Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic shared vocabulary from Pitted Ware seal hunters


I said I would write a post about topo-hydronymy in Europe and Iberia based on the most recent research, but it seems we can still enjoy some more discussions about the famous Vasconic Beakers, by people longing for days of yore. I don’t want to spoil that fun with actual linguistic data (which I already summarized) so let’s review in the meantime one of the main Uralic-Indo-European interaction zones: Scandinavia.

Seal hunting

One of the many eye-catching interpretations – and one of the few interesting ones – that could be found in the relatively recent article Talking Neolithic: Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on How Indo-European Was Implemented in Southern Scandinavia, by Iversen & Kroonen AJA (2017) was this:

The borrowing of lexical items from hunter-gatherers into Germanic refers to the potential adoption of Proto-Germanic *selhaz “seal” (Old Norse selr, Old English seolh, Old High German selah) as well as Early Proto-Balto-Finnic *šülkeš “seal” (Finnish hylje, Estonian hüljes) from the marine-oriented Sub-Neolithic Pitted Ware culture.

Modified from Kristiansen et al. (2017), with red circle around the hypothesized interaction of Germanic with hunter-gatherers. “Schematic representation of how different Indo-European branches have absorbed words (circles) from a lost Neolithic language or language group (dark fill) in the reconstructed European linguistic setting of the third millennium BC, possibly involving one or more hunter gatherer languages (light fill) (after Kroonen & Iversen 2017)”.

This is what Kroonen thought about this word in his Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (2006):

Gmc. *selha– m. ‘seal’ – ON selr m. ‘id.’, Far. selur m. ‘id.’, OSw. siæl m. ‘id.’, Sw. själ c. ‘id.’, OE seolh m. ‘id.’, E seal, OS selah m. ‘id.’, EDu. seel, seel-hont m. ‘id.’, Du. zee-hond c. ‘id.’, OHG selah m. ‘id.’, MHG sele m. ‘id.’ (GM).

A Germanic word with no certain IE etymology. The link with Lith. selė́ti ‘to crawl’ (Torp 1909: 436) is erroneous, as this verb corresponds to PGm. *stelan- (q.v.). The *h may nevertheless correspond to the PIE animal suffix *-ko-, for which see *elha{n)- ‘elk’ and *baruga- ‘boar’.

Focusing on this substrate etymon, coupled with archaeology and ancient DNA, in the recent SAA 84th Annual Meeting (Abstracts in PDF):

Kroonen, Guus (Leiden University) and Rune Iversen

[196] The Linguistic Legacy of the Pitted Ware Culture

The Scandinavian hunter-, fisher- and gatherer-based Pitted Ware culture is chronologically situated in the Neolithic. However, it challenges our traditional view on cultural and social evolution by representing a return to an otherwise abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In general, the Pitted Ware culture must be seen as an offshoot of the “Sub-Neolithic” societies inhabiting wide parts of northern and northeastern Europe in the fourth and third millennium B.C.E.

Isotopic and aDNA studies have shown that people of the east Swedish Pitted Ware culture, both dietarily and genetically were distinct from the early farmers in this region, the Funnel Beaker culture. Isotopic data shows a marked predominance of seal in the diet, which has given the Pitted Ware people the nickname “Inuit of the Baltic”.

As regards language, it is to be expected that people practicing a Pitted Ware lifestyle spoke a non-Indo-European language. In fact, there is some linguistic evidence that can support this claim. It is conceivable that both the Germanic and Finnish word for “seal” were ultimately borrowed from a language spoken in a Pitted Ware context. Once more, the linguistic evidence turns out to offer important information complementary to that of archaeology and archaeo-genetics.

Stone Age Seal Hunters, by Måns Sjöberg.

Apparently, the idea of non-IE substrate languages in contact with Germanic in Scandinavia is fashionable for the Copenhagen group, probably due to their particular interpretation of the recent genetic papers, hence the multiple Germanic-Fennic connections to be reviewed through this new prism. While the ulterior motive of this proposal may be to try and connect yet again Germanic with CWC Denmark, I would argue that the effect is actually the opposite.

An early borrowing via Uralic

The word has always been considered a more likely loan from one language to the other, and – because of the quite popular idea of Uralic native to Fennoscandia – it was often seen as a likely borrowing of Germanic from Balto-Finnic. In any possible case, the borrowing in either direction must be quite early, for obvious reasons:

  • If the borrowing had been via late Palaeo-Germanic, the ending in *-xa– would have been reflected in Balto-Finnic, hence an early Palaeo-Germanic to Pre-Balto-Finnic stage would be necessary.
  • If the borrowing had been via late Balto-Finnic, the initial sibilant would be already aspirated, being adopted as *-x– in Palaeo-Germanic, while the ending in *-k– would have remained as such if it was adopted after Grimm’s law ceased to be active.
  • Similarly, a borrowing from a common, non-Indo-European & non-Uralic source would require that it happened during the early stages of both proto-languages to have undergone their respective phonetic changes, and both borrowings chronologically close to each other, to assume a similar vocalism and consonantism of the ultimate source.
The idea of seal-hunting Uralic substrate of Pitted Ware is not new. Image modified from The Uralic and Finno-Ugric Phonetic Substratum, by Kalevi Wiik, Linguistica Uralica (1997).

Furthermore, regarding the most likely way of expansion of this loanword, due to the different vowels and sibilants present in Uralic but not in Indo-European:

  • A direct loan from Pre-Germanic **selkos – which shows a regular thematic declension – to Pre-Balto-Finnic *šülkeš doesn’t seem to be a reasonable assumption.
  • NOTE. A Germanic borrowing from alternative Gmc. genitive *silxis could only work in a Pre-Germanic to Pre-Balto-Finnic model, hence only if the Gmc. form can be reconstructed for an earlier stage. Even then, for the same reason stated above, the opposite could be more reasonably argued, i.e. that this form is the original one adopted in Germanic: Pre-PBF *šülkeš > Pre-Gmc. *silkis, reinterpreted as an -o- stem in its declension.

