Icelanders descended from Native Americans?

By Razib Khan | November 17, 2010 10:17 am

ResearchBlogging.orgThat is the question, and tentatively answered in the affirmative according to a new paper in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact?:

Although most mtDNA lineages observed in contemporary Icelanders can be traced to neighboring populations in the British Isles and Scandinavia, one may have a more distant origin. This lineage belongs to haplogroup C1, one of a handful that was involved in the settlement of the Americas around 14,000 years ago. Contrary to an initial assumption that this lineage was a recent arrival, preliminary genealogical analyses revealed that the C1 lineage was present in the Icelandic mtDNA pool at least 300 years ago. This raised the intriguing possibility that the Icelandic C1 lineage could be traced to Viking voyages to the Americas that commenced in the 10th century. In an attempt to shed further light on the entry date of the C1 lineage into the Icelandic mtDNA pool and its geographical origin, we used the deCODE Genetics genealogical database to identify additional matrilineal ancestors that carry the C1 lineage and then sequenced the complete mtDNA genome of 11 contemporary C1 carriers from four different matrilines. Our results indicate a latest possible arrival date in Iceland of just prior to 1700 and a likely arrival date centuries earlier. Most surprisingly, we demonstrate that the Icelandic C1 lineage does not belong to any of the four known Native American (C1b, C1c, and C1d) or Asian (C1a) subclades of haplogroup C1. Rather, it is presently the only known member of a new subclade, C1e. While a Native American origin seems most likely for C1e, an Asian or European origin cannot be ruled out.

The core of the article treads the confusing gray zone between rock-hard precise science and the more vague and intuitive truths of history. One the rock-hard part, there is a huge literature on maternal genetic lineages, the mtDNA. Because this genetic material is copious it was some of the first to be analyzed using molecular clock models. A molecular clock is a feasible with mtDNA because it is haploid; it is only inherited through females and so is not subject to recombination which might break apart associations of distinctive genetic markers. Instead of being a reticulated mesh the genealogy of mtDNA is a clean and inverted elegant tree leading back to a common ancestress. You are finding the line of your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s….

But synthesizing this clarity with human history is more difficult, because we are dependent on the bias of text, and even more tendentious clues from oral history and archaeology. Because of Iceland’s Lutheran Christian heritage the maternal lineage here could be traced back to 1700. This does not mean that the first woman in the line that we know of was born like Athena from the head of her father; rather, the records were not kept well enough to continue unbroken back to the medieval era. We do know that the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland arrived in 874, and, that very few immigrants from Scandinavia added diversity to the gene pool after ~1000. Iceland is a small and poor island, so quickly reached its Malthusian maximum. How else to explain that Icelanders made a secondary migration to Greenland?

The most obvious explanation for the existence of the subclade of the C1 lineage is that it arrived recently. Without knowing anything else that is what you’d have assumed. But as noted above the individuals who carry it have been traced back to a common ancestor in the early 18th century; these are native Icelanders, at least if native means anything substantive. An second point which rejects recent injection of this lineage into the gene pool: the Icelanders are their own special branch of C1, C1e. The phylogenetic tree of C1 below illustrates the  relationship of the branches to each other. Since the font is so small, I added in clarifying labels (from top to bottom it’s C1a to C1e, with further clades such as C1d1):


As you can see, this is mostly an Amerindian clade, with some some Asians. But, by surveying the public data they did find two individuals who were European who carried possible C1e. I’ll quote:

…, using the criteria of one mutational difference from C1e when sequences were avail- able for only hypervariable segment 1 (HVS1) or 2 (HVS2) and two mutational differences when both HVS1 and HVS2 sequences were available. The result was a shortlist of 276 sequences that we suggest be checked first for C1e coding region mutations (Supp. Info. Table S3). We note that for the sequences for which geographical information is available, all but two were sampled from individuals with Native American ancestry—i.e. from the Canary Islands and Germany.

