Everyone knows all Finns are blonde, right ?! Well, not really true at all. Mum had black hair. Dad’s was reddish brown. But – there does seem to be a preponderance of blondeness. This got me to thinking. So I did a quick hunt through some photos. And a bit of Google research. Boy, did I learn some interesting stuff I never knew! But first, let me introduce the blondes above. In an immediate extended family of 39 (bearing in mind this is a hasty headcount and maths is not my strong point) there are 13 blondes. That’s about a third. The definition of blondeness becomes a thorny issue upon which I stubbed my toe. How dark is dark blonde and still considered to be blonde? I made a subjective decision and possibly ruled out a number of dark blondes who could qualify. Is that statistically significant? Is it more than your average number of blondes in one family? I don’t know. Just thought I’d dazzle you with my scientific enquiry. Now, back to the photos for some irrefutable hard core evidence. Again, bear in mind all are not present and accounted for:
TOP ROW left to right: Me with my sister. We both had very blonde hair when we were young. As we gracefully aged, our hair did not. This, it turns out, is a common pattern of misbehaving hair. It turned a dark blond; Me with my brother’s daughter. Anita is the only blonde in his family. Her mum is an Aussie with dark brown hair. Erkki had dark brown hair too. It did not age gracefully either. He’s now grey; My sister’s grandson, Samuel, who is one of two blonde grandsons.
MIDDLE ROW left to right: Ritva and Lasse on their wedding day. His hair was a shade darker than hers; Ruben, their first born. Samuel (above row) is his youngest son.
BOTTOM ROW left to right: Kimmo, my baby brother-in-law. His hair colour has betrayed him with age as well; Ari, his son; Kia, his daughter
Now, onto the other interesting stuff I have uncovered in my quest to get a handle on blondeness.
First fascinating discovery – from Live Science
Live Science reports that a ‘rigorous, elegant, and air tight study’ has identified a genetic mutation that codes for the blonde hair of Northern Europeans. A geneticist at Harvard University, Hopi Hoekstra (not involved in the study) says that it convincingly ties the gene to hair colour. Now, I’m no expert when it comes to genetics but let me see if I can explain. I know, it may surprise some of you but I’ll do my best. What they found is a single mutation in a long gene sequence called KIT ligand (KITLG). It’s found in about one third of Northern Europeans. People with these genes could have platinum blond, dirty (?!) blonde or even dark brown hair. Hang on a minute! One third?! Perhaps I was wrong about my maths and genetics expertise. BTW, that’s a picture of those KIT thingys.
Second fascinating discovery
Geologists have discovered that Finland was almost totally buried under a continental ice sheet about 12,000 years ago. Gradually it melted. And like Phoenix rising out of the ashes Finland emerged. And is continuing to emerge at a rate of 8.5mm/year. Which apparently is amazingly fast. And fast enough to stay ahead of any rise in ocean levels. Wow! And I thought snails were slow!!
This site has a lot of fascinating discoveries in its extensive research into the emergence of all that is Finland. Its author does at times allow a personal surging of national pride and outrage emerge at some of the historical events that took place.
There were three periods of stasis in the melting of the ice. The phoenix that was Finland emerged and evolved majestically slowly, creating ranges that cross the entire breadth of Finland and tens of thousands of lakes. Finland is famously known as the Land of Thousands of Lakes. However, as sea levels rose, ancient inhabited localities vanished. Thus creating an air of mystery about the origins of prehistoric Finland.
Around about the 5000BC mark the climate became warm and damp. Hazel, elm, oak and linden trees, edible water chestnuts thrived, enticing migration north. Nowadays these trees are only scattered in sections of southern Finland. Artefacts also attest to a flourishing trade, with stone types not indigenous to the area. It has been conjectured that during the last ice age the Finno-Ugric group (as they are called) lived as far abroad as Holland, Britain and the Black Sea. Over time they were slowly assimilated and became the last survivors of the northern Finns.
Ancient rock art in Karelia shows evidence of Viking style ships being used. This was well before any Viking raids began. Finnish cultural history is a strong oral one, known as the Kalevala, which I wrote about a while back. There is a long and bloody history of conflict through Finnish history ranging from the Vikings, to the Swedes, to the Russians. And a re-writing of history by the conquerors which has muddied and confused the waters of racial origin.