  • If we reconstruct an older Pre-Finno-Samic (i.e. with Finno-Permic-like vocalism) **šëlkëš, a borrowing into Pre-Germanic **selkos would work. Even though no Saami derivative exists to confirm such a possibility, this would be supported by the known common evolution of Finno-Samic dialects in close contact with Pre-Germanic.
  • Admittedly, even accepting the existence of a Finno-Samic stem, a potential substrate word could not be discarded. In fact, while **šëlkë- could perfectly be a Uralic root, the ending in *-š can’t be easily interpreted. Therefore, a third, non-Indo-European & non-Uralic source is a plausible explanation.

NOTE. Arguably, Proto-Finno-Samic could have adopted Gmc. *kh or *x exceptionally as PFS *k. However, early Palaeo-Germanic borrowings in Finno-Samic show a consistent regular consonant change as described above. For more on this, see Finno-Samic borrowings.

This likely Uralic first nature of the loanword is important for the discussion below.

Pitted Ware culture

Middle Neolithic A period. Distribution of Pyheensilta Ware, Funnel Beaker Culture in Sweden, and Pitted Ware Culture in northern Europe during the Middle Neolithic A period, c. 3300–2800 cal BC. Find locations with numbers demarcate sites where cereal grains have been found and later AMS radiocarbon dated. Figure was created by SV using QGIS 3.4. ( and Natural Earth data ( Image from Vanhanen et al. (2019).

About the Pitted Ware culture, this is what the recent paper by Vanhanen et al. (2019), from the University of Finland (including Volker Heyd) had to say:

The origins of the PWC are controversial. In one likely scenario, Comb Ceramic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers first interacted with FBC during the last centuries of the EN and became specialized maritime hunter-gatherers. The PWC pushed south and westwards during the Middle Neolithic (MN), c. 3300–2300 BC, along the northern Baltic shoreline and adjacent islands, eventually reaching as far west as Denmark and southern Norway. Around 2800 BC, after the FBC ceased to exist, the Corded Ware Culture (CWC) migrated into the PWC area. The end date for the PWC and CWC is approximately 2300 BC, when the material culture was replaced by the Late Neolithic (LN) culture<. Spanning nearly a millennium virtually unchanged, the PWC maintained a coherent society and a successful economic model. PWC people lived in marine-oriented settlements, commonly dwelled in huts and produced relatively large amounts of ceramic vessels. This speaks to the partly sedentary nature of their habitation, at least for their base camps. These specialist hunter-gatherers obtained the great majority of their subsistence from maritime sources, such as seal, fish, and sea birds. Considering the amount of bones, sealing was of paramount importance, causing these peoples to be labelled ‘hard-core sealers’ or even the ‘Inuit of the Baltic’.

The Middle Neolithic Pitted Ware culture is dated ca. 3500–2300 BC, so we would be seeing here Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic peoples arriving near the Pitted Ware culture. That would leave us with one of both languages expanding with Corded Ware peoples, and the other with Bell Beakers. Since Battle Axe-derived cultures around the Gulf of Finland are associated with Balto-Finnic groups, and Bell Beakers arriving ca. 2400 started the Dagger Period, commonly associated with the Pre-Germanic community, I think the connection of each group with their language is self-evident.

Middle Neolithic B period. Distribution of Corded Ware Culture and Pitted Ware Culture in northern Europe during the Middle Neolithic B period, c. 2800–2300 cal BC. Find locations with numbers demarcate sites where cereal grains have been found and later AMS radiocarbon dated. Figure was created by SV using QGIS 3.4. ( and Natural Earth data ( Modified from Vanhanen et al. (2019).

NOTE. You can read some interesting information about prehistoric and recent seal hunting in the Baltic in the blog post “Själen” – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea.

Germanic-Fennic phonetic evolution

The common Germanic – Balto-Finnic phonetic evolution, especially Verner’s law in Palaeo-Germanic and qualitative gradation in Proto-Balto-Finnic, has been variably interpreted as:

  • Uralic in Scandinavia influenced by Germanic (Verner’s law source of the gradation), by Koivulehto and Vennemann (1996).
  • Germanic over a Uralic substratum in Scandinavia, by Wiik (1997).
  • Both Germanic and Balto-Finnic influenced by a third language, an “extinct non-Uralic source” spoken in Fennoscandia before the arrival of Uralic and Indo-European, by Kallio (2001); maybe the same substrate proposed to have influenced the accent shift in Germanic similar to Uralic.
  • Balto-Finnic speakers adopting Pre-Germanic in Scandinavia, in contact with Balto-Finnic speakers retaining their language, by Schrijver in Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)– although first suggested by him in the 1990s.

NOTE. There are other (some much older) proposals of a Uralic substrate in Scandinavia, but I think those above summarize the most common positions tenable today.

If you add all linguistic, archaeological, and now genetic connections, it is really strange to keep arguing for so many surprisingly fitting common substrates and/or contact languages for both. Especially because the Pre-Germanic community – if originally from southern Scandinavia and not further south (see e.g. Kortlandt’s theory) – was marked by the Dagger Period, as accepted by most archaeologists (including Kristiansen), and we know that Bell Beakers – who triggered the Dagger period – might have arrived a little late to the Pitted Ware disintegration in most seal-hunting areas of southern Scandinavia.

Density analysis based (Bell Beaker per km2) on the distribution of Bell Beaker per region (ca. 2700-2200 BC). Combination of different levels of b-spline interpolation. Exaltation of the values through square root usage. Modified from Michael Bilger (2018).

In other words, how many common substrate languages can we propose for Germanic (and Balto-Finnic)? Just from Kroonen we have already the Semitic-like TRB, and the seal-hunting Pitted Ware culture. Apparently, the culprit of the common phonetic evolution must be some (other?) culture that both Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic assimilated (or with which both were in contact) in Fennoscandia.