The German sequence…represents a perfect match to the Icelandic C1e for the short HVS1 fragment spanning sites 16024–16365. This raises the intriguing, but perhaps unlikely, hypothesis that C1e is a European-specific subclade of C1, following the precedent of the European and Native American subclades of mtDNA haplogroup X2…However, given the dense sampling of mtDNA variation in European populations, it is clear that C1e is exceedingly rare, a fact that weighs against a hypothesis of antiquity in Europe.

They believe that the Canary Islander is probably the result of admixture during the Spanish colonial era with someone who returned from the New World colonies.  The German is the one to focus on. A plausible alternative model is that C1e is a very low frequency European lineage, which increased in frequency in Iceland simply through genetic drift because of that island’s small population. Remember that though C1e is rare in Iceland, its frequency is much higher than in Northern Europe as a whole. Though here we must be cautious because the typing was preliminary in the Germany case, the authors note that “This is because there are no other known human mtDNA sequences belong to C1e out of the 6747 complete sequences available in the literature.” Also, the authors observe that there is variation among the Iceland C1e lineages, mutations which differentiate them. This further tilts the playing field toward an early entrance of the lineage into Iceland, probably before Columbus, because a late arrival would not have had time to build up mutational variation in the region of Iceland where C1e is found.

572px-Bjork_and_the_Swan_DressAs this subclade is absent among Native Americans, you may wonder as to a relationship to Greelanders or Inuit. The larger C1 haplogroup as a whole is not evident in these populations. You can inspect the geographical distribution closer yourself. If this woman was a non-European, she was not maternally related to the peoples who replaced the Norse in Greenland. Though we should also be careful about assuming that the present genetic variation in the American Arctic is representative of pre-modern variation.

If the Greenland and ancient European hypotheses are rejected, what we have is a woman who entered the Icelandic society from an extinct lineage of Native Americans, probably from the northeast (or perhaps her Greenland Norse mother was of this line). What the Norse would have termed Markland. It is tempting to point to the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Perhaps the Europeans had enslaved a native woman, and taken her back to their homeland when they decamped? But more likely to me is the probability that the Norse brought back more than lumber from Markland, since their voyages spanned centuries.

Finally, does this explain Bjork? I doubt it. A minority of Scandinavians, especially ones of Sami background, exhibit an “Asiatic” cast to their features. The autosomal genomic content of the Icelanders is what you’d expect, Scandinavian leavened with British, and twisted with their own particular history of population bottlenecks. Only the precision of mtDNA typing brought the reality of the woman who carried C1e into the light. In terms of total genome content she is one of tens of thousands of ancestors to any given descendant, and she may be one of the less common ones in the family trees because of her likely lower status. Though the flip side of the nature of mtDNA, and the inbred aspect of the Iceland pedigree, is that probably all native Icelanders can draw many lines of descent to this woman.

Citation: Ebenesersdóttir SS, Sigurðsson A, Sánchez-Quinto F, Lalueza-Fox C, Stefánsson K, & Helgason A (2010). A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact? American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 21069749

Image Credit: Cristiano Del Riccio

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, History

Comments (26)

  1. Chris

    Finally, does this explain Bjork?
    Nothing can explain Bjork.

  2. I’d place the newly-discovered C1e next to European hg X (high – 7% – frequencies in Orkney Islands, Scotland) as traces of an early northern migration of a small deme/tribe(s) with an ultimate origin in North America. Notably, C1e is one of the rare instances of a macrohaplogroup M sublineage in Europe. Another analogy is Native American D1 lineage detected in ancient Jomon remains, which is also an odd finding because otherwise D1 is restricted to the Americas. The proximity between Japan and Beringia make the D1 finding less aberrant than the C1e finding, but both findings seem to suggest that small Amerindian lineages may be submerged across Eurasia underneath later, more expansive/successful haplogroups. Tamm et al. ( also reported the westward movement of C1a and A2a into Siberia from North America and Beringia. Finally, if we look at Y-DNA, hg Q, the most common haplogroup in the New World, is attested in northern Europe (Norway).

