My European Family
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Karin Bojs was head of the science desk at Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, for nearly 20 years. Her experience came in handy when she wrote the book My European Family: The First 54,000 years to trace her own ancient roots, resulting in a picture that includes most of mankind. It also explains the distinct populations that inhabit Scandinavia.
It was only a few years ago that it became possible to analyze a person’s genetic makeup in a matter of hours. Bojs has followed developments in DNA technology as a science journalist and describes the latest findings in this highly readable book.
To conduct research, she traveled to 10 countries, pored over several hundred scientific studies, and interviewed some 70 researchers. She traces her steps as she searches for the origins of her family—telling the story of the Scandinavian people in the process. The book is full of facts and theories that shed new light on the area. It is all told in clear, colorful terms, with the scientific aspects laid out clearly and with great warmth.
First written in Swedish, the book was translated to English in 2017 and published by Bloomsbury. It won the 2015 August Prize.
Vanishing land mass
When the Ice Age came to an end in Europe, the earth began to thaw. Within a generation or so, the hunters of the Ice Age had to make a drastic change in how they lived. The warmer climate allowed the hunters to multiply, and many began to follow the reindeer on their migrations north and eastward. Those who went due north found themselves in Doggerland, a hunk of land that once extended from Denmark to Scotland and which now lies beneath the sea.
Doggerland was separated from Norway by a narrow strip of deep sea, which is now known as the “Norwegian Trench.” Much of European prehistory is likely to be preserved there, on the seabed. At the end of the Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, the sea level rose, and Doggerland shrank into oblivion.
Norway’s genetic history figures significantly in the Scandinavian story. The oldest remains in Scandinavia were found in Norway at Hummerviken in the municipality of Søgne on the western side of the Oslo Fjord. Dating back 9,500 years, a human bone was found in the clay on the shoreline there.
What did early Scandinavians look like? Having blue eyes and dark skin is extremely rare today, but many Ice Age people seem to have had such an appearance. “Blue eyes, dark hair and dark skin seem to have been commonplace in much of Europe,” she writes. She explains that many people among Europe’s original population of hunters had such coloring. Thousands of years later, nearly all Europeans were born with light skin. The original gene variants from Africa had undergone a transformation. “There must have been factors at work that enabled light-skinned people to thrive better in Europe’s northerly latitudes,” Bojs notes.
The forerunners of humans in Africa developed dark skin as soon as they lost their protective covering of hair, millions of years ago. “When some people began to migrate northwards to latitudes where the sun’s rays are weaker, they were at less risk of being burned. Indeed, their dark pigmentation could even pose problems by preventing the skin from producing Vitamin D.” Such a lack leads to rickets and bone malformations.
The first Scandinavians
Where did the first Scandinavians come from? According to the latest DNA research, Bojs writes, “Today’s Europe bears the stamp of three great waves of migration, above all hunters who came here during the Ice Age, farmers who came from the Middle East bringing the earliest agriculture, and a third wave from the steppes to the east, who brought the Indo-European language with them,” referring to the region around the Black Sea.
What makes My European Family so compelling is how the author weaves her own personal search for connections with scientifically imagined ancestors from the ancient past. She creates a poignant family tree that interweaves the results of the latest scientific findings with her own heartfelt search for her origins. These are grandmothers she is writing about, not just scientific data.
And for those interested in pursuing their own family’s genetic pattern, she has included a chapter that is a guide for people seeking their own DNA testing—explaining for a start what DNA consists of. It just might take you back 54,000 years.
Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.