Languages and genes don’t always match

Feb 4, 2011 by

When it comes to classifying ethnic, racial and linguistic groups, many people still believe that if the languages of two groups are related, the peoples must be related as well. But relying on linguistic connections to establish ethnic/genetic connections is as dangerous as relying on people’s physical appearance.

To stay within the Finno-Ugric language family, which we’ve been discussing in a few of the recent postings, take for example the Hungarians. As mentioned in my earlier posting on the Magyar migration, Hungarians closest linguistic relatives are Khanty and Mansi. But while the languages are related, the peoples who speak them do not show much resemlance in physical appearance (see the picture of a Khanty speaker below), nor are closely related genetically.

As discussed in my posting on the “lost middle Finns”, speakers of Finnic languages who once inhabited what is today northern European Russia have made a significant impact on the Russians’ gene pool. In fact, the study conducted by The Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) found, among other things, that Finns have genetically much in common with Russians living in the area of Murom, to the east of Moscow. However, their influence on the Russian language — although I am convinced of its existence — proves to be rather illusive.

The western Finnic people — Finns and Saamis — ilustrate the same problem. Their languages are closely related, and their genes show some similarity (see Cavalli-Sforza’s map of PC2 in Europe below). But their physical appearance is quite different. While Finns may be the most blonde and blue-eyed people in Europe, Saamis tend to have dark hair and dark eyes.

In the next posting, we will consider several additional cases of non-matching linguistic and genetic population trees, but we’ll focus on Africa.

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