The genetic heritage of Europe's north

By Razib Khan | November 3, 2010 2:43 pm

If you haven’t, you should keep an eye on Dienekes‘ Dodecad Ancestry Project (RSS). The pilot phase of data collection is over, and the first population level statistics are now coming out. Of particular interest to me is a new analysis of various northern European ethnicities just published.

The samples used in this analysis are:

– 25 HapMap-3 White Americans. These are the Mormons of predominantly Northwest European heritage

– 5 Dodecad Project Finns

– 25 HGDP-CEPH Russians from Vologda, in north-central European Russia

– 12 Dodecad Project continental Germanics (Scandinavians and Germans)

– 10 Behar et al. (2010) Lithuanians

– 9 Behar et al. (2010) Belorussians

– 3 Dodecad Project Northern Slavs

Below are two visualizations of the genetic structure. First, an MDS. And second, a bar plot of ancestral quanta derived from ADMIXTURE. I’ve added some clarifying labels.



Remember that the data you input into these analyses shape the nature of the outcomes to some extent. All these populations are very genetically close when scaled to average worldwide inter-population genetic variation. So what Dienekes is smoking out here are subtle differences between relatively close groups.

The first clear result supports previous research using uniparental markers: the ethnogenesis of the “Great Russians” involved both demographic expansion, and, cultural assimilation. The process on the southern and eastern frontiers is well documented, because it continued into the early modern period via a series of private wars of expansion. Turkic and Ugric groups were defeated by “Cossacks”, and often themselves integrated into the Cossack population as it expanded further into Siberia and the Steppe. Lenin’s paternal grandmother for example is often claimed to have been a Kalmyk, a branch of the Dzungar Mongol Confederacy which had settled in the lower Volga region. Whatever the truth, Lenin’s father clearly had an Asiatic cast to his features. The ancestral quanta estimates always seem to show that Russians, though not other Slavs further to the west, seem to average around ~5% or so “eastern” ancestry (by analogy, this is about the amount of African ancestry in the typical Levantine Arab).

But the expansion into the Finnic north is less well documented. To some extent the process of Russification began far earlier, as even Kievan Rus at the turn of the first millennium has been claimed to have had Finnic elements (the Rus were Swedes, but they probably picked up Finns in their warbands as they swept south, in addition to the numerous indigenous Finnic groups in northeast Europe). Additionally, unlikely the Muslim Turks these Finnic groups were often small-scale societies without international connections or affiliation with any “higher civilization” which could serve as an oppositional ideology to Orthodox Russian culture. The wide geographic expanse of the Russian ethnos means that one must be exceedingly sensitive to sample representativeness. Readers of Russian or Finnish origin are often aware of which localities in northern Russia were only recently Slavicized, and so express caution in comments as to utilization of those samples as representatives of Slavs more generally.

The second peculiarity are the “Germans” who affiliate with the Finns in the MDS, and contribute to the Finnish element among the Germans. Dienekes says: “without revealing any information, I’ll just say that this is contributed primarily by 3 Dodecad Project members who deviate towards Finns and whose ADMIXTURE analysis shows a higher than expected Northeast Asian component. Their outlier status is also visible in the MDS plot.” By “Northeast Asian” he presumably means one of the 10 ancestral components he’d found in earlier analyses. Without any more information I assume there’s a high probability that these are simply Germanized part-Sami. Much of northern Scandinavia was inhabited by Sami down to the early modern period. For example, the Sami were ethnically cleansed and assimilated across the north half of what is today Sweden as late as the 1600s and 1700s. Though I haven’t done the requisite reading, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just a function of more advanced farming techniques as well as hardy New World crops such as potatoes which pushed the possible limits of Swedish settlement north.

Finally, there’s a clear Finnic component in the results. As Dienekes noted this Finnic component itself may be a composite of East and West Eurasian elements, just as the South Asian component in Eurasia may be a composite of “Ancient North Indians” and “Ancient South Indians.” One thing to remember about the Finnic component is there’s evidence for a fair amount of genetic variation within Finland. Representativeness is probably key here, just as it is for Russians. Ethnic Finnish individuals with ancestry along the southern and western coasts probably have more affinity with Germanic populations than Karelians.

For many decades there have been arguments as to the provenance of the Finns. Specifically, are they outsiders to Norden who arrived from the east, bringing with them their language? Or are they are indigenous vis-a-vis Germanic speakers? The past is complex, so a simple model is going to shave off a lot of the detail, but I suspect that the truth is closer to the second. It seems that the Finnic groups, or at least their languages, have an ultimate origin in Central Eurasia after the last Ice Age. But they are possibly a circumpolar population which expanded north and practiced hunter-gatherer lifestyles following the ice sheets. Over time agriculturalists expanded north and squeezed them on the margin, but I believe there were natural ecological limits to the practice of techniques derived from Middle Eastern crops. Though northern Finns adopted some agricultural techniques, there was enough of a slowdown of the spread agriculture by Indo-European speakers and their precursors that they managed to hold their own in the north. In much of European Russia, and later in pre-19th century Finland, we see plenty of evidence of language-switching from Finnic to Indo-European (in Finland nationalism resulted in a back-switch over the past 150 years). If the Malthusian pre-modern age had persisted for another two or three centuries I would not be surprised if Finnic languages were totally absorbed by Russian and Scandinavian Indo-European dialects. As it is, 19th century language based nationalism stopped the process of elite culture assimilation, and in some cases reversed it (many elite Finland Swedes abandoned Swedish language and identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

