A Result for Icelandic Genetics

Who were the first settlers?

In the ninth century, a few Scandinavian adventurers sail for Iceland. Once there, they find open space and a few Gaelic monks. At the sight of all this free land, the Northerners return in shiploads, bringing their families and slaves with them. They build farmsteads and settle down on the island.

Draken Harald Hårfagre (Source: drakenhh.com/Peder Jacobsson).

The longstanding assumption is that the first settlers come from Norway. As much is suggested in mediaeval Icelandic sources as the Íslendingabók and the Landnámabók. To this day, the Icelandic language is still closest to the mediaeval Old Norse (Medievalists.net). And then it is not such a big leap to want to explore the relationship between Icelandic and Norse genes.

Since this week, the assumption is indeed supported by genetic research. The Icelandic biotech company deCODE Genetics and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) published their results in the journal Science. For their study, they used whole genomes of about 25 settlers. These ‘first’ Icelanders died at least before the year 1000 CE. Their ancient DNA has been studied and afterwards compared to modern Icelanders and other Europeans.

The outcome reveals that just over half of the settlers are of Norse descent. The other half is either Gaelic or of mixed heritage. Things get surprising in the second part of the results. It appears the modern Icelanders share more genes with the modern Norse (70%). That means a fast genetic shift has taken place in the Icelandic population in the past 1,000 years, leaving the Icelanders more closely related to Norwegians today than in mediaeval times.

In the article’s abstract, the authors already warn about drawing final conclusions: “Finally, we report evidence of unequal contributions from the ancient founders to the contemporary Icelandic gene pool.” But in all, the study gives an intriguing glimpse into the demography of the earliest Icelanders.

The Science article (doi.org/10.1126/science.aar2625) is behind a pay wall. Among the best summaries are Science MagArchaeology News Network and Medievalists.net.

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