This is an interesting story coming out of Pre-Columbian North America. It appears that the early Norse colonists in Newfoundland may have had a more dynamic relationship with the continent’s inhabitants than previously thought; DNA research has revealed that a small fraction of modern Icelanders carry a Native American lineage.
It’s being touted as the earliest substantial evidence of Native Americans in the Old World.
Naturally, as with any scientific discovery, this is still part of a sizable debate – especially considering that if the obvious conclusion is correct, it greatly enhances our understanding of early European contact. Or to put it another way: it once again changes all the record books about this country’s early history.
A fascinating glimpse of trans-Atlantic contact before Columbus
In layman’s terms, it goes like this: Native Americans belong to a limited number of genetic haplogroups (based on the genetic markers in their mtDNA, passed through the female lineage). These are known as haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X. Generally these are typical of East Asians and are rare or non-existent in European populations; where they are present in Europe, they exist in distinct subgroups – aka., from different branches of the genetic tree.
In studying the Icelandic gene map, scientists found a number of individuals bearing the markers of the C1 mtDNA group. This subgroup is distinct from the few rare examples of haplogroup C found elsewhere in Europe, and Iceland’s relative isolation means that outside genetic contribution is a rarity. This tends to rule out contact between more distant cultures such as China where one would normally look to find these genes. But there is a historical precedent for contact with the Americas – Norse colonists from Iceland established the first European settlement in the Americas in the 1000s. Although the colony failed, the survivors returned to Iceland. And, based on this find, they brought more than just stories of their experiences back to Iceland.
The researchers tell us that the Icelanders carrying this lineages share a common ancestor who lived sometime in the Middle Ages (they can determine the age of the genes based on the rate at which mtDNA replicates itself) – a good indication that this occurred in the correct time period.
To be clear, the evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that any Native Americans actually set foot in Iceland; but it does show pretty conclusively that descendants of a Norse-Indian union became a part of the Icelandic community somewhere along the line.
By all previous indications, the Norse avoided the indigenous populations wherever they settled, and kept their colonies segregated to avoid outright hostilities; that’s why nobody suspected this kind of evidence to surface. I’d love to know if there are any oral traditions or other records among the Norse (who were famous for their sagas) indicating more about their relationship with Native Americans while on the continent.
We can only speculate on the background of this story: is this merely evidence of liaisons between Norse settlers and Native women? Did local Native Americans become part of the Norse colony? Did a mixed-race family (or perhaps Native captives?) accompany the colony back to Iceland on the return voyage? And what’s more, was it an isolated event? It’s worth noting that the population of Iceland underwent a severe bottleneck following devastating volcanic eruptions in the 17th and 18th centuries – which means that the Native American genetic lineages we see today may represent only a fraction of the original contributions to the Icelandic gene pool. In other words, Native American presence in the Norse colonies may have been much more prevalent than anybody thought.
Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog – scientific abstract & discussion (for the more “genetically savvy”)
Beothuk – the indigenous people of Newfoundland & surrounds who would have encountered the Norse colonists; the last living Beothuk died in 1829
BBC: Native American DNA Found in UK – DNA testing has uncovered British descendents of Native Americans brought to the UK centuries ago as slaves, translators or tribal representatives.
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