Most studies on consanguinity have been conducted on contemporary populations and have focused on the prevalence and types of preferred intra-familial marriage. With its comprehensive birth, marriage and deaths records dating back to the late 17th century, and the legal bar on first cousin marriage removed in the mid-19th century, Sweden offers unique opportunities to examine the factors that determine by whom, where and why consanguineous marriages were contracted. The present study covers the period 1780–1899 and presents a detailed portrait of cousin and sibling exchange marriages in the Skellefteå region of northern coastal Sweden. The combined prevalence of first, second and third cousin marriage increased from 2.3% in 1790–1810 to 8.8% in 1880–1899, and multi-generation consanguinity also increased significantly over the study period. The distribution and prevalence of first cousin marriages was strikingly non-random, with a significantly greater propensity for consanguinity among land-owning families, especially involving first-born sons, within specific pedigrees, and in a number of more remote inland communities. Additional factors associated with a greater likelihood of consanguineous marriage included physical or mental disability among males, and among females the prior birth of an illegitimate child. Besides the inherent interest in the social and demographic structure of this region of northern Sweden during the course of the 19th century, in future studies it will be important to determine the degree to which the observed patterns of consanguineous and sibling exchange marriages in these past generations could have influenced present-day genetic structure.
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