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No. 107: Sep-Oct 1996

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The Irish In Iceland

That the Norse colonized Iceland, Greenland, and even a bit of North America is not contested today. What is a hot issue on Iceland is whether today's inhabitants are predominantly Irish or Norse. The pro-Irish faction maintains that most Iceland settlers were Irish wives and slaves installed there by the Norse. The scientific basis for this claim is the distribution of blood types; specifically, types A and AB. In Iceland these two types are present in 19% of the populace. In Norway the figure is 30%, while Ireland weighs in with 18% -- matching modern Icelanders very closely. Modern Norse match other northern Europeans in this respect, not the Icelanders.

Somewhat smugly, the pro-Irish faction notes that in Viking days the Irish had the highest literacy rate in northern Europe. And of all the Norse colonies, only the Icelanders recorded their history (the "sagas"). Ergo, the Irish exerted a strong influence in Iceland more than a millennium ago.

Possibly, say the anthropologists, but small pox may have skewed the Iceland population figures. People with blood types A and AB are much more susceptible to small pox. The six devastating Icelandic small pox epidemics between 577 and 1061 would have hit Norse settlers harder than the Irish the Norse had brought along with them, thereby boosting the fraction of Irish in the modern Iceland populace.

Whatever the scientific explanations, today's Icelanders are thronging to Ireland on shopping and drinking trips! They know where they came from!

(MacKenzie, Debora; "Icelanders Argue over their Ancestors," New Scientist, p. 10, June 1, 1996)

From Science Frontiers #107, SEP-OCT 1996. � 1996-2000 William R. Corliss