Third fascinating discovery
“The Finns are one of those people who don’t quite fit. They were ruled by Sweden (until 1809) And then by Russia until independence in 1917. They are predominantly Lutheran but their language is related to Hungarian, a string of languages across northern Russia, and, some believe, Mongolian and even Japanese…..many writers have just given up … and accepted … Finns are a ‘ unique culture’ a northern mystery that is beyond comprehension.
The question of how Finns should be understood in racial or more recently in genetic terms has provoked heated debate amongst anthropologists, geneticists and Finnish scholars for over two hundred years.” Gee! Really?! We rock!!
Fourth fascinating discovery
‘The people in this land of lakes and forests are so alike that scientists can filter out the genes that contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.’ Oh boy, it’s getting even better!!
The Department of Human Genetics at UCLA’s medical school recruited one of the world’s leading geneticists from Helsinki University to become its founding chairwoman back in 1998. Her name is Leena Peltonen. She sounds like a pretty cluey lady, being both a physician and a molecular biologist.
What this Finn (yay!) has discovered are the genetic sources for many rare diseases ranging from Marfan syndrome to multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, osteoarthritis and migraines. She has based her studies on DNA collected from the people in Finland. Why, one would wonder? Finland has become a DNA laboratory for mankind! For a mini population of a mere 5 million people, the Finnish contribution to medicine and genetics is impressive. Scientists have detected heritable imprints for heart disease, diabetes, asthma. And all this because there are limited numbers of ancestors, hundreds of years of isolation leading to ‘genetic homogeneity’. We make good lab rats, apparently!
There is a downside of course. Isn’t there always? Because of hundreds of years of isolation and intermarriage (OMG – we’re inbred!!!) there is now a large set of nasty hereditary disorders. They’ve found 39 so far. For all I know there could be oodles more. I was in such a state of shock I didn’t explore this any further. Oh no, no, no !!! Lots of them are fatal.
“In school, children are taught that Finnish genes are slightly different,” Peltonen explained. “The textbooks and public press contain significant information about them. The search for the special selection of genes—actually they are alleles—is considered as a cause for pride.”
And yet, the debate continues to rage. Does all this make Finns a race? Well, if it doesn’t , what does, I want to know?! My national outrage is rearing it’s head now.
From a cold and logically calculated scientific perspective “Race may fade away once we understand all the variants. …But for diagnostic purposes it will be useful to know where your roots are. That’s the value of the Finnish Disease Heritage. The story of these genes helps us visualize how Finland was settled.”
Just to lighten the mood a bit, let me introduce you to
the Former Finnish President Tarja Halonen.
In this stunning photograph she is wearing a
reproduction outfit based on textile and jewelry finds
in a grave at Eura, Finland, dated to approximately 1000 A.C
Isn’t it just divine?
We Finns do textiles,
national costumes and
Kalevala based jewelry so well !
Given this has turned into a bit of a scientific romp, my tertiary educated self feels obliged to end with a summation of sorts.
First, let me get it off my chest. However you take it, whether Finns are a race or not, we’re a rare breed! I’m a Finn by birth. I’m proud of it! AND I’m blonde. So there.
I must say too that I find it just a bit disconcerting to be dissolved into a diagnostically useful gene pool of Disease Heritage. Personally, I would much prefer the colourful heritage of the Kalevala Epic. I want to finish this tome about us Finnish people by leaving you with a couple of verses from its opening rune:
MASTERED by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation’s ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
In my mouth the words are melting,
From my lips the tones are gliding,
From my tongue they wish to hasten;
When my willing teeth are parted,
When my ready mouth is opened,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling.
These are words in childhood taught me,
Songs preserved from distant ages,
Legends they that once were taken
From the belt of Wainamoinen,
From the forge of Ilmarinen,
From the sword of Kaukomieli,
From the bow of Youkahainen,
From the pastures of the Northland,
From the meads of Kalevala.
These my dear old father sang me
When at work with knife and hatchet
These my tender mother taught me
When she twirled the flying spindle,
When a child upon the matting
By her feet I rolled and tumbled.
© Raili Tanska
Images unless otherwise noted are