Monday, February 24, 2020

Between Europe and America

Iceland had pre-Columbian contacts with North America. Did they lead to intermarriage? (Wikicommons)

Did the Norse have sustained contacts with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including intermarriage? Or was Vinland a fleeting encounter?

Steve Sailer touched on this question in a recent column, citing an Icelandic study. Although Iceland’s gene pool is overwhelmingly from Scandinavia and the British Isles, there are also traces of a lineage normally found among the indigenous peoples of northeast Asia and the Americas. Preliminary genealogical analyses have shown that this lineage was present in Iceland 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. (Ebenesersdóttir et al. 2011)

I doubt the hypothesis of Amerindian admixture. As the authors note, the C1e subclade has not been found in any indigenous population of the Americas. Perhaps this is because those populations have not been studied as thoroughly as the Icelandic one. Perhaps it is present among Amerindians, but at a frequency too low to be detected by studies done to date.

But why, then, do we see no other Amerindian subclades in Icelanders? That population has been studied so exhaustively that even low frequencies of other subclades should have been detected by now. This point is made by Der Sarkissian et al. (2014):

Among other hypotheses including that of a European origin, an American origin was favoured on the basis that most of the hg C1 diversity is found on the American continent, despite the fact that no sequence belonging to hg C1e could be detected in the Americas (or anywhere else). This lack of match was explained by under-sampling of the American mtDNA genome diversity [10]. In any case, if admixture between Native Americans and Vikings did occur, it must have been limited, as no other American-specific lineage (e.g. hg A2, B2, D1, C1b, C1c, C1d) was detected in Iceland.

The authors of the same study point out that a sister subclade, C1f, has been found in human remains from Mesolithic northeast Europe. Moreover, it is not excluded that these two sister subclades, C1e and C1f, still exist in northeast Europe. The Icelandic population has been studied much more than almost any other population, so C1e might still exist somewhere in northeast Europe but hasn't been found because of its low frequency. The authors conclude:

... we suggest that the Icelandic-specific C1e sub-clade could have had a recent origin in northern Europe rather than an American origin. This hypothesis is relevant with regard to the origins of the Icelandic population, as Iceland was discovered and first settled by Scandinavian Vikings around 1,130 years ago. Vikings raids extended as far from their homeland in Scandinavia as France, Spain and Sicily, but their main expansion range comprised western Russia, the Baltic region, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.

In fact, we know that some of Iceland's settlers had trading contacts with Russia and may have had slaves of Slavic origin:

No name given in Landnámabók resembles any Slavic form. But the settlers who came from Sweden and Gotland (e.g. S. 209) must have had various contacts with the Slavs. This would be the case also with some Norwegians who like Skinna-Bjöm 'used to go trading to Novgorod' before he went to Iceland. His son Miðjarðar-Skeggi 'went to plunder in the Baltic' (S. 174 and H. 140). Such people were very likely to have aboard their ships Slavic slaves and/or companions recruited from among southern Baltic pirates or inhabitants of the multiethnic emporia like Wolin/Jómsborg or Truso. (Urbanczyk 2002, p. 160)

A Slavic presence in Iceland is further suggested by the existence of "sunken huts"—rectangular-like depressions in the ground with vertical walls, stone ovens placed in one of the corners, and roof constructions supported by corner posts. To date, the remains of eighteen such huts have been discovered in Iceland, and they seem to date to the settlement period. They are also typically Slavic:

Considering the houses they built there is little alternative to the conclusion that they were Slavs or, at least, people who grew up among the Slavs which made them 'Slavs' culturally. Such houses, distinctively different from the Germanic sunken huts are known in thousands from all the lands settled by early Slavs in Eastern, Southern and Central Europe. (Urbanczyk 2002, p. 163)

It should be pointed out that the Norse were major players in the early medieval slave trade, particularly in supplying North African and Middle Eastern clients with fair-skinned women. One of the largest slave markets was at Hederby, on what is now the Danish-German border. It was largely to cash in on the demand for slaves that the Norse began launching their infamous raids across Europe (Holm 1986; Raffield 2019; Skirda 2010, 143-146). Regular visits by Muslim merchants likely explain the influx of Middle Eastern silver coins into Scandinavia during the ninth and tenth centuries (Raffield 2019). 

Such visits may also explain the presence of low levels of North African ancestry in the Icelandic gene pool. Ásmundsdóttir (2017) argues that this North African ancestry entered the Icelandic gene pool by way of the initial Scandinavian settlers. It may thus have its origins in merchants from Muslim Spain and North Africa who regularly came to trading centers like Hederby.


Ásmundsdóttir R.D. (2017). The African L3e5a haplogroup in the Icelandic population.
Skemman repository of dissertations

Der Sarkissian, C., P. Brotherton, O. Balanovsky, J.E. Templeton, B. Llamas, J. Soubrier, V. Moiseyev, V. Khartanovich, A. Cooper, W. Haak, and Genographic Consortium (2014). Mitochondrial genome sequencing in Mesolithic North East Europe Unearths a new sub-clade within the broadly distributed human haplogroup C1. PloS one 9(2), e87612. 

Ebenesersdóttir, S.S., Á. Sigurðsson, F. Sánchez-Quinto, C. Lalueza-Fox, K. Stefánsson, and A. Helgason, (2011). A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact? American Journal of Physical Anthropology 144: 92-99.

Holm, P. (1986). The Slave trade of Dublin, Ninth to Twelfth Centuries. Peritia 5: 317-45.

Raffield, B. (2019). The Slave Markets of the Viking World: Comparative Perspectives on an 'Invisible Archaeology'. Slavery & Abolition 40(4)

Sailer, S. (2020). Are Any Living Humans Descended from Pre-1492 Trans-Atlantic Contacts? The Unz Review, February 20

Skirda, A. (2010). La traite des Slaves. L'esclavage des Blancs du VIIIe au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Les Éditions de Paris Max Chaleil.

Urbanczyk, P. (2002). Ethnic aspects of the settlement of Iceland. Collegium medievale: interdisciplinary journal of medieval research 15:155-166

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