04 November 2019

Is it possible that a single individual influenced which crops were cultivated over large areas of Fennoscandia? Researchers believe so, and the individual was a very special person. He was the priest Lars-Levi Laestadius, who founded a Christian revival movement known as “Laestadianism”, and recently depicted in a novel by Mikael Niemi: “Koka björn”.

Towards the end of the 19th century, seed exhibitions were popular at country life fairs, and Nordiska Museet in Stockholm has preserved some of the seeds exhibited. The seeds are an amazing research resource that helps us to understand the crops on which we have depended for survival during most of our history. In the current study, published in the journal Heredity, researchers from Linköping University and Stockholm University have analysed 19th century barley seeds from Fennoscandia. They were primarily interested in the consequences of the frequent crop failures that occurred in Fennoscandia during the 19th century, and whether the famine relief given during difficult years was made in the form of seed exchange from other places. They wanted to know how the genetic composition of the barley in the region had been influenced by the years of famine. But they discovered something unexpected.Seed jar with seeds from Kvikkjokk, labelled “Laestadius” Photo credit Matti Leino

“When we analysed the seeds, we discovered that certain seeds from completely different locations had identical genetic material. The study included barley from various farms in Tornedalen, and barley from the mountain region of Norrland, which lies more than 300 kilometres away. We couldn’t understand why the seeds from these completely different locations were genetically identical”, says Jenny Hagenblad, associate professor in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University.

“One of the seed jars we analysed contained barley grown in Kvikkjokk in 1867, and the identity of the donor gave us our first clue. It had been given by the vicar of Kvikkjokk Church, Johan Laestadius, nephew of Lars-Levi Laestadius”, says Matti Leino from the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University.Lars Levi Laestadius, 1800-1861.Lars Levi Laestadius, 1800-1861. Photo credit Public domain

Lars-Levi Laestadius (1800–1861) was interested in agriculture and botany. In the 1820s he had written about, among other things, barley cultivation in Kvikkjokk, where he had lived as a child. He later became vicar in Karesuando and in Pajala, and the seed jars from these two locations contained the greatest number of seeds identical with the seeds from Kvikkjokk.

“Of course, we can never know for certain, but we believe that it is possible that Lars-Levi, or someone in his family, took seed with them when they moved between different places. Lars-Levi may have not only cared for the spiritual welfare of the area, but also influenced the possibility they had to feed their physical needs”, says Jenny Hagenblad. 

Financial support for the study has been provided by, among other bodies, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Helge Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Hem i Sverige-fonden, the CF Lundström Foundation and the FORMAS research council.

Translated by George Farrants

The article: Population structure in landrace barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) during the late 19th century crop failures in Fennoscandia”, Nils E. G. Forsberg, Matti W. Leino, Jenny Hagenblad, (2019), published online 15 October 2019, doi:10.1038/s41437-019-0277-0


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