NOTE. I believe no data supports the attribution of those Germanic borrowings to the TRB culture, especially if one assumes they belong to an Afroasiatic branch, as did Kroonen. His initial assumption about an expansion of R1b-M269 associated with the Neolithic from Anatolia, and thus with Afroasiatic, must today be rejected. Much more likely is the incorporation of most of these loanwords during the expansion of North-West Indo-Europeans from Yamna Hungary.

How many “common” substrates from different regions and cultures is too much? Arguably, it’s not a question of quantity (because the overall probability remains the same), but a question of quality of arguments.

In my opinion, both a) the marked seal-hunting subsistence economy of the Pitted Ware culture and b) the difficult reconstruction of a fitting ‘natural’ PIE or PU stem warrant this proposal of a third source, just like the European agricultural substrate of North-West Indo-European and Palaeo-Balkan languages, as well as the Asian agricultural substrate of Indo-Iranian are the most logical interpretation of words not found in other IE dialects. The only problem in this case is the lack of other Scandinavian substrate words to compare its typology against.

Close contacts in Fennoscandia. The distribution of Scandinavian flint daggers (A) in the east and south Baltic region and possible trends of “down the line” trade (B). Good size and quality flint zone in the south-west Baltic region is hatched (C). According to: Wojciechowski 1976; Olausson 1983, fig. 1; Madsen 1993, 126; Libera 2001; Kriiska & Tvauri 2002, 86. Image modified from Piličiauskas (2010).

Common Scandinavian substratum

The theory of a Pitted Ware borrowing is therefore quite convincing from a cultural point of view, at the same time as it fits the linguistic data. However, one reason why I dislike the interpretation of a dual origin is that our knowledge of Uralic languages is fairly limited, whereas that of Indo-European branches and hence Proto-Indo-European is huge. To put it otherwise: if a common word appears in both, and it is most likely (culturally and linguistically) not Indo-European, it certainly means that it was borrowed in Germanic. What are the a priori chances of it coming directly from a third substrate language for both dialects, instead of coming directly from Pre-Balto-Finnic?

From Schrijver (2014):

What did happen, apparently, is that Finnic speakers had enough access to the way in which Germanic speakers pronounced Balto-Finnic in order to model their own pronunciation of Balto-Finnic on it. In other words, Balto-Finns conversed with bilingual speakers of Germanic and Balto-Finnic whose pronunciation of both was essentially Germanic. But access to the Germanic language itself was not sufficient to allow Balto-Finns to become bilingual themselves, either because social segregation prevented this or because contact with Germanic was severed before widespread bilingualism set in. This limited access to Germanic would allow us to understand why Balto-Finnic did not go the way of the vernacular languages that came in contact with Latin in the Roman Empire, where access to Latin was open to almost everybody and massive language shift in favour of Latin ensued.

NOTE. For a more detailed discussion, you can read the whole chapter dedicated to this question. I summarized it in Pre-Germanic born out of a Proto-Finnic substrate in Scandinavia.

On the other hand, about the ad hoc interpretation by Kallio (2001) of hypothetic third languages strongly influencing in the same way both the Palaeo-Germanic- and Balto-Finnic-speaking communities, Schrijver (2014) comments:

The idea that perhaps both languages moved towards a lost third language, whose speakers may have been assimilated to both Balto-Finnic and Germanic, provides a fuller explanation but suffers from the drawback that it shifts the full burden of the explanation to a mysterious ‘language X’ that is called upon only in order to explain the developments in Proto-Germanic and Balto-Finnic. That comes dangerously close to circular reasoning.

Early Bronze Age cultures of Northern Europe (roughly ca. 2200-1750). Dagger period representing the expansion of BBC-derived groups from southern Scandinavia.

NOTE. The proposal of some kind of “SHG/EHG-based Fennoscandian substrate” seems funny to me, for two reasons: firstly, there is usually no talk about which culture spread that common language, how it survived, how it was in contact with both groups and until when, etc. (see below for possibilities); secondly, apparently the evident survival of West European EEF communities driven by at least two cultural groups – El Argar and the poorly known groups from the Atlantic façade north of the Pyrenees – is, for the same people proposing this simplistic SHG/EHG idea, somehow not fitting for the prehistory of Proto-Iberian and Proto-Aquitanian, respectively…

The same argument that one could use against the direct borrowing of both dialects from Pitted Ware, but much more strongly, can be thus wielded against a common, centuries-long phonetic evolution of both Balto-Finnic and Germanic caused by close interactions with (and/or substrate influence of) some third language. Which unitary culture and when exactly could that have happened around the Baltic Sea?

  • Was it Pitted Ware the mysterious substrate language? Seems rather unlikely, due to the early demise of the Pitted Ware culture in contrast to the long-lasting common influence seen in both dialects.
  • Was it Pitted Ware in southern Scandinavia, but Comb Ware in the Gulf of Finland? Is there a direct genetic connection between both cultures? And how likely is a common phonology of an ancestral Comb Ware-like substrate language surviving separately in Finland and Sweden? Even accepting these assumptions, we would be stuck again in the Indo-European Beakers vs. Uralic Battle Axe model.
  • Was it a succession of cultures, from some Scandinavian culture that was replaced by some incoming ethnolinguistic group, then influencing the other? This non-IE, non-Uralic substrate would then need to be proposed, given the chronological and archaeological constraints, as an effect of Pitted Ware over Pre-Finno-Baltic spoken by Battle Axe peoples in Scandinavia, then replaced by Pre-Germanic peoples arriving later with Bell Beakers. A reverse direction and later chronology (say, Germanic replaced by Balto-Finnic from Netted Ware arriving from the Volga) wouldn’t work as well.
  • Was it Asbestos Ware as a late Comb Ware group influencing both? How likely is such a continued influence in Southern Scandinavia and the Gulf of Finland? Even if we accepted this influence that miraculously didn’t affect Samic (most likely located between the Balto-Finnic-speaking Gulf of Finland and northern Fennoscandian Asbestos Ware groups), it would necessarily mean that Germanic and Balto-Finnic were spoken neighbouring exactly the same Asbestos Ware groups in Scandinavia. That is, essentially, that the BBC-derived Dagger Period represented Pre-Germanic, while Battle Axe-derived groups around the Gulf of Finland were Balto-Finnic.

