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Reconstructed Genome of Iceland’s First Black Settler

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Reconstructed Genome of Iceland’s First Black Settler

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Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

Icelandic researchers have reconstructed the genome of Hans Jónatan, considered to be the first man of African descent to have settled in Iceland. Mbl.is reported first.

Hans Jónatan was born into slavery in 1784 on St. Croix Island in the Caribbean. Hans’ mother was Emilía Regína, an African slave on the Schimmelman family sugar plantation. His father is believed to be of European heritage. In 1802, Hans Jónatan escaped slavery by fleeing to Djúpivogur, East Iceland. He eventually married an Icelandic woman named Katrina Antoníusardóttir, with whom he had two children. Today their descendants in Iceland number over 700.

An article published yesterday in the science journal Nature Genetics describes how a team of scientists at deCODE genetics assembled Hans Jónatan’s genome from 182 of his descendants. The scientists managed to compile 38 percent of the chromosomes inherited from his mother Emilía Regína. By comparing them to other African genomes they were able to place her origin in West Africa, in the area that now comprises Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

“Until now, it has been necessary to have access to physical remains in order to analyse genetic material from long-dead individuals,” states Agnar Helgason, anthropologist at deCODE genetics and one of the authors of the article. “In this study, however, we succeeded in piecing together the chromosomes of Hans Jónatan, who died 190 years ago, from pieces his descendants inherited from him. In some cases, it could prove useful to use similar methods to reproduce the genome of other individuals from this time, both in Iceland and elsewhere, to bring to light their origin or other attributes.”

“Hans Jónatan’s story is remarkable and encouraging,” says Kári Stefánsson, deCODE genetics CEO and one of the article’s authors. “He was the first Black man to set foot in Iceland and seems to have been taken in with open arms by local residents in Djúpivogur and the surrounding area. This reaction from Icelanders in the early 19th century, who were isolated and not at all worldly, shows that racial prejudice is not innate.”

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