Addendum: The picture I present above is simple, and I don’t believe it captures a lot of what happened. For example, from my reading there was a pause of about 1,000 years in the expansion of agriculture once it reached the Kattegat between Denmark and Sweden. I suspect that these long pauses were a function of ecology and geography, as they’re often just too long to be determined by social-political inertia. Additionally, it seems unlikely to me that the first agriculturalists in Europe were Indo-European speakers. Rather, that is possibly a subsequent linguistic overlay, especially in the western regions of Europe.


Comments (13)

  1. pconroy

    Strange – I wonder why Dienekes didn’t just use the Irish and English samples in the Dodecad Project, rather than relying on Utah Whites once again, which show British + Scandinavian ancestry, with traces of Native American and West African…

  2. the hapmap has a lot of high quality markers. also, it’s a relatively closely related cluster.

  3. In the case of the Estonians and Latvians, the assimilating culture would probably have been German. The Baltic Germans traditionally dominated public life there. It took national awakenings, the formation of nation-states devoted to land reform, and the Baltic Germans transfer to Germany on the eve of the Soviet invasion, to remove most German cultural influence.

  4. How are these arbitrary dimensions generated?

  5. LL, leave a comment at dodecad. he answers most queries there.

  6. TheDude

    With regards to Russians, this really isn’t surprising; in fact, these results mirror the previous mtDNA and Y chromosome work with regards to East Asian admixture in Vologda Russians. If I recall correctly, sampled Tambov-area Russians registered no East Asian mtDNA or Y chromosomes; incidentally, this was the area of Russia described as being the most “Nordic” by Coon. More sampling is required, obviously.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the admixture increases as one passes from Finnic zones (Karelians, Mordvins) into the Tatar areas (Kazan, Ufa); in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the East Asian component increases from virtually nil in the more western Slavic areas (NW Ukraine, Poland, Belarus) up to the completely admixed populations of Central Asia.

    Regarding Lenin, his ancestry is well known and decidedly non-Russian (Kalmyk, Swedish, Volga German, Ashkenazi etc.), so I wouldn’t consider his phenotype particularly representative.

  7. Lassi Hippeläinen

    There is no doubt about Finnic population being the oldest. The spreading of Germanics from the south was delayed by glaciers. Remember that Sweden/Norway has high mountains (“the Keel”), where the continental ice sheets remained far longer in than in Finland, which is low-lying and in the rain shadow of the Keel.

    “many elite Finland Swedes abandoned Swedish language and identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries”

    Many of those were ethnic Finns. Their Swedish identity that had been enforced upon them fairly recently, either by politics or by economy. But that is modern history that can be analyzed from written sources.

  8. There is no doubt about Finnic population being the oldest. The spreading of Germanics from the south was delayed by glaciers. Remember that Sweden/Norway has high mountains (”the Keel”), where the continental ice sheets remained far longer in than in Finland, which is low-lying and in the rain shadow of the Keel.

    you should be cautious about such simple models. the indo-european languages may be very recent arrivals indeed, so the point about glaciers is probably moot. there is a hypothesized “language X” which seems to be a pre-indo-european substrate among germanic speakers, and these may have been the ones who brought agriculture (or perhaps they weren’t even the initial wave of agriculturalists!). the finnic speakers may also be later arrivals vis-a-vis the earliest hunter-gatherers who inhabited northern europe.

    rather, i think the preponderance of the evidence does point to the likelihood that in relation to the finns the north germanic, slavic, and baltic language speakers are intrusive to northern europe. they came later. in the later historical period this seems clearly true from the textual evidence. as we know more about the genetics hopefully we’ll get a better sense of possible models.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen

    OK, I may have been a bit hasty in my comment. Call them proto-Finnic and proto-Germanic, because we don’t really know what languages they spoke. Probably never will.

    But still, there were only two main routes to northern Scandinavia, from Western Europe via Denmark, and from Eastern Europe via Finland. Whoever the firstcomers were, they were separate populations from different regions of Europe. They were separated by the retreating glacier and a big freezingly cold lake. And the Finnish route opened first.

    Assuming the populations were some sort of proto-Finnic and proto-Germanic seems easiest (and laziest, I know…). The firstcomers had some home ground, where they returned to for the winter, and thereby kept contact with their mother population. Maybe even their mothers, if women were left behind for the hunting season. On the Finnish side, where there are lots of easy water routes (later used by the Vikings), experienced travellers could move thousands of kilometers in a season even in the Stone Age.

    As a curious detail, when the winter came, the last proto-Finnic stragglers to return home could escape the cold by running downstream along the tributaries of Volga. In Western Europe rivers flow north, so the homeward trip is upstream. It may not mean much, but I wonder…


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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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