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Ancient Genomes Trace Siberian Ancestry Among Finns, Saami

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – An analysis of ancient and modern genomes has uncovered Siberian ancestry among modern northern European populations, particularly in Finns and Saami.

In general, modern Europeans derive their ancestry from three populations: Paleolithic European hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic farmers, and steppe-origin groups who arrived in Europe during the end of the Neolithic and start of the Bronze Age. However, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Helsinki noted that this model does not fit well for northeastern European populations, including Finns, Saami, and Russians. These populations, they wrote, share more alleles with modern East Asian populations than with other European groups.

To shed more light on their origins, the Max Planck-Helsinki team sequenced DNA isolated from archaeological samples from Russia and Finland dating back to three time periods: about 3,500 years ago, 500 years ago, and 250 years ago. They also sequenced the genome of a modern Saami individual. Comparing these genomes to other ancient and modern samples, the researchers found that Siberian ancestry appeared to spread to northwestern Russia and on to Finland, a result they reported in Nature Communications today.

"Our results show that there was a strong genetic connection between ancient Finnish and ancient Siberian populations, suggesting that ancient populations from Siberia may have also shared a subsistence strategy, languages, and/or cultural behaviors with Bronze Age and Iron Age Finns, despite the large geographical distance," co-first author Thiseas Lamnidis from Max Planck said in a statement.

The samples the researchers analyzed hailed from both Russia and Finland. Six 3,500 year-old samples were from an archaeological site at Bolshoy Oleni Ostrov on the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, a region that is today inhabited by the Saami people. Meanwhile, the seven Iron Age samples originated from Levänluhta in western Finland that is today home to both Finnish and Swedish speakers, and another two samples were obtained from a Saami cemetery on the Kola Peninsula from the 18th and 19th centuries. Eleven of the ancient samples passed quality-control checks, but four were excluded due to low SNP coverage.

In addition, the researchers sequenced the DNA of a modern Saami individual to 17.5-fold coverage.

The researchers combined the data they generated with genotyping data from more than 3,300 modern individuals and genomic data generated for 538 ancient individuals.

Analyses based on both principal components analysis and the Admixture program indicated that northeastern Europeans have genetic ancestry that can be traced to ancient Siberian populations. Among modern worldwide populations, this Siberian genetic component is maximized in the Nganasan people, who live in Siberia, and among modern European populations, it is highest in the Saami and Mari. In addition, it was also present in the historical Saami individuals and in two of the three Levänluhta samples. The six ancient Bolshoy samples in particular had high levels of this ancient Siberian genetic component — it contributed to about half their ancestry. Older Mesolithic individuals from Motala in Sweden, however, lacked this Siberian component.

The researchers estimated that Siberian Nganasan-related ancestry was introduced into the Bolshoy population about 4,000 years ago.

The researchers also noted genetic continuity between the ancient individuals they analyzed and modern Saami populations. In particular, they found that one of the Levänluhta samples and two of the Saami cemetery samples clustered with modern Saami and not with modern Finns. This, the researchers said, suggests that the people who lived in Levänluhta are more closely related to modern Saami and indicates that the Saami people may have once lived further south than they currently do.

"This is the first exploration of ancient DNA from Finland and the results are very interesting," co-senior author Stephan Schiffels from Max Planck said in a statement. "However more ancient DNA studies from the area will be necessary to better understand whether the patterns we've seen are representative of Finland as a whole."