    The wide geographic spread is very typical of of Amerindianesque lineages in general, which stands in stark contrast with African lineages that are, in most cases, African-specific. It’s also noteworthy that aDNA studies continue to identify more and more Amerindian haplogroups in both New World and parts of the Old World. This suggests that Amerindian lineages were carried by small, demographically unstable demes subject to drift and extinction. As for African haplogroups, they haven’t popped up in any ancient remains outside of Africa.

  3. Raimo Kangasniemi

    Considering Greenland connection, shouldn’t the C1e more likely not come from a contact with the Inuit, but with the now extinct Dorset culture, whose members don’t seem to have been closely related to the current Inuit and who seem to have had centuries of contact with the Norse living in Greenland?

  4. Justin Giancola

    What about that whole idea of Ice Age Europeans going to the New World and mixing with the Asian component when they arrived? Any new progress in that theory?

  5. pconroy


    I totally agree – they would have to be the obvious candidate, a now extinct culture.

  6. re: paleo-eskimos, ancient mtDNA all seems to be branches of haplogroup D

    u want page 11. obviously not implausible on the face of it. but c does seem mostly genuinely amerindian, with a few east asian pockets, and exceptional outliers.

    justin, i think that theory is probably bullshit (if you are talking about the trans-atlantic one). but who knows? doesn’t seem to have been genetically very impacting.

  7. bioIgnoramus

    from WKPD:
    “Pioneering sea kayak expeditions
    There is controversial evidence to suggest early trans-atlantic kayak journeys from Labrador or Greenland to Scotland by Inuit paddlers. Indeed at the end of the 17th century there were at least three separate kayaks preserved in Scotland. One kayak, with associated equipment, is preserved in Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum. It was found, with dying occupant, on a nearby shore. Some suggest the occupants were escaped Inuit from European ships, Inuit storm-driven from Greenland, or from a European source. Many suggest Inuit and their kayaks to be the origin of the Celtic Finnman, or Selkie, legends. [5]”

  8. Clark

    bioIgnoramus, I recall being taught in school in Nova Scotia (where these trans-atlantic voyages had obvious local interest) that there were a fair number of Irish monks who fished off the Grand Banks as well. I don’t believe anyone has ever claimed contact with natives. But that along with the admittedly controversial claims of kayak voyages suggest there may have been more contact than expected.

    Razib, are there any other sorts of markers that could pin down the possible regional location of this influx into Iceland? i.e. were these inhabitants of Newfoundland or Labrador or are we talking about an extinct inuit like group? I read that link you gave in (7). I see that strongly suggests a non-inuit genetic group, but I’m more curious about the location. Could this be more in the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine area or more northern ala the Inuit? Or is that basically unknowable?

  9. Merchant

    Since 1492 there were people with american heritage spreading all over Europe.

    It´s as easy as an indian woman from Caribe had descendance with an spaniard.
    Between 1492-1710 her female descendance can jump all european ports, from Seville to London, from Santader to Archaengel, Limerick, Stockholm… Time after an icelander married in this ports with a descender of this caribean woman and brought back Iceland his daugther. This stupid hypotesis shut down all this article.

    The axiom “Iceland was isolated since 10th century” is very weak, we are speaking about it´s need just one woman coming to the island to make all this thing happens.

    People travel all over the world all time, now and 500 years ago. For sure, wasn´t be as spectacular as vikings kidnaping Pocahontas.

    Good wishes¡¡

  10. Marian

    While I’m sure there are scientific pros and cons, in Farley Mowat’s 2000 book, The Farfarers, this theory is very nicely examined. Mowat discusses the theme of pre-Columbian interactions between Europe and North America based on the initial decimation of local walrus ivory in local European waters.

  11. pconroy


    I read Mowat’s book when it came out, and though it contains some ideas, it is mostly a work of fiction.

    Most annoyingly – for an Irishman like me – he deliberately decided that certain boat technologies and historic voyages associated with Irish monks would be re-painted as been by Picts…

    Check out Irish monk’s Dicuil’s “De mensura Orbis terrae”

  12. Clark

    Most of Mowat’s books are a little iffy at times. I’d not trust them to give much by way of scientific data. Great writer but one has to be careful. The guy himself is quite the character. He used to be around Halifax a lot when I was young.

