) and Altaics (Mongol-Tungus-Turkic people).

As this is a Siberian-centric analysis for the European groups there’s only a north-south distinction in ancestral contribution. In most analyses of European genetic variation the biggest difference does tend to be north-south, so this is logical. Of particular interest for me is the comparison between Finns and Lithuanians. In terms of West Eurasian ancestry almost the totality is of the northern element in this analysis for both groups. But look at the residual East Eurasian ancestry found among Finns. I observed before that the Finns in the 23andMe sample often have a small trace element of “Asian” ancestry. From what I know the reference population for this is the Chinese-Japanese HapMap sample. But the reality is that Finns aren’t ~1% Chinese or Japanese (despite some linguistic similarities and cultural affinities between the Finns and Japanese). The Finnish non-European element exhibits similarities to two groups in this sample: the Nganasan, who reside on the Taymyr peninsula on the central Siberian Arctic coast, and the Chukchi, who reside on the Russian territory directly across from Alaska. Notably these are the northernmost of Siberian populations, so perhaps the most likely to contain remnants of the most ancient elements which followed in the wake of the retreating glaciers.

Again, we shouldn’t oversimplify here. Past evidence tends to suggest to us that hunter-gatherers generally are genetically and culturally absorbed by those with a more efficient mode of production on a per unit of land basis. Therefore, in the case of the common element spanning Finland and the Chukchi peninsula this may be a “population X” which had first mover advantage after the Ice Age, and quickly populated the virgin territory from west to east, but later was overlain by other groups from the south. Imagine for example if the absorption of the indigenous peoples of the New World was more thorough into the African and European derived groups which came to be demographically dominant. Then modern geneticists would immediately discern that the “population X” which spanned all the various groups was due to the indigenous groups which were resident before the arrival of newcomers.

Note: I assume most of the European admixture in the Siberian groups is due to European colonialism. The same pattern is evident in Greenland, where Danish admixture is rather substantial, though because it was gradual the native cultural pattern is dominant.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, History
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, History

Comments (13)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    “it misleads us in terms of our perception of how expansive and dispersed the Circumpolar region is”: as if almost every Western child hasn’t been given a globe for the last century or so.

  2. i don’t think that’s true. wut do others think?

  3. Sandgroper

    We had a big globe in each primary school classroom sitting on the teacher’s desk, and a small one at home (my father was also a school teacher). I don’t know but would expect that every state primary school room would have had one as part of standard equipment, but I couldn’t guess how far back.

    I would be surprised if every home had one, none of my childhood friends did, and neither of my grandparents’ homes had one, nor any of my uncles and aunts.

    I bought my daughter one. Problem was hers was a plastic inflatable one, so she just used it as a football.

  4. I’m a fan of the Pierce quincuncial projection. It’s one of the few projections that’s most accurate at the poles and least accurate at the equator and fortunately, since most of the world is ocean, it’s not hard to find four points each 90° from each other in the ocean, leaving the continents in pretty good shape.

    And you can tile it.

  5. onur

    Razib, you’d better label Iran and Hungary on the MDS, as Dienekes’ labels for them are two-letter abbreviations and hard to see on the MDS.

  6. As to the globe thing, I remember that during one of my first classes in HS geography, our teacher handed out a copy of a ‘non-standard world map’ which was meant to more accurately map the true size of Africa and the area around equator. At least half the class had never seen anything like that before and they were surprised how big Africa really was. I’ve owned a globe since probably before I was ten years old, but I still remember being somewhat surprised, because that wasn’t how the world was supposed to look like on a map.

    I think it’s safe to say that how we misperceive the sizes of different areas is to some degree determined by culture, ie. by which areas we like to consider ‘important’; most people living in Western Europe have no clue how big the European part of Russia actually is. They look at maps like this:

    and when I tell them that the European part of Russia covers appr. 40 percent of the European continent, they think I’m wrong or joking. Most of them also don’t know that Ukraine is bigger than Spain.

  7. Matt B.

    The distortion of land on world maps is easy to avoid if you plot it as if the south pole is at 30S 15W (the middle of the South Atlantic). This keeps nearly all the land at least 30 degrees from the poles. I drew a rectangular map this way with constant latitude and longitude progressions and it came out pretty well. The worst distortions (of land) are that Africa looks a little bent and Japan is noticably larger (but not Mercator Greenland large). An elliptical map might do even better. In addition, I was able to choose a prime meridian that kept all the continents and major islands from being split between the east and west edges of the map (like Alaska and the Chukchi peninsula usually are).

  8. Clark

    It’d be interesting seeing this broken down for more of the northern European subgroups like the Laps in Sweden or Norway. I vaguely remember a post you did on the Laps and the Chukchi over at your old blog but I can’t seem to track it down.

  9. $100 i’d bet that the sami are just more finnish than the finns. i.e., the finns can be modeled as a linear combination of swedes and sami.

  10. bioIgnoramus

    “as if almost every Western child hasn’t been given a globe for the last century or so.”

    “i don’t think that’s true. wut do others think?”

    If they didn’t get a globe, they obviously weren’t truly Western. 🙂

  11. Anthony

    Most globes have an axle through the poles, and the less expensive ones can’t have their axial tilt adjusted, so when looking at the arctic region, you’re looking down, not across, and there’s a *thing* in the way. So you don’t get used to considering the arctic as a single region.

    US – that’s true of Russia only if you accept the von Stahlenberg borders. A more natural physical border would be to treat Europe as the peninsula projecting beyond a line drawn between the Sea of Azov and the White Sea, at approximately 38E. The older medieval border was the Don River, which, if extended, puts Moscow on the border of Europe and Asia. Contrariwise, if you want to define Europe as the continent of “white” people, then it’s borders are the Sahara and somewhere around 90E, making China a part-european state.


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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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