A new theory on the biological roots of the Finns


Pauli Kajanoja

Throughout the ages, the Finns have noticed that they differ - at least linguistically - from their western and eastern neighbours, and for 200 years they have been asking, "Who are we, the Finns"? In the late 18th century, German philologists established the linguistic similarities between Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Later, in the mid-l9th century, a Finnish philologist named Matias Aleksanteri Castrén made a journey to the Volga region and Siberia. There he found peoples who spoke a language related to Finnish. He established a link with the great Uralic-Altaic linguistic group, which included the Volga-Finns, Samoyeds, Mongols and Turks as well as the Finns. For some reason, he located the Finno-Ugrian homeland in the Altai region of Asia, in Mongolia (Castren 1858). The Finns were not too pleased about the linguistic bond with the Mongols, as it was thought that a linguistic connection implied a biological connection. The Mongols, with their high cheekbones, slanting eyes and yellow complexion, seemed strange to Finns and other Western Europeans. Since then, both Finns and others have tried to identify these Mongolian features in Finns. Only a cou-ple of years ago, a book dealing with racial theories relating to the Finns was published with the pertinent title, "Are we Mongol or Germanic? "(Kemiläinen 1985). Which alternative, then, is the correct answer?

In the early years of the present cern Wry, a theory was put forward according to which our ancestors moved from the regions of the Upper Volga to the Baltic Sea area during the two thousand years B.C. In the first centuries A.D. the major proportion of the Finnish people sailed across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia (Hackman 1905). Settlement spread east-wards to the central part of Finland. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the original Karelian population began to push into Finnish Karelia on both sides of Lake Ladoga. Before the arrival of the Finns, the land was sparsely inhabited by a Saami people who withdrew northwards out of the way of the new arrivals.

In 1982, the Academy of Finland held an inter-disciplinary symposium with the express purpose of delving into the "Finnish roots " (Gallén 1984). The archaeologists, philologists, anthropologists, ethnologists and historians present were unanimous in refuting the old settlement pattern. It was pointed out that it was unlikely that there had been any major

influx of people at the beginning of the common era, but that people had lived there continuously for millennia. New groups of people arrived gradually, each adding its own contribution to the language, culture and genetic pool.

About 10,000 years ago, with the retreat of the continental ice sheet from Fennoscandia, the land started to rise and vegetation and animal life to return. In about 7,000 B.C. man arrived, too, in pursuit of herds of reindeer and elk. The culture of these people, known in Finland as the Suomusjarvi culture, has affinities with the Komsa culture of the Finnmark area in northern Scandinavia. It is assumed that the Suomusjarvi peoples came from the east.

Archaeological finds dated at around 4,000 B.C. point to a new culture, the Early Comb Ceramic or Sperrings culture. More people probably arrived again from the east, from Karelia and the Upper Volga. Sparsely inhabited though it was,


the country probably supported the maximum population possible under the prevailing conditions: supporting a family or a whole clan on reindeer and elk called for large hunting grounds. Very few human bones dating from the Stone Age have been found in Finland, and unfortunately there is not even one well-preserved skull from which we might deduce what kind of people lived there. In Russia, though, numerous well-preserved skulls were found in the 1950's, in a late Mesolithic cemetery on the island of Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega in Karelia. The skulls have been dated to the period spanning the transition from the Suomusjarvi to the Early Comb Ceramic cultures, at about 5,000 - 4,000 B.C. There are two different types of skull. One is large and meso-cephalic, broad and flat-faced - what is known as the Uralic or Proto-Lapponoid type. The other is dolichocephalic and narrow-faced, or the Europeoid type (Jakimov 1953). The Russian craniologist M.M. Gerasimov has used these skulls to reconstruct a model demonstrating what these types of people probably looked like while alive (Fig. 1). It has been assumed that the Uralic type originated, and that the Europeoid type came from, farther south, from the Upper and Middle Volga. The ancient Uralic race inhabited the area from the west of the Ural Mountains eastwards to the middle and lower reaches of the river Ob. It is presumed that the eastern or so-called "Mongoloid morphological features and genetic markers, or the "eastern roots" of the Finno-Ugrians, originate in from the Uralic race and not in Mongolia, where the population belongs to the quite different "true" Mongoloid race. Hence, the question put forward in the beginning of my presentation really ought to be "Are we Uralic or Germanic?"

The next culture to spread to Finland, the Upper Volga, Karelia and the Baltic was the Typical Comb Ceramic Culture, which has been dated to 3,500 - 2,500 B.C. During this time more settlements and, presumably, larger communities appeared, increasing the population of southern Finland and Karelia. This culture has distinct associations with the East Baltic. In the view of modern science, this phase marks the genesis of the Proto-Finnish, or Baltic Finnish culture. Because archaeological artefacts point east- and southwards, the contact population is assumed to have been closer to the Europeoid type. Skull finds made in Estonia, and ascribed to the same period, have also revealed both the broad, Uralic skull and the more gracile, Europeoid type (Mark 1970, Denisova 1973).

The Battle Axe or Boat Axe cultures, which are dated as belonging to the period spanning the years 2,500 - 1,500 B.C. introduced influences from the southwest and south, from the eastern Baltic and possibly even from Central Europe. It seems very likely that this was a period of major cultural and populational change. We see the first signs of primitive agriculture and animal husbandry. In eastern Finland, contact continues to be maintained with northeastern Europe. Most of the skulls from graves dating from this period that have been found in Estonia have distinct Europeoid features (Mark 1970). Gerasimov's reconstructions these skulls are shown in Figure 2.