    Merchant, seems a bit more iffy that the British or Spainyards brought a member of an now extinct tribe back who happened to have this significant effect in Iceland. Not impossible mind you. But a bit iffy. I agree though that post-columbian data probably should be the default assumption unless there is more evidence. Still, it is provocative.

  13. Merchant

    Clark, It´s not iffy at all. It´s the way of comercial networks works. Now and after 1492. It´s slow, but continous.

    Don´t visualice all this thing like a one generation or person´s travel. Think about people having daughters and spread of this descendance from America to Europe, from England´s ports to Iceland. Can be a travel of three to seven generations.

    Forguet spanish way (the easiest , I think), but think about port of Louisbourg at Canada or even New York. There was a lot of trade with London or Liverpool. From Liverpool to Reykiavik. Just one time a woman at the end of 17th came to Iceland with her husband , a sailor, a trader, who knows, bringing her C1 mt-DNA to Iceland.

    I think iffy -in my opinion- is Erick “the viking”-Pocahontas´s stuff. But anyway it´s just a beggining hypothesis. Who will know what was happens really?


  14. Merchant

    “They believe that the Canary Islander is probably the result of admixture during the Spanish colonial era with someone who returned from the New World colonies. The German is the one to focus on.”

    Think about a german soldier fighting with a Spanish regiment as mercenary. It´s not difficult at all. People traveled a lot in Europe in the 15th-18th century.

  15. While a Viking era admixture from an extinct clade of Arctic or subArctic Amerindians is plausible, I have to agree with Merchant that a wife brought home in the 1492-1700 era is equally or more plausible.

    The best way to distinguish the possibility is the number of maternal ancestors for the present day C1e people in Iceland. If there is just one, the arrival was almost certainly post-Columbian. The more separate maternal ancestors there were when the geneological records reach their root (particularly if the maternal ancestors don’t all come from the same village) the more likely the source was pre-Columbian.

    Given the absence of extant C1e in the Americas, and the fairly sizeable number of mutations that seem to separate C1e from other C1 subhaplogroups, you’d want to look for an extinct Amerindian population that was geographically isolated. Look at a map and you’re looking an island in the Maritime provinces of Canada as water has been a major genetic population barrier historically particularly in the subArctic areas. Indeed, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there was some old family in the Maritime provinces with C1e even today. Since it is a C1 hg, rather than a D hg, you’d want to look further South than Arctic and probably to a post-Columbian tribal extinction date.

    German’s hypothesis regarding an Asian origin for C1e doesn’t ring true among other reasons because C1a, the only C1 hg in both Asia and America has several mutations before splitting into an Asian and American branch and several more after the Asian branch comes into being, suggesting significant periods of in Asia mutation. The Icelandic branch has lots of shared mutation from the root C* hg, and then just one defining mutation into the subhgs found in Iceland, suggesting that the diversification upon arrival in Iceland is relatively recent.

    As far as the German and Canary Islander, I’d put my money on an Icelandic source for both, with the case for the German being particularly strong. The possibility that a German has an unknown Icelandic maternal ancestor, perhaps via an unknown Norweigen maternal ancestor, is completely unremarkable and could have happened any time in the last three hundred years. That kind of marriage (between Lutherans no less) wouldn’t have been notable enough to become notorious. Given the strong participation of Icelanders in seafaring, an Icelandic link to a Canary Islander would also be unexceptional.

  16. Raimo Kangasniemi

    Danish maternal ancestor might be more likely for the German, considering the simple facts that Denmark happened to extend in the past to areas what are now Germany and because of administrative reasons Iceland did have even more connections with Denmark than Norway post-1375. When it comes to Canary islands, one could even point to the slave raids in post-1492 that reached even Iceland and brought people from there to the Mediterranean and North Africa.

    Iceland’s demographic situation between 1492-1710 also doesn’t mean that a single maternal ancestor soon before 1700 would show a proof of post-Columbian contact, because the population diminished greatly during the era because of epidemics, natural catastrophes and even human action. Repeatedly between 33-50 percent of the island’s population died and situations like that could have severely restricted the number of females carrying C1e.