Mixing linguistics with archaeology (now complemented with genetics) also risks circular reasoning. But, how else can someone propose a third substrate language for a phonetic change, necessarily represented by Fennoscandian groups potentially separated by thousands of years? In this age of population genomics we can’t simply talk about theoretical models anymore: we must refer to Fennoscandian cultures and populations in a very specific time frame, as Kronen & Iversen do in their proposal. Not only is such a third unknown language usually a weak explanation for a common development of two unrelated languages; in this case it finds no support whatsoever.

Seals and the Arctic

Another interesting aspect about this Fennic-Germanic comparandum is its relevance to the Uralic homeland problem.

Current distribution of Uralic languages. Nenets and Saami are among the best positioned to retain the ‘original’ Uralic seal-hunting vocabulary.

Since the publication of Mittnik et al. (2018), Lamnidis et al. (2018), and Sikora et al. (2018), the new normal is apparently to consider Corded Ware Finland as Germanic-speaking, the Gulf of Finland as Balto-Slavic-speaking, while the Kola peninsula and whichever Palaeo-Arctic peoples preceded Nganasans and Nenets as ancient Uralians. Uh-huh, OK.

But, if prehistoric Arctic peoples practiced specialized seal-hunting economies, and Uralians were one among such populations – supposedly one widespread from the Barents Sea to the Lapteve Sea…how come no common Uralic word for ‘seal’ exists? In other words, why would these True™ Uralic peoples expanding from the Arctic need to borrow a word for ‘seal’ from neighbouring populations in every single seal-hunting region they are attested?

Historical distribution of grey seals, an important part of the diet around the Baltic Sea. Image modified from Wikimedia to include Skagerrak and Kattegat regions.

About Saami, which some have recklessly proposed to be derived from Bronze Age N1c-L392 samples from the Kola Peninsula (against the good judgment of the authors of the paper), this is what we know from their word for ‘seal’, from Grünthal (2004):

Ter Saami vīrre ‘seal; wolf’ displays two meanings that refer to clearly different animals. Neither of them is borrowed from the source language because the word descends from Russian zver’ ‘animal’ (T.I.Itkonen 1958: 756). Another word, Skolt Saami näúdd ‘seal, wolf’, has been similarly used in the two meanings. The evidence of North Saami návdi ‘wolf; creature, fur animal; beast’ (Sammallahti 1989: 305; Lagercrantz (1939: 518) presents the alternative meanings in the opposite order; E. Itkonen (1969: 148) lists the meanings ‘wildes Tier; Raubtier (bes. Wolf); Pelztier’) suggesting that ‘wolf’ is the primary sense and ‘seal’ is a metaphorical extension of it. More precisely, it is an example of a mythic metaphor (cf. Siikala 1992). According to the old folk belief, seal was a wolf and the Skolt Saamis preferred not to eat its meat (T.I.Itkonen 1958: 906). Before that the metonymic meaning ‘wolf’ rose from the less specified meanings, and originally návdi is a Scandinavian or Finnic loan word in Saamic, cf. Old Norse naut ‘vieh, rind’, Icelandic and Norwegian naut, Swedish nöt < Germanic *nauta ‘property’ (Hellquist 1980: 721, T.I.Itkonen 1958: 275, Lagercrantz 1939: 518, de Vries 1961: 406; E. Itkonen (1969: 148) considers Finnic, cf. Finnish nauta ‘bovine’ (< Germanic) as a possible alternative source for the Saamic word).

NOTE. Possibly comparable, for the mythic metaphor proper of Scandinavian folk belief, are Germanic derivatives built as ‘seal-hound’ and/or ‘sea-hound’.

Seals formed a great part of the diet for Palaeo-Arctic populations. Boundaries of regions used to predict sea ice, superimposed over the distributions of the five ringed seal subspecies. Image modified from Kelly et al. (2010).

About Nenets (quite close to the Naganasans of pure “Siberian ancestry”), here is what Edward Vajda, an expert in Palaeo-Siberian languages, has to say:

Nenets techniques for hunting the animals of the Arctic Ocean seem to have been borrowed from the first Arctic aborigines. Thus, the Nenets word for seal is nyak, the Eskimo word is nesak. Also, the Nenets word for a one-piece Arctic clothing is lu; the Korak word on the Kamchatka peninsula for clothing is l’ku. All of these groups may have borrowed the words from some original circumpolar aborigines. More probably, the first settlers of Arctic Europe were cousins of the present-day Eskimo, Chukchi and other residents of the far northeast region of Asia. Nenets folklore also speaks of the aborigines living in ice dugouts (igloos).

On the other hand, Proto-Uralic shows a Chalcolithic steppe-like culture, with common words for metal and metalworking, for agriculture, and for domesticated animals, most likely including cattle. They were close to Indo-Europeans since at least before the Tocharian split, and probably earlier than that (even if one does not accept the Indo-Uralic phylum). And there were clearly strong contacts of Finno-Ugric with Indo-Iranian, and especially of Finno-Samic with Germanic.

Uralic clines from Corded Ware groups to the east. A clear reason for the lack of common seal-hunting vocabulary. Modified from Tambets et al. (2018). Principal component analysis (PCA) and genetic distances of Uralic-speaking populations. a PCA (PC1 vs PC2) of the Uralic-speaking populations. You can see another PCA including ancient samples.

Some among my readers may now be thinking about these totally believable proposals of prehistoric cultures around Lake Baikal representing the True™ Uralic homeland; because haplogroup N1c, and because some 0.5% more “Devil’s Gate Cave ancestry” in Estonians than in Lithuanians; despite the fact that 1) the so-called “Siberian ancestry” formed an ancestral cline with EHG in North Eurasia, that 2) N1c-L392 lineages seem to appear among many Asian peoples of different languages, and that 3) recent prehistoric N1c-L392 lines expanded clearly with Micro-Altaic languages.

