Scientists Reconstruct the DNA of the Only Black Man in 1800s Iceland—Without His Remains

Fagjun | Published 2018-01-26 05:16

The remains of Hans Jonatan, a former slave who escaped to and settled in Iceland, have unfortunately been lost. In spite of this, however, scientists have been able to recreate his genome.

These isles meant freedom to Hans Jonatan, a former slave.

These isles meant freedom to Hans Jonatan, a former slave.


Hans Jonatan was born a slave but he died a free man, albeit in a country far away from everything he knew. He was the son of a black woman, a slave called Emilia Regina, and a white father whose identity is still unknown. Jonatan led quite the storied life: fighting for the Danish Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, fighting for and losing a bid for his freedom in a landmark case called The General’s Widow v. the Mulatto. Somehow, he managed to escape and settled as a peasant farmer in Iceland, where he eventually married and had two children. He died in 1827.


The location of his grave has been lost to memory, but he is remembered as the first known black settler in Iceland. He is now the first person whose DNA was recreated without his remains.

Journey to Iceland

Lúðvík Lúðvíksson, Hans Jonatan's grandchild [Photo by Helga Tomasdottir]

Lúðvík Lúðvíksson, Hans Jonatan's grandchild [Photo by Helga Tomasdottir]


Before 1920, no one in Iceland was of known African descent. Jonatan now has hundreds of known descendants, though they no longer have the dark skin and dark curly hair of their common ancestor. Researchers were able to track down 788 of Jonatan’s descendants, and were able to obtain DNA samples from 182.


Usually, the recreation of a person’s genome involves the use of some of their remains. This provides a framework that can guide the reconstruction of the DNA. However, since Jonatan’s remains have been lost, this approach wasn’t feasible. Thus, scientists took a detour from the usual route by reconstructing Jonatan’s DNA using information from the genome of his descendants.


Researchers say that this approach was made possible only due to the fact that Hans Jonatan settled in Iceland. Iceland has a small and homogenous population, descendants of people who came over from Scandinavia and Britain a thousand years ago. Jonatan’s descendants stood out due to the African sequences in their genome.


Of course, none of these descendants carry the entirety of Jonatan’s genome. However, they do carry small bits and pieces of it, and all it took was someone to put it all together. Those bits carried by 182 of Jonatan’s descendants were able to recreate 38% of Jonatan’s genome.

The Life of a Free Man

A little over a third of Hans Jonatan's genome was reconstructed.

A little over a third of Hans Jonatan's genome was reconstructed.


DeCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company, has analyzed the genome of over half of Iceland’s adult population. Their scientists helped out with the research on Jonatan’s genome, and their survey turned out to include the 182 descendants whose genome contributed to the study.


Since 38% of Jonatan’s DNA was recreated, approximately 19% of that belonged to his mother, who was also born into slavery. Thus, there were few records about her. However, modern science can now discover more about her. Her genome sequences are closely similar to those found in modern populations in Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria, giving a hint as to her ancestry and countries of origin. There are a few guesses as to who Jonatan’s father was, but to prove paternity, a DNA sample from the purported fathers or their descendants is necessary for comparison.

Some of Jonatan’s descendants now want to visit the fishing village where he lived as a free man, and was by all accounts a good citizen. There’s also a biography on Jonatan called The Man Who Stole Himself.

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