  17. Chief Ardy Born With 3 Thumbs

    I was tested by different DNA companies and my mtDNA results are: Haplogroup C1c. The scientist claim the women my daughters and I stem from walked this part of North America – known today as the Maritime provinces of Canada & the Eastern seabord of the United States – Atlantic Region ( My family were born and presently reside in Nova Scotia ) The scientist claim that we have been here at least 40,000 years and possibly in excess of 100,000 years and that we survived on a maritime diet & pristine water. I have an exact mtDNA match to Demasduit – aka: Mary March – Beothuck. Our oral traditions and history passed down over the generations indicate that the Beothuk are the ancient ones of the Micmac, the Tribe we identify and belong to today. The scientist state C1c are the oldest founding members of North America.

  18. Athalstan

    RE: ohwilleke’s comment: “As far as the German and Canary Islander, I’d put my money on an Icelandic source for both, with the case for the German being particularly strong.”

    The finding of a C1e haplotype in the Canary Islands reminded me of the postulate made by Per Lillieström and Thor Heyerdal in ther book “Ingen grenser” (“No boundaries”; J.M. Stenersens, Oslo, 2000):

    With the support of cartography and other written sources, including no less than four papal letters from the 1400s, they argued that the Norse population in Greenland largely fell victim to the slave hunters, and finally ended up in Madeira and the Canary Islands around the year 1500 or earlier.

  19. Wejitu

    Here’s an idea. Suppose there were two groups migrating across Beringa. One group, the Maritime Group stuck to the north shore and the other group headed south. The North Shore fellows migrated east along the top of the world north of the ice sheet and eventually came south along the shores of Greenland and Baffin Island, finally to Labrador, branching out – some going west into Quebec/Labrador interior and west, some going to Newfoundland, then across to Cape Breton and west…. much better idea than the Atlantic Migration Idea don’t you think?

  20. @Andrew Oh-Willeke

    “German’s hypothesis regarding an Asian origin for C1e doesn’t ring true among other reasons because C1a, the only C1 hg in both Asia and America has several mutations before splitting into an Asian and American branch and several more after the Asian branch comes into being, suggesting significant periods of in Asia mutation. The Icelandic branch has lots of shared mutation from the root C* hg, and then just one defining mutation into the subhgs found in Iceland, suggesting that the diversification upon arrival in Iceland is relatively recent.”

    There are 12 mutations on the Icelandic C1e branch before it splits into two. These mutations are not found in either Asian or Amerindian populations. C1 splits into a large Amerindian cluster and two small clusters, one Icelandic, the other one Asia. How can arrival in Iceland be recent? The data suggests, instead, that C1e-carrying population stayed in long-term isolation from the others. Overall, of course, it’s hard to argue anything definitive on the basis of such limited data. It’s possible, however, that geneticists focus on haplogroups that are large enough to detect in modern samples but are also too recent to accurately describe Pleistocene realities of tribal microdifferentiation.

  21. Merchant

    What is no C1e is found in America? What´s the meaning of the way they use the word “extinct”. How can scientist use the word “extinct” when they are talking about hundred of test or even thousand of tests compared with millions of human living now in those areas. We forget that. Sure we are now missing thousands of people with C1e that never were made a dna-test.

    Anyway, in my opinion, if C1e mt-dna came to Iceland in medieval ages, most of the today population of the island must have c1e mt-dna not just 80 (2010) or 4 (1710). At least more extended in the island geography.

    Genetic genealogy is a newborn science…maybe now we can´t make this kind of valorations.

    Anyway is very interesting…

  22. If the Chinese fleet under Zheng He could sail across the Pacific in 1421, down the coastline of the Americas, along Antarctica, then split up and half of them circumnavigate the rest of the globe, it’s far from impossible that there was kayak and longship traffic back and forth over much smaller distances by northern populations used to the weather and ocean currents, from the earliest times of habitation. The minutiae of DNA strands and cladistics may be fascinating to some, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Besides, it makes for better barroom discussion.


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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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