Like, who would have hunted seals in Lake Baikal, right? The problem is, seals represented one of their main game, essential for their subsistence economy. From Novokonova et al. (2015):

One of the key reasons for the density of human settlement in the Baikal region compared to adjacent areas of Siberia is that the lake and its nearby rivers offer an abundance of aquatic food resources, including several endemic species, with perhaps the most well known being the Baikal seal. This freshwater seal is only found in Lake Baikal and portions of its tributaries. It shares lifecycle and behavioral patterns with other small northern ice-adapted seals, and is genetically and morphologically most closely related to the ringed seal (Pusa hispida). The nerpa can grow up to 1.8 m long and weigh as much as 130 kg, with the males tending to be slightly larger than the females.

Zooarchaeological analyses of the 16,000 Baikal seal remains from this well-dated site clearly show that sealing began here at least 9000 calendar years ago. The use of these animals at Sagan-Zaba appears to have peaked in the Middle Holocene, when foragers used the site as a spring hunting and processing location for yearling and juvenile seals taken on the lake ice. After 4800 years ago, seal use declined at the site, while the relative importance of ungulate hunting and fishing increased. Pastoralists began occupying Sagan-Zaba at some point during the Late Holocene, and these groups too utilized the lake’s seals. Domesticated animals are increasingly common after about 2000 years ago, a pattern seen elsewhere in the region, but spring and some summer hunting of seals was still occurring. This use of seals by prehistoric herders mirrors patterns of seal use among the region’s historic and modern groups.

Bronze Age movements in Fennoscandia

Regarding the shrinkage and expansion of different farming economic strategies in Scandinavia since the Neolithic, with potential relevance for population movements and thus ethnolinguistic change – either from Balto-Finnic peoples migrating back from eastern Sweden, or Germanic peoples moving to eastern Finland – from Vanhanen et al. (2019):

Cultivated plants at CWC sites in Finland were not discovered in the current investigation (Supplementary Results) or earlier studies. In Finland, the keeping of domestic animals is indicated by the evidence of dairy lipids and mineralized goat hairs. Charred remains and impressions of cultivated plants have been discovered at CWC sites in Estonia and east-central Sweden (Fig. 3: 12). In the eastern Baltic region, the earliest bones of domestic animals and a shift in subsistence occurred with the CWC. Whether CWC produced the cereals and other agricultural products found at PWC sites is difficult to estimate because only small amounts of plant remains have ever been discovered at CWC sites. The CWC seemingly reached east-central Sweden from regions further to the east, where there is evidence of animal husbandry, but only very few signs of plant cultivation.

For the Late Neolithic (LN), cereal grains have been found north of Mälaren and along the Norrland coast. In mainland Finland, the first cereal grains occur during the LN or Bronze Age, c. 1900–1250 cal BC. The earliest bones of sheep/goat from mainland Finland are earlier, dating back to 2200–1950 cal BC. Finds of Scandinavian bronze artefacts indicate an influx from east-central Sweden, which might well be a source area for these agricultural innovations. A similar development is found in the eastern Baltic region, where the earliest directly radiocarbon-dated cereals originate from the Bronze Age, 1392–1123 cal BC (2 sigma). Thus, agriculture was evident during the Bronze Age in the eastern Baltic, but at least animal keeping and probably crop cultivation were present earlier during the CWC phase.

It has been known for a while already that the only options left for the expansion of Finno-Saami into Fennoscandia are either Battle Axe (continued in Textile Ceramics) or Netted Ware (as proposed e.g. by Parpola), based, among other data, on language contacts, language estimates, cultural evolution, and population genomics. Data like this one on seal-hunting vocabulary also support the most likely option, which entails the identification of Corded Ware as the vector of expansion of Uralic languages.

NOTE. Also interesting in this regard is the lack of Slavic words for ‘seal’ – borrowed, in Russian from Samic, and in other Slavic dialects from Russian, Latin, or other languages -, and the coinage of a new term in East Baltic. Rather odd for an “autochthonous” Proto-Baltic (supposedly in contact with Pitted Ware, Germanic, and Balto-Finnic, then), and for a Proto-Slavic stemming from the Baltic. Quite appropriate, though, for a Proto-East Baltic arriving in the Baltic with Trzciniec and for a Proto-Slavic community evolving further south.

So, what new episode in this renewed 2000s R1b/R1a/N1c soap opera is it going to be, when eastern Fennoscandia shows Corded Ware-derived peoples of “steppe ancestry” (and mainly R1a-Z645 lineages) continue during the Bronze Age? Will the resurge and/or infiltration of I2 – maybe even N1c – lineages among Corded Ware-derived cultures of north-eastern Europe support or challenge this model, and why? Make your bet below.


N1c-L392 associated with expanding Turkic lineages in Siberia


Second in popularity for the expansion of haplogroup N1a-L392 (ca. 4400 BC) is, apparently, the association with Turkic, and by extension with Micro-Altaic, after the Uralic link preferred in Europe; at least among certain eastern researchers.

New paper in a recently created journal, by the same main author of the group proposing that Scythians of hg. N1c were Turkic speakers: On the origins of the Sakhas’ paternal lineages: Reconciliation of population genetic / ancient DNA data, archaeological findings and historical narratives, by Tikhonov, Gurkan, Demirdov, and Beyoglu, Siberian Research (2019).

Interesting excerpts:

According to the views of a number of authoritative researchers, the Yakut ethnos was formed in the territory of Yakutia as a result of the mixing of people from the south and the autochthonous population [34].

