ORIGINS OF THE FINNS
Present-day Finland became habitable in about 8,000 B.C., following the northward retreat of the glaciers, and at about that time Neolithic peoples migrated into the country. According to the legends found in the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala, those early inhabitants included the people of the mythical land Pohjola, against whom the Kalevala people-- identified with the Finns--struggled; however, archaeological and linguistic evidence of the prehistory of the region is fragmentary.
According to the traditional view of Finnish prehistory, ancestors of the Finns migrated westward and northward from their ancestral home in the Volga River basin during the second millennium B.C., arriving on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea some time during the next millennium. According to this folk history, the early Finns began a migration from present-day Estonia into Finland in the first century A.D. and settled along the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland. Recent research, suggesting that the Finns arrived in the region at a much earlier date, perhaps by 3,000 B.C., has questioned this traditional view, however.
Both the traditional and modern theories agree that in referring to this prehistoric age one should not speak of a Finnish people, but rather of Finnic tribes that established themselves in present-day southern Finland, gradually expanded along the coast and inland, and eventually merged with one another, absorbing the indigenous population. Among those tribes were the Suomalaiset, who inhabited southwestern Finland and from whom was derived Suomi, the Finnish word for Finland. The Tavastians, another Finnic tribe, lived inland in southern Finland; the Karelians lived farther east in the area of the present-day Karelian Isthmus and Lake Ladoga. On the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland were the Estonians, who spoke a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Finnish. North of the Finns were the Lapps (or Sami), who also spoke a Finno-Ugric language, but who resisted assimilation with the Finns.
Prehistoric Finnic peoples reached the Iron Age level of development, with social organization at the tribal stage. These Finnic tribes were threatened increasingly by the politically more advanced Scandinavian peoples to the west and the Slavic peoples to the east.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress