Friday, Nov 19 2010
First American in Europe 'was native woman kidnapped by Vikings and hauled back to Iceland 1,000 years ago'
By Niall Firth
Last updated at 7:47 PM on 17th November 2010
A native woman kidnapped by the Vikings may have been the first American to arrive in Europe around 1,000 years ago, according to a startling new study.
The discovery of a gene found in just 80 Icelanders links them with early Americans who may have been brought back to Iceland by Viking raiders.
The discovery means that the female slave was in Europe five centuries before Christopher Columbus first paraded American Indians through the streets in Spain after his epic voyage of discovery in 1492.
The genes that the woman left behind have now been discovered in the DNA of just our distinct family lines.
Replicas of Viking sod houses at L'Anse Aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The area holds the earliest evidence of Viking raiders arriving in the Americas
Any early suggestion that the genes were from Asia were ruled out after it was worked out that they had been present in Iceland since at least the 18th century – long before Asian genes appeared in Icelanders.
The team found that the genes they studied can be traced to common ancestors in the south of Iceland, near the Vatnajˆkull glacier, in around 1710.
It has long been thought that Viking raiders arrived in the Americas centuries before Columbus ever arrived in the Caribbean.
Norse epic sagas such as ‘Erik the Red’, talk of early Scandinavian settlers discovering lush new lands, with a temperate climate and abundant crops – now believed to be parts of northern Canada.
A Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, in the eastern Canadian region of Newfoundland, is thought to date to the 11th century. Other such settlements are found in Greenland, which Viking navigators reached from Iceland.
Because Iceland was isolated from the rest of the world from the 11th century onwards scientists speculate that the woman must have been taken from the Americas sometime around the year 1000. Viking raiders kidnapped local women on their plundering trips to Europe and the Americas.
The DNA lineage, named C1e, is mitochondrial – which means that the genes were introduced by a woman.
The unknown American woman was probably abducted from the Americas and then brought to Iceland after surviving the sea voyage back. She then bore children in her new home but nothing was ever written of her existence or fate.
The study will be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Iceland is a renowned centre for gene research and the new study was led by DeCode Genetics - a world-leading genome research lab on the island which has DNA records of almost everyone living on the island.
Carles Lalueza-Fox, who co-authored the paper, told MailOnline: ‘In my view, the most plausible hypothesis is that these four Icelandic families derived from an Amerindian woman brought there at pre-Columbian times.
‘There are alternatives to this that we cannot totally reject. To have a definite proof, we should found a pre-Columbian Icelandic remain that could be genetically analysed and show the same Amerindian lineage.’
One of the alternatives is that a post 1400s American female, like Pocohontas, the character that inspired the Disney film, found her way from mainland Europe to Iceland. But scientists believe this to be unlikely because of how isolated Iceland was at the time.
Since the woman’s arrival a millennium ago, 40 generations of her descendants have lived in Iceland. In each generation, there was at least one girl child.
She also had daughters and the female lineage has not been interrupted yet as the mitochondrial gene has been passed through the generations.
The research team do not believe the lineage passed to the European mainland
The Vikings were fearsome warriors and highly skilled navigators. Viking raiders in Britain took not just gold and other precious good but also slaves that they could sell elsewhere around the world.
For example, while the original male inhabitants of Iceland were mostly of Viking origin, the majority of original female inhabitants came from the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
Historical evidence suggests that people in Scandinavia and the British Isles arrived in Iceland around the year 870. The analysis of the Y sex chromosome, which passes from father to son, shows that 80% of Icelandic lineages comes from Scandinavia, compared to 20% in Scotland and Ireland.
Mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the maternal line, shows a 37 per cent from Scandinavia and 63% of the British Isles.
‘This difference has only one explanation: that the Vikings were in the habit of plundering the women of the British Isles. It is logical that they would do the same in America,’ said Lalueza-Fox.