These three major Sakha paternal lineages may have also arrived in Yakutia at different times and/ or from different places and/or with a difference in several generations instead, or perhaps Y-chromosomal STR mutations may have taken place in situ in Yakutia. Nevertheless, the immediate common ancestor(s) from the Asian Steppe of these three most prevalent Sakha Y-chromosomal STR haplotypes possibly lived during the prominence of the Turkic Khaganates, hence the near-perfect matches observed across a wide range of Eurasian geography, including as far as from Cyprus in the West to Liaoning, China in the East, then Middle Lena in the North and Afghanistan in the South (Table 3 and Figure 5). There may also be haplotypes closely-related to ‘the dominant Elley line’ among Karakalpaks, Uzbeks and Tajiks, however, limitations in the loci coverage for the available dataset (only eight Y-chromosomal STR loci) precludes further conclusions on this matter [25].

17-loci median-joining network analysis of the original/dominant Elley, Unknown and Omogoy Y-chromosomal STR haplotypes with the YHRD matches from outside Yakutia populations.

According to the results presented here, very similar Y-STR haplotypes to that of the original Elley line were found in the west: Afghanistan and northern Cyprus, and in the east: Liaoning Province, China and Ulaanbaator, Northern Mongolia. In the case of the dominant Omogoy line, very closely matching haplotypes differing by a single mutational step were found in the city of Chifen of the Jirin Province, China. The widest range of similar haplotypes was found for the Yakut haplotype Unknown: In Mongolia, China and South Korea. For instance, haplotypes differing by a single step mutation were found in Northern Mongolia (Khalk, Darhad, Uryankhai populations), Ulaanbaator (Khalk) and in the province of Jirin, China (Han population).

14-loci median-joining network analysis for the original/dominant Elley (Ell), Unknown Clan
(Vil), Omogoy (Omo), Eurasian (Eur) and Xiongnu (Xuo) Y-chromosomal STR haplotypes and that for a representative ancient DNA sample (Ch0 or DSQ04) from the Upper Xiajiadian Culture
recovered from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China.

Notably, Tat-C-bearing Y-chromosomes were also observed in ancient DNA samples from the 2700-3000 years-old Upper Xiajiadian culture in Inner Mongolia, as well as those from the Serteya II site at the Upper Dvina region in Russia and the ‘Devichyi gory’ culture of long barrow burials at the Nevel’sky district of Pskovsky region in Russia. A 14-loci Y-chromosomal STR median-joining network of the most prevalent Sakha haplotypes and a Tat-C-bearing haplotype from one of the ancient DNA samples recovered from the Upper Xiajiadian culture in Inner Mongolia (DSQ04) revealed that the contemporary Sakha haplotype ‘Xuo’ (Table 2, Haplotype ID “Xuo”) classified as that of ‘the Xiongnu clan’ in our current study, was the closest to the ancient Xiongnu haplotype (Figure 6). TMRCA estimate for this 14-loci Y-chromosomal STR network was 4357 ± 1038 years or 2341 ± 1038 BCE, which correlated well with the Upper Xiajiadian culture that was dated to the Late Bronze Age (700-1000 BCE).

Geographical location of ancient samples belonging to major clade N of the Y-chromosome.

NOTE. Also interesting from the paper seems to be the proportion of E1b1b among admixed Russian populations, in a proportion similar to R1a or I2a(xI2a1).

It is tempting to associate the prevalent presence of N1c-L392 in ancient Siberian populations with the expansion of Altaic, by simplistically linking the findings (in chronological order) near Lake Baikal (Damgaard et al. 2018), Upper Xiajiadian (Cui et al. 2013), among Khövsgöl (Jeong et al. 2018), in Huns (Damgaard et al. 2018), and in Mongolic-speaking Avars (Csáky et al. 2019).

However, its finding among Palaeo-Laplandic peoples in the Kola peninsula ca. 1500 BC (Lamnidis et al. 2018) and among Palaeo-Siberian populations near the Yana River (Sikora et al. 2018) ca. AD 1200 should be enough to accept the hypothesis of ancestral waves of expansion of the haplogroup over northern Eurasia, with acculturation and further expansions in the different regions since the Iron Age (see more on its potential expansion waves).

Also, a simple look at the TMRCA and modern distribution was enough to hypothesize long ago the lack of connection of N1c-L392 with Altaic or Uralic peoples. From Ilumäe et al. (2016):

Previous research has shown that Y chromosomes of the Turkic-speaking Yakuts (Sakha) belong overwhelmingly to hg N3 (formerly N1c1). We found that nearly all of the more than 150 genotyped Yakut N3 Y chromosomes belong to the N3a2-M2118 clade, just as in the Turkic-speaking Dolgans and the linguistically distant Tungusic-speaking Evenks and Evens living in Yakutia (Table S2). Hence, the N3a2 patrilineage is a prime example of a male population of broad central Siberian ancestry that is not intrinsic to any linguistically defined group of people. Moreover, the deepest branch of hg N3a2 is represented by a Lebanese and a Chinese sample. This finding agrees with the sequence data from Hallast et al., where one Turkish Y chromosome was also assigned to the same sub-clade. Interestingly, N3a2 was also found in one Bhutan individual who represents a separate sub-lineage in the clade. These findings show that although N3a2 reflects a recent strong founder effect primarily in central Siberia (Yakutia, Sakha), the sub-clade has a much wider distribution area with incidental occurrences in the Near East and South Asia.

Frequency-Distribution Maps of Individual Sub-clades of hg N3a2, by Ilumäe et al. (2016).

The most striking aspect of the phylogeography of hg N is the spread of the N3a3’6-CTS6967 lineages. Considering the three geographically most distant populations in our study—Chukchi, Buryats, and Lithuanians—it is remarkable to find that about half of the Y chromosome pool of each consists of hg N3 and that they share the same sub-clade N3a3’6. The fractionation of N3a3’6 into the four sub-clades that cover such an extraordinarily wide area occurred in the mid-Holocene, about 5.0 kya (95% CI = 4.4–5.7 kya). It is hard to pinpoint the precise region where the split of these lineages occurred. It could have happened somewhere in the middle of their geographic spread around the Urals or further east in West Siberia, where current regional diversity of hg N sub-lineages is the highest (Figure 1B). Yet, it is evident that the spread of the newly arisen sub-clades of N3a3’6 in opposing directions happened very quickly. Today, it unites the East Baltic, East Fennoscandia, Buryatia, Mongolia, and Chukotka-Kamchatka (Beringian) Eurasian regions, which are separated from each other by approximately 5,000–6,700 km by air. N3a3’6 has high frequencies in the patrilineal pools of populations belonging to the Altaic, Uralic, several Indo-European, and Chukotko-Kamchatkan language families. There is no generally agreed, time-resolved linguistic tree that unites these linguistic phyla. Yet, their split is almost certainly at least several millennia older than the rather recent expansion signal of the N3a3’6 sub-clade, suggesting that its spread had little to do with linguistic affinities of men carrying the N3a3’6 lineages.

