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The Origin and Genetic Background of the Sámi

By Iiddá (Melissa Stroud)

The genetic origin of the Sámi people is complex and difficult to trace.  Their beginnings are closely linked with the origin of the Finns.  Both groups speak a Finno-Ugric language that causes them to be singled out among their Indo-European neighbors and associated historically with each other.  There is a common consensus that the Sámi inhabited the region first; however, the genetic origin of the groups, their natural history and the diversion of the language are issues that are heavily debated.  Recent genetic and linguistic research in the area has created new theories and has also put to death many old and biased theories of the past. 

            As recently as 1999, the Sámi had not yet been placed on the language and gene map of Europe.  Though they speak a Finno-Ugric language, they are genetically distinct from other Finno-Ugric and Indo-European people. [1]   A genetic distinctness even exists within the heterogeneous Sámi, which leads some to believe that perhaps being classified as a Sámi should be a grouping based on living a certain way of life rather than having a certain genetic component. [2]   However, more recent work in genetics shows there is a relation among the Sámi that comes from more than just sharing a lifestyle.  There has been a discovery of a “Sámi motif,” which is a group of three specific mutations found in 1/3 of the Sámi people.  The significance of this rests with the fact that this mutation has only been found in six other samples.  One was Finnish and the remaining five were Karelian.  This may be the result of a period of isolation the group experienced in the course of their natural history. [3]   This period may possibly have been a reflection of the Sámi living in their current region during the last ice age (20000-16000 BCE), continuing their way of life even through the time of the last glacial coverage of Scandinavia. [4]   If this is true, they would have been separated from other Europeans, who traveled back south during this time.  This ice age did not officially end until 9500 BCE with larger population growth not occurring until 8000 BCE.  This means that the Sámi could very well have been almost completely isolated for several thousands of years. [5]

            The study of Y chromosomal polymorphisms also seems to support the theory of the Sámis’ long isolation; however, it seems that they were not always living completely alone.  The study of these Y chromosomal polymorphisms shows “two major founding male lineages” in not only the Sámi, but the Finns as well. [6] This is a result of a founding effect or a bottleneck effect.  Both events occur when a few individuals are responsible for beginning a population, either as a result of arriving to their area first or after a massive reduction in a population that leaves only a few individuals to repopulate the area, as it is with bottlenecking.   

            So it does appear that the Sámi experienced a period of isolation and at some point in time the Finns seem to be included in this isolation.  Still this does not answer the underlying question of where the Sámi originally came from.  For many years, there was a common belief that the Sámi may have migrated from the east and have an Asian genetic background rather than a European one.  For several hundred years, there was a belief that the Sámi and the Finns had a Mongoloid origin.  This false belief was due to linguists of the time believing that Finno-Ugric languages had an eastern origin.  It was also due to the Finns’ and Sámis’ tendency to have a phenotypic resemblance to the Mongoloids.  In actuality, these Mongoloid-like traits do not occur at a higher average rate than they would in other Northern European groups.  It merely appears this way due to the many generations that the Europeans have been farming, an activity that has caused physical features, such as high cheekbones that allow for bigger masseter muscles to chew tougher food, to reduce in size.  Though the Sámi do have some Asian genetic influence, at its highest rate it is only 20-30%, which is no higher than the European average. [7]   So with a large amount of growing evidence, it seems that the Sámi came from somewhere much closer to their current home. 

In very recent studies, some overwhelming new evidence has challenged the myth of the Finns and the Sámi as having a strictly Asian origin.    Extensive genetic testing has helped put an end to the false conclusions that came from biased studies, based on everything from tooth size to skull shape. [8] With modern technology, it now appears that the Finns and the Sámi may have originated from an “old population in Europe which diverged from other European populations prior to subsequent linguistic and cultural diversification.” [9] Genetic testing has shown that the Finns and the Sámi are “phenotypically and genetically typical Europeans.” [10]   The Sámi, as well of the Finns, are a very heterogeneous group of people who display a wide range of physical features. While there are some that feature darker Mongoloid-like characteristics, there are others who display very light colored pigments in their skin and hair.  While this is somewhat a result of natural selection that has allowed for adaptation to an environment with very low ultraviolet radiation, light pigments, like the Y chromosomal polymorphisms, are a result of a founding effect, not sexual selection, as it was once thought of in the past. [11]

It has been established that the Sámi were isolated for many years and come from European roots; however, at some point the Finns appeared.  Who is this group of people?  When did they come into being?  And why are they forever bound to the history of the Sámi?  Well the most obvious relationship between the Sámi and the Finns is the bond of a language family.  While the Finns speak Finnish and the Sámi speak many different languages among themselves, all of these variants of human speech belong to the Finno-Ugric or Uralic language group.  It is thought that at one point in time that this group may have ranged as far as northern Germany up through Scandinavia. [12]   Now, however, this region predominantly speaks Indo-European languages, which makes the fact that the Sámi maintained a Uralic language even in areas that had been taken over by Indo-Europeans even stranger.  It may be a result of northern Sweden and Norway being “the domain of Finno-Ugric Sámi reindeer herders,” a group that was out of the cultural grasp of the Indo-Europeans that seem to have “succeeded in imposing their language only on areas with some level of agriculture.” [13]

