10 February 2011

The Icelandic Riddle

January, 31 2011

Northern Pen

Could a Beothuk woman have been taken from the Northern Peninsula to Iceland by a Viking? Could they have had children, and could that bloodline still run through modern day Icelanders?

Turns out it's a possibility.

Archaeological evidence has long pointed to the fact that when the Vikings settled at Vinland, now L'Anse aux Meadows, around 1000 AD, there was no contact between them and the native inhabitants.

There was the odd reference to "Skraelings" in the Icelandic sagas, but physical evidence never backed up the theory that the two populations actually met.

However, a new study of Icelandic DNA raises the intriguing possibility that the two populations not only met - they also produced offspring.

It all boils down to a mysterious mitochondrial DNA sequence (that is, one inherited through the female line) called the C1e lineage.

The C lineage was originally discovered by Dr. Angar Helgason at deCODE Genetics, then study author Sigrídur Sunna Ebenesersdóttir spent three years examining the sequence.

Carried by more than 80 Icelanders, she found the C1e DNA sequence can be definitively traced to four female ancestors born in the country around 1700.

But, Ms. Ebenesersdóttir explained to the Pen last week by phone, it's likely the C1e sequence was brought to Iceland well before that - and well before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in north America in 1492.

"We think it started a lot further back. The Icelandic population has not been affected by constant gene flow like many other populations, so we can assume that most matrilines in contemporary Icelanders are descended from the original set of female settlers, 1100 hundred years ago," she says.

"It's also important to bear in mind that this C1e lineage isn't found among Eskimo Aleut speakers, so it can be ruled out that it's found in the Icelandic gene pool as a result of a mixture between Greenland Inuit and Icelanders."

In fact, the only other people who carry the C1 sequence are a small group of East Asians and, more prominently, a large number of native Americans.

They carry a slightly different branch of the DNA sequence, but it's the closest relative and certainly has the most plausible explanation - that is, Vikings.

When you combine that with the archaeological evidence of Vikings in north America, specifically on the Northern Peninsula, things start to look a bit more interesting.

"If a native American woman was brought back to Iceland with a Viking, or if she had a female child with a Viking and he brought her back to Iceland, then that would explain the presence of this DNA lineage in the Icelandic gene pool," Ms. Ebenesersdóttir says.

"We cannot say for 100 per cent certain that this is what happened, because this particular DNA group has no other member to date, but the closest relatives of this group are found among Native Americans, so it's the most likely source."

There's even a chance this sequence could have come from the now-extinct Beothuk people, who are known to have lived in the region around the time of the Vikings.

"There is a chance that this C1e sequence still exists, and it's most likely to be among a native American population, but in terms of DNA the Native Americans from North America are somewhat under sampled compared to groups from other regions," Ms. Ebenesersdóttir explains.

"There's also a chance that it has now been lost from the native American gene pool and that it will only be found in ancient remains, so ancient DNA studies may play an important role in determining its origin."

The identities of the 80 or so Icelandic women who carry the mysterious DNA are encrypted in the country's genealogical database, but Ms. Ebenesersdóttir says they would probably feel pretty good about their involvement in a possible re-writing of history.

"I think it would be very cool for them - I would be excited," she laughs, "but I tested my DNA and I'm definitely not a descendant from this woman."

She's not the only one excited about the possibilities raised by the study.

Bill Bartlett, of Griquet, also goes by the name Lambi the Skald.

He works as a Viking interpreter during summer at Norstead Viking village, and says there's no reason the Vikings and native population couldn't have met.

"There are just so many things that point to the fact that happened," he told the Pen.

"Usually Vikings traveled with a boat of 30 men and five to seven women, and I'd imagine those women would end up saying stop pestering me' so why wouldn't the Vikings have looked elsewhere?"

Then you've got the stories in the Viking sagas, which Mr. Bartlett knows back to front.

"When you read the sagas, they talk about Skraelings and women bearing their breasts - that's a tradition of the Beothuk who'd rip open their shirts to prove they were women," he explains.

"On top of that there are references to interactions between the Indians, Eskimos and the Vikings, and when they were digging up L'Anse aux Meadows there were bits of Eskimo pottery there. I'm not sure how much, but it was there.

"When you think about it, this whole area of the Northern Peninsula was the gateway to Europe - everything passed through here. Everyone passed through here and all the way down to Port au Choix they've found native settlements, so why not? Why couldn't this have happened?"

So where to from here?

Well, Ms. Ebenesersdóttir hopes the study will inspire other scientists to look for relatives of the C1e lineage in native American DNA samples, perhaps establishing more concrete proof of the tie between that population and the Vikings.

"This is very exciting for Icelandic people because it's more evidence that they settled north America 500 years before Christopher Columbus, which a lot of people I think don't realize," she says.

This study could prove interaction between two populations on the Northern Peninsula that history says never met, but until the C1e lineage is found in another population, the fact a Viking may have taken a Beothuk wife will simply remain plausible speculation.

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