Frequency-Distribution Maps of Individual Subclade N3a3 / N1a1a1a1a1a-CTS2929/VL29.

It was thus clear long ago that N1c-L392 lineages must have expanded explosively in the 5th millennium through Northern Eurasia, probably from a region to the north of Lake Baikal, and that this expansion – and succeeding ones through Northern Eurasia – may not be associated to any known language group until well into the common era.


Waves of Palaeolithic ANE ancestry driven by P subclades; new CWC-like Finnish Iron Age

New preprint The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene, by Sikora et al. bioRxiv (2018).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine; most internal references removed):

ANE ancestry

The earliest, most secure archaeological evidence of human occupation of the region comes from the artefact-rich, high-latitude (~70° N) Yana RHS site dated to ~31.6 kya (…)

The Yana RHS human remains represent the earliest direct evidence of human presence in northeastern Siberia, a population we refer to as “Ancient North Siberians” (ANS). Both Yana RHS individuals were unrelated males, and belong to mitochondrial haplogroup U, predominant among ancient West Eurasian hunter-gatherers, and to Y chromosome haplogroup P1, ancestral to haplogroups Q and R, which are widespread among present-day Eurasians and Native Americans.

Symmetry tests using f4 statistics reject tree-like clade relationships with both Early West Eurasians (EWE; Sunghir) and Early East Asians (EEA; Tianyuan); however, Yana is genetically closer to EWE, despite its geographic location in northeastern Siberia

Using admixture graphs (qpGraph) and outgroup-based estimation of mixture proportions (qpAdm), we find that Yana can be modelled as EWE with ~25% contribution from EEA

Among all ancient individuals, Yana shares the most genetic drift with Mal’ta, and f4 statistics show that Mal’ta shares more alleles with Yana than with EWE (e.g. f4(Mbuti,Mal’ta;Sunghir,Yana) = 0.0019, Z = 3.99). Mal’ta and Yana also exhibit a similar pattern of genetic affinities to both EWE and EEA, consistent with previous studies.The ANE lineage can thus be considered a descendant of the ANS lineage, demonstrating that by 31.6 kya early representatives of this lineage were widespread across northern Eurasia, including far northeastern Siberia.


Ancient Palaeosiberian

(…) the 9.8 kya Kolyma1 individual, representing a group we term “Ancient Paleosiberians” (AP). Our results indicate that AP are derived from a first major genetic shift observed in the region. Principal component analysis (PCA), outgroup f3-statistics and mtDNA and Y chromosome haplogroups (G1b and Q1a1a, respectively) demonstrate a close affinity between AP and present-day Koryaks, Itelmen and Chukchis, as well as with Native Americans.

For both AP and Native Americans, ANS ancestry appears more closely related to Mal’ta than Yana, therefore rejecting a direct contribution of Yana to later AP or Native American groups.

Lake Baikal Neolithic – Bronze Age

(…) the newly reported genomes from Ust’Belaya and recently published neighbouring Neolithic and Bronze Age sites show a succession of three distinct genetic ancestries over a ~6 ky time span. The earliest individuals show predominantly East Asian ancestry, closely related to the ancient individuals from DGC. In the early Bronze Age (BA), we observe a resurgence of AP ancestry (up to ~50% ancestry fraction), as well as influence of West Eurasian Steppe ANE ancestry represented by the early BA individuals from Afanasievo in the Altai region (~10%) This is consistent with previous reports of gene flow from an unknown ANE-related source into Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers.

Our results suggest a southward expansion of AP as a possible source, which is also consistent with the replacement of Y chromosome lineages observed at Lake Baikal, from predominantly haplogroup N in the Neolithic to haplogroup Q in the BA. Finally, the most recent individual from Ust’Belaya, dated to ~600 years ago, falls along the Neosiberian cline, similar to the ~760 year-old ‘Young Yana’ individual from northeastern Siberia, demonstrating the widespread distribution of Neosiberian ancestry in the most recent epoch.

Genetic structure of ancient northeast Siberians. PCA of ancient individuals projected onto a set of modern Eurasian and American individuals. Abbreviations in group labels: UP – Upper Palaeolithic; LP – Late Palaeolithic; M – Mesolithic; EN – Early Neolithic; MN – Middle Neolithic; LN – Late Neolithic; EBA – Early Bronze Age; LBA – Late Bronze Age; IA – Iron Age; PE – Paleoeskimo; MED – Medieval

Finland Saami

At the western edge of northern Eurasia, genetic and strontium isotope data from ancient individuals at the Levänluhta site documents the presence of Saami ancestry in Southern Finland in the Late Holocene 1.5 kya. This ancestry component is currently limited to the northern fringes of the region, mirroring the pattern observed for AP ancestry in northeastern Siberia. However, while the ancient Saami individuals harbour East Asian ancestry, we find that this is better modelled by DGC rather than AP, suggesting that AP influence was likely restricted to the eastern side of the Urals. Comparison of ancient Finns and Saami with their present-day counterparts reveals additional gene flow over the past 1.6 kya, with evidence for West Eurasian admixture into modern Saami. The ancient Finn from Levänluhta shows lower Siberian ancestry than modern Finns .

EDIT (27 OCT 2018): By comparing the three, I see these are samples published already (at least two) in Lamnidis et al. (2018), but here with added (1) specific radiocarbon dates, (2) comparison with Neosiberian populations and (3) strontium isotope analyses.