Nevertheless, individual skull finds should always be viewed with caution. First of all, it is unlikely that the person in the grave represents the average type of the population. All populations include both dolichocephalic and brachycephalic individuals with broad and narrow faces. Second, we cannot even be sure that the person buried in the grave was in fact a representative of the culture in question; he may have been a hunter or prisoner from distant parts. But then again, there is always the possibility that even though the person might have been a representative of a neighbouring culture, he may still have deposited his genes in the population's genetic pool.

The objects of the next period, the Bronze Age (2,000 - 500 B.C.), are unmistakably Scandinavian. There is very little evidence of links with Scandinavia in earlier periods. As far as is known, migration from the west did not start until the Bronze Age, and even then it was restricted to southern and western coastal districts. In the interior and east of the country, Bronze Age contacts were still bound up with the world of Karelia and the Volga.

The next cultural phase, the Iron Age, covered the period that included the birth of Christ. According to the earlier theory of settlement, it was during this short period that the majority of the Finnish forebears arrived, in southwestern and western Finland across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia, a smaller number coming from the east via the Karelian Isthmus. Nowadays, however, archaeologists are of the opinion that if there were any migrations during that period, then they were in the opposite direction - from Finland to Estonia.

Thus, we now consider that Finland has been continuously inhabited ever since the end of the Ice Age, that is for about 9,000 years. Throughout this time, the population has been augmented by new arrivals, although some people have probably also moved away. Until the Bronze Age, virtually the only contacts were with the east, and to some extent with the south. But after the BronzeAge, there was continuous contact westwards, with Scandinavia. The population density has fluctuated over the years: deteriorating conditions may have reduced numbers, but it is unlikely that the land was ever completely deserted. We do not know to what extent the different cultures and innovations established by archaeologists mark the arrival of new settlers. With the introduction of farming and stock breeding, the land was able to support a greater number of people; but whether the existing population grew or whether new settlers arrived is not known. Philologists have proposed that the shared agricultural vocabulary of the Volga-Finnish proto-language could not have reached this country before 2,000 B.C. However, the Finno-Ugrian linguistic relationship does not have to imply a corresponding biological relationship. It would take only a small population to introduce important new knowledge and skills, together with the vocabulary needed to depict them, from the Volga region into Finland.

Professor Harri Nevanlinna has studied the genetic markers of Finnish blood and compared them with markers in Swedes, Estonianis, Latvians, Hungarians and some Siberian peoples. He came to the conclusion that about three quarters of the Finnish genetic material is western European in origin and about one quarter of eastern origin. Finns have certain blood group genes that also occur among Estonians and Volga Finns but very rarely among Swedes. The origin of these genes may lie far back in the genetic pool of the Finno-Ugrian Comb Ceramic Age. We may call them Uralic characteristics, if we like, but certainly not Mongolian. On the other hand, a certain proportion of the genetic pool of the Swedes, particularly the northern Swedes, comes from Finland. In other words, Swedes also have a genetic element from the east, even though they are regarded as typical representatives of the Nordic race. In any case, according to recent population genetic findings, Finns are biologically more closely related to Scandinavians than to their linguistic relatives on the banks of the Volga - the Mari (Zyrians) and Komi (Cheremis) peoples (Kajanoja 1978).

There are about 3,000 Lapps or Saamis in Finland. Many branches of science have been called on in the effort to solve the mystery of their origin. The genetic and anthropological characteristics of the Saams have been documented and studied in detail (Eriksson 1984). A more recent theory regarding the origin of the Saamis draws on the findings of archaeological, philological and anthropological research: the Proto-Finnish and Proto-Lapp population began to diverge from the Comb Ceramic population in Finland and Karelia at the same time as the Baltic and Central European Boat Axe culture began to spread from the south. The differentiation continued in the Bronze Age and is thus dated to 2,500 - 1,000 B.C. The Saami population had few contacts with the Baltic peoples. In the early years of the Christian era, the territory inhabited by the Saamis extended all the way from central and northern Norway via central and northern Finland to the White Sea and the Kola Peninsula. The Finnish population settled in western and southern Finland and around Lake Ladoga. Morphologically, the Saamis probably resemble the Uralic type of Comb Ceramic people: they are less mixed with the Europeoid racial type of Europe and Scandinavia than the Baltic Finns (Alekseev 1966).

About 300,000, or six per cent, of the Finns speak Swedish as their native tongue. The majority live along the coast in Ostrobothnia and Uusimaa and in the southwestern archipelago.A smaller number live in the biggest cities. Some of the urban Swedish-speakers are descended from Finns who adopted the Swedish language when first going to school; after all, Swedish was the language of officialdom in the 19th century. Most of the coastal dwellers, though, are descended from people who were moved from Sweden in the 12th and 13th centuries as a measure of Swedish settlement policy (Meinander 1983). Anthropological and population-genetic studies made among coastal Swedish speakers show that they do not differ genetically from the neighbouring Finnish-speakers, even tough the distinction between language and cultuire is clearly defined (Nevanlinna 1978). It has been postulated that in the early years of immigration there was genetic mixing with the Finnish population, and that the linguistic distinction only arose in the past few centuries. Åland was probably settled by people from Sweden: the bulk of the settlement derives from the Viking Age. The inhabitants of Aland have very few Finnish genetic markers. They also differ morphologically from Finns and from the Swedish-speakers of the Finnish mainland (Kajanoja 1971).

Besides the above peoples, there are a few thousand Gypsies, Tartars and Jews living in Finland. The majority moved here in the 19th century. A few thousand Russians moved here during the period when Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire and at the time of the 1917 Revolution.

All in all, Finland has remained very Finnish and is, in genetic terms, probably one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe.


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