Much of what we knew about Vikings might be wrong

Hyperaxion Sep 17, 2020

Research led by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, shows that not all Vikings were blonde or Scandinavian. In fact, Viking culture has also been embraced by people in southern Europe and Asia.

New research by scientists at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, changes much of what was known (or imagined) about Vikings.

The study, recently published in the journal Nature, is the result of the largest genetic analysis ever conducted on this ancient society.

Much of what we knew about Vikings might be wrong
Vikings fighting (part of a festival). (Credit: photo taken in August 2005 in Denmark by Tone).

The researchers sequenced the genome of 442 bone fragments found in different regions of Scandinavia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Poland, Russia, and Greenland.

“This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was – no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age,” said Eske Willerslev, of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and one of the researchers involved in the study.

Vikings

The word “viking” comes from the Scandinavian term “vikingr”, which means “pirate”. The Viking Age generally refers to the period between 793, when the group’s first attack was recorded, until the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

These people changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great (1016–1035) became king of England; Leif Eriksson is considered the first European to arrive in North America, in the year 1000, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus; and Olaf Tryggvason (963 – 1000) was responsible for taking Christianity to Norway.

“We didn’t know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed,” Willerslev said.

“Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”

Skeleton of woman found in Varnhem, Sweden.
Skeleton of woman found in Varnhem, Sweden. (Credit: Västergötlands museum).

Expeditions

Much of the Viking expeditions involved attacks on monasteries and cities along Europe’s coastal settlements. Still, their main goal was to trade goods, such as fur, tusks, and seal fat.

The study shows that Vikings who lived in what is now Norway traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland, while those from present-day Denmark went to England, and those from Sweden went to the Baltic countries.

“The Vikings from these three ‘nations’ only very rarely mixed genetically. Perhaps they were enemies or perhaps there is some other valid explanation. We just don’t know,” said Ashot Margaryan, co-author of the research.

Studying a gravesite in Estonia, the scientists discovered that what we thought we knew about who actually participated in the Viking raids was wrong.

Popular culture suggests that the Viking Chief recruited the strongest warriors to join him on a raid.

“But at least five of the Vikings in this grave are closely related. So perhaps you just brought your family along when you went on a raid,” Willerslev said.

A gravesite with about 50 skeletons in Dorset, UK.
A gravesite with about 50 skeletons in Dorset, UK. (Credit: Dorset County Council / Oxford Archeology).

Ancestry

Furthermore, they were not only Scandinavian in their ancestry: they had genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia. This fact, according to the researchers, suggests a continuous genetic exchange throughout Europe.

“Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe,” said co-author Professor Søren Sindbæk.

“They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures.”

Vikings were also explorers, reaching different parts of the world beyond Scandinavia
Vikings were also explorers, reaching different parts of the world beyond Scandinavia. (Credit: University of Copenhagen).

Influence

In Britain, for example, it was possible to track an influx of people from Scandinavia by studying the language and names of specific places.

Combining the data with the new analysis, it was possible to show that in some of these places the inhabitants really embraced the Viking culture.

“In Scotland there’s a grave, which in archaeological terms would be classified as a Viking grave. Its swords and symbols reflect the Viking culture,” Willerslev said.

“However, genetically speaking, the man in the grave has nothing in common with the Vikings. He is an example of how the Viking culture was embraced in certain places.”

Legacy

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age is still alive: 6% of the population in the UK and 10% in Sweden have Viking genes in their DNA.

For experts, this analysis is particularly interesting because it proves how great that society was and it changes a lot of what was known about it.

“The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was,” Willerslev said. “The history books will need to be updated.”

Related topics:

Vikings

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