The genetics of the Saami people and their language

(Paper read by Carl O. Nordling on the 9th International Finno-Ugrian Congress, Tartu 2000.)

The Saami people is commonly regarded as a genetically unique and coherent population that has acquired its language from the Proto-Finns and later diversified itself to a certain extent genetically and linguistically. The present paper launches the following entirely different theory: The Saamis are a heterogeneous population resulting from an incomplete merger of two genetically different groups, one of which is typically Asiatic/Mongolian. The other group, here called the Para-Saami, is not related to any other known people. The Saami language, although structurally Uralic (independent of Finnic and Volgaic), contains a large number of words probably borrowed from the now extinct Para-Saami language.

The frequency of the various blood groups among the Saamis proves that they cannot be descended entirely from an Asiatic/Mongolian people. Let us consider the frequencies of the four genes of the ABO system among three groups of Saamis.

Gene

Jämtland Saamis

Finnmark Saamis

Skolt Saamis

A1

6.3 %

13.8 %

17.6 %

A2

37.1 %

24.6 %

16.4 %

B

3.1 %

9.1 %

16.3 %

O

53.5 %

52.5 %

49.7 %

100 %

100 %

100 %

The resembling ABO-frequencies between Skolts and Asiatic/Mongolian peoples indicate genetic affinity. The Jämtland Saamis, on the other hand, would certainly have been classified as an entirely different race if they had spoken another language and if there had not existed any intermediate groups, such as the Finnmark Sambas. The latter obviously are a genetic mixture and it is therefore likely that all Saami groups are indeed genetic mixtures of two primordial components.

The genetic profile of the Skolts indicates that one of the components probably was a Uralic people, here called Uralo-Saami. In order to be typically Asiatic/Mongolian and at the same time be fitting as a component of the alleged mixtures above, the Uralo-Saamis ought to have had ABO frequencies like those to the left below, while the Para-Saamis would have had frequencies like those to the right.

Gene

Uralo-Saamis, presumed

Latitude among Uralic peoples

Para-Saamis, presumed

A1

24 %

14 - 24 %

0 %

A2

3 %

0 - 4 %

50 %

B

20 %

18 - 26 %

0 %

O

53 %

54-56 %

50 %

Now, if we mix the presumed gene sets of the Para-Saamis and the Uralo-Saamis in three different proportions we will end up with the following result:

Gene

"Jämtland mix"

"Finnmark mix"

"Skolt mix"

 

77 % P + 23 % U

45 % P + 55 % U

26 % P + 74 % U

A1

5.5 %

13.2 %

17.8 %

A2

39.2 %

24.2 %

15.2 %

B

4.6 %

11.0 %

14.8 %

O

50.7 %

51.6 %

52.2 %

 

These are approximately the values that we have found among the three groups of Saamis. Such conformity is not likely to be the result of mere accidental genetic drift. There must have existed a Para-Saami people some time in the past. This people would have met the Uralo-Saamis arriving from the east with their Uralic language. The two peoples would then have established some kind of coexistence. Some Para-Saamis could for instance have been kept as slaves by the Uralo-Saamis. (We note that the word orja (oarje, etc.) means 'slave' in Finnish but 'south' and 'west' in various Saami dialects.) Such a relationship would explain why the Para-Saamis (living mainly in places south-west of the others) lost their language and picked up the language of their Uralo-Saami neighbours, the tongue that eventually developed into the present Saami language. It is not likely, however, that an abandoned language disappears completely. Remnants usually remain, mostly in the form of loan words.

It is interesting to note that a recent inventory of the Saami vocabulary shows that only 57 percent of the old Saami words are related to the Finnic or Scandinavian vocabularies. Only a small fraction of the remaining 43 percent can be traced back to some earlier proto-language within the Uralic family. Something like a third of all genuine Saami words may in fact be a remnant of the vanished Para-Saami language. Such non-Uralic Saami words are e.g. alit 'blue', `cuoivat 'blue', viskat 'yellow', ruopsat 'red', `cahppat 'black', `cuorre 'gray', ranis 'gray' and ivdni 'color'. And naturally, the Para-Saamis must have had use for words like morsa 'walrus' (Odobenus rosmarus) and nisso 'porpoise' (Phocaena) long before they got acquainted with any Uralic language.

A combination of two consonants at the beginning of a word does not occur in genuine Uralic, but in the south-western Saami dialects we find several examples of words beginning with sk-, sl-, sm- and sn-. Even this phonetic feature may originate from the lost language. It should be a purposeful task for Uralists to identify and collect the traces of the Para-Saami language that still may be extant.

Finally, where did the Para-Saamis come from? Like the Basques (also with exceptionally low frequency of gene B) they seem to be remnants of a pre-Indo-European people. During part of the latest glaciation they may have been living on refuges on the oceanic brim of the Scandinavian Peninsula, such as nowadays exist on the coast of Greenland. In any case, they seem to have been isolated from other human groups for thousands of years.

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