Finnish_IA (ca. 350 AD) is probably a Saami-speaking individual, just like the Saami_IA with newly reported radiocarbon dates from Levänluhta ca. 400-600 AD (since Fennic peoples were then likely around the Gulf of Finland).

The conflicting strontium isotope data on marine dietary resources on certain samples from the supplementary material hint at possible external origin of the diet of some of the previously reported (and possibly one newly reported) Saami Iron Age individuals, from some 25-30 km. to the northwest through the river up to hundreds of km. to the southwest of Levänluhta (i.e. the whole coast of the Bothnian Sea). It is unclear why they would prefer an origin of the dietary source in southern Baltic regions instead of some km. to the west, though, unless that’s what they want to propose based on the sample’s admixture…

The coast of the Bothnian Sea (=the northern part of the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Finland) lay only 25-30 km to the northwest, and accessible to the Iron Age people of the Levänluhta region via the Kyrönjoki river. (…) For individual JA2065/DA236, the low 87Sr/86Sr value (0.71078) would imply an exceptionally heavy reliance on Baltic Sea resources. The δ13C and δ15N values of the individual are near comparable (especially considering within-Baltic latitudinal gradients in δ13C; Torniainen et al. 2017) to the δ13C and δ15N values of a Middle Neolithic population on the Baltic island of Gotland (Eriksson, 2004) interpreted to have subsisted primarily on seals.

These new data on the samples give us some more information than what we already had, because the early date of Finnish_IA implies that there was few East Asian admixture (if any at all) in west Finland during the Roman Iron Age, which pushes still farther forward in time the expected appearance of Siberian ancestry among Saamic (first) and Fennic populations (later). It is unclear whether this East Asian ancestry found in Finnish_IA is actually related to DGC, or it is rather related to the ENA-like ancestry found already in Baltic hunter-gatherers (i.e. in some EHG samples from Karelia), for which Baikal_EN is a good proxy in Lazaridis et al. (2018).

Since Bronze Age and Iron Age samples from Estonia show more Baltic_HG drift compared to Corded Ware samples, it is likely that this supposedly DGC-related ancestry (here considered part of the ‘Siberian ancestry’) is actually an EHG-related ENA component of north-east European hunter-gatherers, with whom Finno-Saamic peoples admixed during the expansion of the Corded Ware culture into Finland.

The paper finds thus increased (probably the actual) Siberian ancestry in modern Finns compared to this Iron Age Saami individual. Coupled with the later Saami Iron Age samples, from between one to three centuries later – showing the start of Siberian ancestry influx – , we can begin to establish when the expansion of Siberian ancestry happened in central Finland, and thus quite likely when the Saami began to expand to the north and east and admix with Palaeo-Laplandic peoples.

Admixture modelling using qpAdm. Maps showing locations and ancestry proportions of ancient (left) and modern (right) groups.

One sample of haplogroup N1a1a1a1a4a1-M1982, Yana_MED, is found in the Arctic region (north-eastern Yakutia) ca. 1100 AD. Since it is derived from N1a1a1a1a-L392, it might be a surprise for some to find it in a clearly non-Uralic speaking environment at the same time other subclades of this haplogroup were admixing in the west with well-established Finno-Saamic, Volga-Finnic, Ugric, and Samoyedic populations…

On the growing doubts that these data – contradicting the CWC=IE theory – are creating among geneticists (from the supplementary materials):

NOTE. This paper comes from the Copenhagen group, also signed by Kristiansen, one of today’s strongest supporters of this connection

The Proto-Saami language evolved in southern Finland and Karelia in the Early Iron Age, an area now host to Finnish and the closely related Karelian, but with Saami toponyms showing that the latter two languages are intrusive here (Saarikivi 2004). Saami-speaking populations are thought to have retreated to Lapland during the Middle Iron Age (300–800 AD), where it diverged into the modern Saami dialects. Genetically, the northward retreat of the Saami language correlates with the documented decrease of Saami ancestry in Southern Finland between the Iron Age and the modern period (cf. Lamnidis et al. 2018).

On the way to Lapland, the Saami replaced at least two linguistically obscure groups. This can be inferred from 1) an influx of non-Uralic loanwords into Proto-Saami in the Finnish Lakeland area, and 2) an influx of non-Uralic, non-Germanic words into Saami dialects in Lapland (Aikio 2012). Both of these borrowing events imply contact with non-Saami-speaking groups, e.g. non-Uralic-speaking hunter-gatherers that may have left a genetic and linguistic footprint on modern Saami populations.

The linguistic prehistory of Finland thus does not allow for a straightforward interpretation of the genetic data. The detection of East Asian ancestry in the genetically Saami individual is indicative of a population movement from the east (cf. Lamnidis et al. 2018, Rootsi et al. 2007), one that given the affinities with the ~7.6 ky old individuals from the Devil’s Gate Cave may have been a western extension of the Neosiberian turnover. However, it remains unclear whether this gene flow should be associated with the arrival of Uralic speakers, thus providing further support for a Uralic homeland in Eastern Eurasia, or with an earlier immigration of pre-Uralic, so-called “Paleo-Lakelandic” groups.

I think the genetic interpretation is already straightforward, though. We had a sneak peek at how this late admixture with non-Uralians (mainly Palaeo-Lakelandic and Palaeo-Laplandic peoples from Lovozero and related asbestos ware cultures) is going to unfold among expanding Saami-speaking populations thanks to Lamnidis et al. (2018):

PCA plot of 113 Modern Eurasian populations, with individuals from this study projected on the principal components. Uralic speakers are highlighted in light purple. Image modified from Lamnidis et al. (2018)

Also, still no trace of R1a in far East Asia (reported as M17 ca. 5300 BC near Lake Baikal by Moussa et al. 2016), so I still have doubts about my previous assessment that R1a split into M17 (and thus also M417) in Siberia, with those expanding hunter-gatherer pottery.