From deepest Siberia to Europe’s edge
A history of Finnish genes and culture: part 4 of 6
Between early inferences from skull morphology and transparent linguistic affinity to Samoyedic dialects of Central Siberia, scholars once entertained theories of an immense genetic gulf between Finns and their European neighbors to the west and the south. Today, using the massively more powerful and precise tools and techniques of modern genomics, we can verify that native Finnish people actually average only 10% Siberian in overall ancestry (despite the fact that linguistically, Samoyedic is far closer to Finnish than Swedish). Estonians, whose language strongly resembles Finnish, are a smaller fraction still, likely due to long-term interaction with Slavic and Baltic Indo-Europeans to their south and east, who diluted the original Siberian fraction. In contrast, the Saami, who occupy the more impenetrable lands of the north, and seem to have originally been present much further south until the Finns pushed them out, are as much as 25% Siberian. Clearly, the genetic imprint of these outsiders is far more modest than their cultural influence.
So who were these Siberians? And when did they arrive? The distribution of Y chromosomes lightly dapples a vast area of Northern Eurasia to the east of the Baltic, stretching all the way to the Pacific. The paternal lineage of Finns groups them with Turkic-speaking Yakuts in eastern Siberia. But a quick inspection of the genetic plot above, which uses the whole genome, suggests that the Finns, and to an even greater extent the Saami, are shifted in the direction of ethnic groups which occupy a narrow zone of northern-central Siberia. These are the Nenets, Ngannasans, and Selkups, the Samoyedic tribes. The exact same tribes Matthias Castrén spent his last years studying. The exact same tribes that speak the most eastern Uralic dialects. So the Siberian ancestry component of the Finns and their closest relatives comes, no surprise, from the Siberian tribes which speak languages related to Finnish.
Occupying the lands just to the east of the Ural mountains, the Samoyedic tribes had a clear path to Europe by skirting the forbidding fringe along the Arctic shores. What might seem a frozen wasteland to us was simply the great northern highway, the path of least resistance west, for Siberian foragers. A permafrost tundra that they became adept at exploiting (perhaps too adept, judging by the megafaunal extinctions of the ice age).
The First Nordics?
Until we had ancient DNA, the timing and nature of the arrival of these Siberians was supposition and suspicion. While some scholars, looking to historical linguistics, argued for a model of recent settlement by Finnic-speaking people in the Baltic around 3,000 years ago, others insisted on a period much deeper in time, the Mesolithic, 6,000 years ago. During the Mesolithic, the whole swath of territory between Finland and the Urals was dominated by what is termed the “Comb Ceramic Culture” (CCC). CCC settlements get their name from a prevalence of remains of large vessels with comb-like impressions along the surface.
Despite its ubiquity in Northeast Europe, the earliest comb-impressed pottery is actually found in Manchuria over 6,000 years ago, pointing to eastern connections. What we know of the CCC suggests they were an advanced hunter-gatherer culture distinguished by their mobility across Northern Eurasia, and they do seem to have spread westward from the east, finally resting at the shores of the Baltic. This made them a natural candidate to be the elusive proto-Finns. As the CCC presence in Northern Europe predates the expansion of Indo-European languages, the thesis was convenient for nationalists as well, as it testified to the cultural indigeneity of the Finns in the Baltic. If the CCC spoke Finnic languages, then these dialects would date back to before the arrival of Scandinavians in lands to the west and Balts to the south. The Finns could be thought of as aboriginal to the region, its O.G. settlers.
Though we can’t ascertain what language the CCC spoke with certitude, ancient DNA has established their genetic affinities. Their Y chromosomes are never N1c, and their genomes show no evidence of recent ancestral connections to East Asia, two of the tell-tale diagnostic features of the Finnic populations in Northeast Europe today. The CCC descend mostly from “Eastern Hunter-Gatherers” (EHG), a catchall set of varied peoples who occupied the vast and lightly settled territory to the east of the Baltic and west of the Urals after the last ice age. Most of the ancestry of the EHG was actually shared with Pleistocene Siberian populations even further east, beyond the Urals, whose reach extended to the Pacific ocean, and ended up contributing about 40% of Native American ancestry.