Uncovering the secrets of the Sámi
Modern archaeology has provided increasingly accurate answers to the origins of the indigenous people of Lapland
By Kirsikka Moring
On February 6th, the national day of the Sámi, the indigenous people of the region known as Lapland, blue-yellow-red-green Sámi flags are raised. But who were the Sámi, and where did they come from?
The ethnic history of the Sámi is no longer a mystery. Their origin has been determined by applying archaeology, linguistics, and bio-anthropology.
Archaeologist Christian Carpelan, a specialist who has taken part in archaeological studies in Lapland for decades, summarises the results into a tripartite model.
The Sámi language would suggest an East European background, but the genes of the Sámi are West European. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Sámi came from two opposite directions.
The Sámi are the result of a diverse, generations-long ethnic development, as are the Finns. There has never been a single Sámi language. Sámi is a family of nine separate languages, in the same way that the Finno-Baltic languages include eight existing tongues.
The newest archaeological excavations in Lapland, Karelia and Western Finland are clarifying the history of early settlement in Finland.
A new technological breakthrough, using carbon dating to determine the age of burnt bones, makes determining the age of older remains more accurate.
Research has revealed that the post-ice age northward migrations from Central Russia were faster and happened earlier than was previously believed.
The peoples from the southern shores of Lake Ääninen and around Lake Ladoga reached the River Utsjoki [in Northern Finnish Lapland and forming part of the modern border with Norway] already around 8100 BC.
Excavations at a Mesolithic settlement at Vetsjärvi revealed flint objects that represent the style and shape of similar findings in the upper reaches of the Volga River.
After the Ice Age, peoples from Central Russia and Eastern Europe settled in Finland, while West European peoples settled in Scandinavia. These peoples came into contact with each other in Lapland.
The first settlers of Fennoscandia were neither Finns nor Sámi. They spoke ancient languages that have long since disappeared. These languages formed the Finnish-Sámi language, or Early Proto-Finnic, which has its roots in the Ural protolanguage.
The language turned Indo-European in Southern Scandinavia. There are some remnants of the extinct languages, mostly in the names of places.
The Sámi inhabited most of Northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Eastern Karelia long into the historical era.
Settlers from Häme, Savo, and Karelia soon invaded the territory of the Sámi in the East. From then on, the Eastern Sámi began to be assimilated into the Finnish and Karelian populations, finally disappearing. The Western Sámi were all that remained.
The Sámi were not always reindeer herders. "Modern reindeer herding did not begin until the 16th century, and not all of the Sámi have ever been herders", says Carpelan.
"The majority have lived off of fishing in lakes, seas, and rivers, as well as hunting bear and beaver."
Excavations around the Paid Fell in the Utsjoki area have also revealed some Stone Age campsites, which tell us about the mobile way of life of the hunters and gatherers.
The storage spaces for meat are evidence of Sámi settlement in the historical era.
Much of the history of Lapland is still unclear, but research is slowly shedding more and more light on it, as the results of the Utsjoki excavations indicate.
Research on various borders is also underway. This project has succeeded in finding several old border markers, and defining the location of old national and community borders.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.2.2006
An exhibition entitled "Pictures from Lapland: The Sámi through their own and other eyes" is on show at the Museum of Cultures in Helsinki until March 5th.
The Finnish Literature Society has published a new work on the people of the north, entitled The Saami, a Cultural Encyclopedia.
The Sámi (Virtual Finland)
Museum of Cultures, Tennispalatsi, Helsinki
Finnish Literature Society: The Saami
KIRSIKKA MORING / Helsingin Sanomat