Elina Salmela (University of Helsinki): 

Genetic studies of the Uralic-speaking populations: tools, results, and interpretations

Genetics provides a rich source of information on population history, revealing for example movement of populations and contacts between them. Due to the fundamentally different inheritance patterns of genes and languages, the two do not always travel hand in hand. Nevertheless, when properly integrated, information from genetics and historical linguistics can complement each other, not least in the cases where their results may first seem discrepant.

Many Uralic-speaking populations have been relatively well characterized genetically. These insights from the extant populations have lately been complemented by studies of ancient DNA (aDNA), extracted from archaeological bones and teeth and other organic materials. Ancient DNA provides a direct view into the past, enabling the genetic study of individuals from a known location, time, and cultural context, and thus anchoring genetic population inference into the same spatiotemporal framework with archaeology. This has led to the emergence of the new research field of archaeogenetics.

However, integrating the information from genetic or archaeogenetic studies with that from other disciplines is often limited by lack of knowledge of the specialized statistical analysis methods of genetics, which makes the results inaccessible to nonexperts and subject to misinterpretation. In this presentation, my aim is twofold: (1) to introduce and explain some of the most common analysis methods of population genetics, especially from the practical viewpoint of how their results can and cannot be interpreted in a multidisciplinary context, and (2) to provide an overview of the main population history insights gained from genetic studies of the Uralic-speaking area so far.

The latter include the notion that contemporary Uralic-speaking populations tend to have genetically more in common with their geographical neighbours than with each other - which underlines the importance of local contacts - but that they do share a small genetic component among them that most of their non-Uralic-speaking neighbours do not have. Furthermore, in Western Siberia the genetic population history seems clearly distinct from that further east, and is characterized by genetic affinities that follow neither geographic nor linguistic affinities, indicating a complex interplay of contacts and language replacements. In the Eastern Baltic region, where they are most abundant, aDNA data have highlighted the role of multiple migrations in forming the local gene pool; some of these migrations temporally fit the current theories of the arrival of Uralic languages into the area.