The Finns and the Sámi maintained their separate language identity even at a time when other Uralic speakers were losing their language to the Indo-Europeans.  This still leaves the crucial question that asks ‘how and when did the Finns and the Sámi begin speaking related languages in the first place?’  This is one of the bigger controversies in Scandinavian history.  There is argument as to whether the Finns and the Sámi “arrived in their present day locations either as a still undifferentiated ethnolinguistic group or as linguistically and ethnically separate people. [14]   Genetic and linguistic data of 1995 seemed to show that the Finns arrived in Sámi territory a mere 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, while at the same time adopting the Sámi way of speaking.  This idea was revolutionary.  The Finns had always been thought of as the more dominant group but now new theories claiming that it was the Finns who got their language from the Sámi have started to arise.  The Sámi, for first time, appear not to have always been the weaker minority. [15]  

Sajantila’s ten-year old theory, though empowering to the Sámi, has been suggested to be somewhat false in many of its aspects, as recently as 2002.  The new theory, using mitochondrial DNA testing, states that the Finns did not arrive in Sámiland only a short 3,000 years ago but rather came out of the Sámi themselves. When adding genetic evidence to the Baltic-Finnish and the Sámi language relationship, it appears that the two groups did descend from one single genetic and linguistic population, with the Finns diverging because of Baltic and Germanic agricultural influences; however, because of the distinctness between the two groups, the common ancestor may have divided as long ago as 23,000 BP and then reunited at around 8,500 BP.  After the divergence of the Finns from the Sámi, the Sámi tended to have offspring within their own group; however, the influence from the Baltic and Germanic people caused the Finns to intermix with other Indo-Europeans, making them more genetically similar to the Europeans than the Sámi are. [16]

It makes sense that the Sámi should be closely tied to the Finns, if at one time they were the same group, even if this did take place many thousands of years ago. They originated from Europe but spoke a Uralic language among themselves.  However, if the most recent data is true, the two groups seem to be genetically and linguistically distinct enough to allow them to finally be studied as separate groups, so there is an illogical sense to the Sámi and Finns link as well.  So it seems that all the pieces of the Sámi puzzle have almost been put into place; however, with a history as long as theirs, pieces are always bound to be missing.  For example, in Sámiland and throughout Scandinavia, there still exists an obvious residue of an even more ancient unknown language than Uralic in the region.  Many of the names of rivers and lakes have no linguistic roots. [17]   This mystery still remains to this day and may possibly never be uncovered, but one must not forget how historically wrong science had been about the history of the Sámi.  There is still a large amount on new information to be uncovered about the Sámi’s very ancient past. 


Carpelan, Christian. May 2000. “Where do Finns Come From?.” Virtual Finland. 
 (accessed February 26, 2005).

Circum Polar Perspective. March 22, 1996. General Sámi Website.
 (accessed February 26, 2005).

Gene Expression. December 28, 2003. “Volkswanderung.” Human Race Archives. (accessed February 26, 2005).

Julku, Kyösti. “The European Origin of the Finns and their Relation to the Indo-

Europeans.” The Mankind Quarterly 63:2 (2002): 183-191.

Niskanen, Markku. “The Origin of the Baltic-Finns from the Physical Anthropological

Point of View.” The Mankind Quarterly 63:2 (2002): 122-148.

Sajantila, Lahermo, Anttinen, Luuka, Sistonen, Savontaus, Aula, Beckman, Tranebjaer,

Gedde-Dahl, Issel-Tarver, DiRienzo, Pääbo. “Genes and Languages in Europe:

An Analysis of Mitochondrial Lineages.” 1995. Genome Research. [cited February 26 2005]. (

Savontaus, Marja-Liisa. 1999. “Finnish Genes.” Virtual Finland. (accessed February 26, 2005).

Yli-Kuha, Kari. March 1998. “The Sámi People.” The Sámi. Usenet newsgroup

soc.culture.nordic. (accessed February 26, 2005).

[1] (Savontaus)

[2] (Yli-Kuha)

[3] (Carpelan)

[4] (Circum Polar Perspective)

[5] (Carpelan)

[6] (Sanjantila)

[7] (Niskanen 127)

[8] (Carpelan)

[9] (Sajantila)

[10] (Niskanen 125)

[11] (Niskanen 126)

[12] (Julku 191)

[13] (Gene Expression)

[14] (Niskanen 122)

[15] (Sajantila)

[16] (Niskanen 148)

[17] (Julku 183)