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Iron Age DNA sheds light on Finns’ genetic origin

A new study suggests that during the Iron Age Finland was home to separate and different populations.

Levänluhta, kalmisto, vesikalmisto, pääkallo, arkeologia
Iron Age samples from Levänluhta, southern Ostrobothnia, trace lineage to Finland's modern Sámi population. Image: Jussi Mankkinen, Yle

Researchers at Helsinki and Turku universities mapping ancient Finno-Ugric ancestry say modern-day Finns carry genes from diverse populations living in the region of Finland during the Iron Age.

They said they were able to reconstruct 103 complete mitochondrial genomes from archaeological bone samples, allowing them to trace maternal lineage. The samples were collected from burial sites across Finland and the Republic of Karelia, Russia.

Scientists found that genes associated with ancient farmer populations were more common in the east, whereas lineages inherited from hunter-gatherers were more prevalent in the west.

The SUGRIGE Finno-Ugric genome project said its study is the most extensive investigation to date focusing on the ancient DNA of people inhabiting the region of Finland.

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Keskiaikainen hauta Hiitolan Kylälahden Kalmistomäeltä
A Middle Age burial site in Hiitola, Russian Karelia. Image: Stanislav Belskiy

Hunter-gatherers in west, farmers in east

Scientists discovered mitochondrial hunter-gatherer DNA at burial sites in Eura and Hollola in the west, whereas samples from Hiitola in Russian Karelia and the Mikkeli area displayed genetic lines often associated with ancient farming populations.

A burial site in Levänluhta in southern Ostrobothnia turned up DNA present in Finland’s indigenous Sámi population today.

"This indicates that the studied Iron Age populations have had an impact on the gene pool of contemporary Finns,” Sanni Översti from Helsinki University’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement.

Professor Päivi Onkamo, who headed the study, said a lack of archaeological bone material has made it difficult to study ancient DNA in Finland. The acidic soil combined with annual freeze-thaw cycles have a detrimental effect on bone material, according to researchers.

“Usually 2,000 years is the longest time bone will survive in these conditions. The samples we studies date from 300 AD to the 1800s,” she explained.

Last year, SUGRIGE researchers suggested that ancient DNA showed that the Sámi and Finns share identical Siberian genes.

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