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American Indian Settlers in Iceland? November 20, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Iceland, the tiny nation floating between Britain and Greenland, has been isolated for much of its history. This isolation has given the island two extraordinary resources: one is a spectacular landscape, untainted by industrialisation (see above); and the second is a closed DNA pool.

A closed DNA pool = an extraordinary resource? In days gone by such sentiments would have been the prerogative of Nazis. But since the early 2000s it has been understood that Iceland’s small and homogenous population, close to 300,000 with virtually no foreign influxes, makes the island a perfect setting for genetic investigation as there is little ‘background noise’. This relatively simple genetic situation can then be cross-referenced with detailed Icelandic medical records, a boon for those investigating heart disease, various neurological conditions and cancer.

For historians though there is a further prize lurking here. The extensive investigations into Iceland’s genetic pool have kicked up some surprising insights into Iceland’s early history: one of which – an apparent Amerindian migrant – definitely deserves a bizarre history post.

Iceland’s first settlers were Vikings from the homelands but Scandinavians also came from their rapidly evolving settlements abroad, particularly in Britain and Ireland. Not surprisingly ‘Insular’ genes also appeared then in Iceland, salting Scandinavian ones: probably indicative of a large slave influx from Jorvik and Dublin. All of this is borne out by the genetics.

However, a 2010 study (Ebenesersdottier et al) surprised everyone by showing one more exotic strand of dna, C1e, which appears to come from a female Amerindian donor. More than 80 modern Icelanders carry this DNA strand and it is estimated that c. 1700 about 4 Icelanders carried the same. Then ‘there is good reason to believe that the C1e lineage arrived in Iceland several hundreds of [sic] years before 1700’.

The proof of the antiquity of this DNA (prior to 1700) goes beyond Beachcombing’s weak grasp of science. Does it depend on something in genetics itself? Or does it – and this would be worrying – depend on calculations about when Icelanders ‘should have’ come across Native American populations? If the Amerindian in question could have arrived c. 1600 then everything that follows here would need to be written in different terms. One thinks, for example, of possible cases of Amerindian boats lost at sea.

The authors go on to write, perhaps unnecessarily sexing up what is, in any case, an exciting enough discovery:

‘[T]here is no direct evidence of contact between the Vikings and Native Americans – i.e. that they actually met.  Our findings raise the possibility that there was in fact contact between the Icelandic Vikings and the Native Americans which led to a Native American woman’ being brought back to Iceland.

This passage is a bit disingenuous in that the sagas, some of which read like historical accounts, describe contact between the Vikings and the native populations. Indeed, we have previously here looked at one famous meeting in Vinland. The implication is presumably that only L’Anse aux Meadows is ‘proof’ and yet it is L’Anse aux Meadows which demonstrates that the sagas were essentially correct.

But what the historian in Beachcombing finds really extraordinary is the following. If a native American woman was brought back to the Greenland settlements and, eventually, to Iceland, how did this escape contemporary Norse writers? Wouldn’t this have been one of the most remarkable events of the age?

Well, for us yes. But evidently for the Icelanders no. There is not even a vague allusion in Icelandic literature to this forgotten Inuit Eve: even though there were Icelandic ‘records’ (discuss) at this time. The real story here for Beachcombing is not the unsurprising minor contact between peoples at this date, but the remarkable blind spot in the medieval Norse mindset that could pass over a Native American woman being sold in the slave market at Reykjavík.

Any other examples of DNA opening up interesting contact between cultures? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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26 Nov 2011: Invisible writes in with a sensible objection: ‘My question arising from your post is: is Amerindian DNA the same as Inuit?  Since you’ve got Inuit settlements in Greenland from (approx) the year 1200 – just a hop, skip, and a kayak away from Iceland–I don’t see why Inuit DNA in the Icelandic population would be remarkable. But if the Amerindian DNA is something different: say, Sioux or Apache or Mayan, that would be startling. I don’t know enough about the gradations of DNA to know how finely the genetic/tribal boundaries can be drawn.’ Beachcombing luckily has a colleague at hand who has dabbled in DNA. He claims that the genetics of the Inuit and the Amerindian population should be similar as they are essentially the same people: Asian emigrants from the New World. The question he would have is whether lapplanders DNA is all that very different… Thanks Invisible.

28 Nov 2011: Stephen D writes in support of Invisible. ‘No, it can’t be an Inuit connection. The Icelandic American DNA is haplogroup C, Inuit is A or D. Interesting detail from the Ebenesersdottir paper though: it’s a new subgroup, C1e. C1a-d are already known, and Amerindian; but nobody can say whether C1e is Mayan, Algonquin or whatever (Sioux or Apache are, um, geographically implausible). A wild guess might be Beothuk (right part of world, idiosyncratic language so possibly ditto genetics, now extinct and so DNA not readily accessible).‘ Thanks Stephen!

31 Dec 2011: Stephen D writes in with still more and it is wonderful stuff: ‘I’ve dug down a bit further into the online data, and it seems that while it is true that the Icelandic mitochondrial DNA falls into a unique subclass, C1e, with at least 14 mutations separating it from C1a (eastern Siberian) or C1b-d (Amerindian), and with no known complete corresponding sequences anywhere, there are a number of partial mitochondrial sequences that may well turn out to be C1e. These are:  2 ancient Tainos sequences, Dominican Republic (good preColumbian seafarers, from Lesser Antilles to Bahamas: largely extinct: strong candidate in my opinion); 1 ancient Ciboney sequence, Cuba (mostly driven out of Antilles by Tainos: extinct: weaker candidate); 2 ancient American Midwest sequences, Oneota: wrong place?; 2 modern samples, Brazil: probably wrong place; 3 modern sequences, Chile, 1 modern sequence, Peru, 1 modern Canadian sample (Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Vancouver), 1 American sample (Apache): definitely wrong place; 2 modern sequences, origin unknown, no use to anybody; And then it gets interesting; 1 modern sequence, Canary Islands: probably descendant of Amerindian brought there post-Columbus; 1 modern sequence, Germany of all places: probably as above but Ebenesersdottir et al don’t completely rule out older C1e component in European populations; DNA does get around. You may have come across the Tuareg mitochondrial component in modern Hungary (presumably brought there in retinue of some Turkish pasha), and Thomas Jefferson’s Y chromosome DNA found in his lawful white and bastard coloured family, which despite the Jefferson’s Welsh ancestry turned out to come from Egypt or thereabouts (presumably via some merchant, official or soldier in Roman times).’ Thanks Stephen!