Vikings weren’t who we thought

The popular modern image of blond-haired Scandinavian Vikings has been upended by extensive ancient DNA analysis, published in the journal Nature.

They weren’t all Scandinavian and many had brown hair, according to the six-year international study involving 90 collaborators. The infamous pirates also moved around a lot.

“During the Viking Age, not only were the Vikings going out and spreading their genes outside Scandinavia, but also there was a significant influx from abroad,” says first author Ashot Margaryan from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen.

“This is a big piece in the puzzle of the Viking Age Europe that along with other disciplines such as archaeology and history can more accurately reconstruct the event around this period.”

Vikings – derived from the Scandinavian word “vikingr”, meaning pirate – played a substantial role in reshaping Europe politically, culturally and geographically during the Middle Ages, with repercussions that ripple to the present.

History books commonly report that the uncivilised Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Vikings left their homeland on a maritime rampage to raid, conquer and shake up Europe, particularly Britain, between around 800 and 1066 CE.

To understand more about the demographic fluxes at this time, Margaryan, senior author Eske Willerslev and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 442 men, women, children and babies, derived from their teeth and skull bones.

These were recovered from Viking cemeteries in Greenland, Ukraine, the UK, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia covering the Bronze Age (about 2400 BCE) to the Early Modern period (around 1600 CE) and analysed along with data from 3855 present day and 1118 ancient individuals.

Results showed that, before the Viking Age, the genetic history of Vikings was influenced by genes from Asia and Southern Europe, suggesting their ancestry didn’t flow purely from Iron Age Scandinavians. And during their migrations they spread their genes liberally.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Credit: Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Vikings from what is now known as Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, while Danish Vikings travelled to England and Swedish ancestors travelled to the Baltic countries. The movements, which confirm archaeological evidence and historical records, pose some interesting questions.

“We can only speculate that, for instance, highly developed training routes during the Viking Age facilitated the human movements in this period,” says Margaryan. “It’s also very likely that a large portion of this influx can be attributed to slaves brought into Scandinavia.”

The analysis revealed that Celtic-speaking Picts from modern-day Ireland and Scotland received Viking burials despite not genetically mixing with Scandinavians, indicating that Viking identity was not restricted to people with Scandinavian ancestry.

Remains of four brothers buried together in Estonia suggested that close family members went on raids together. Others in the same boat burial had similar genetic makeup that could trace them all to a small village in Sweden.

Other relatives were found buried hundreds of kilometres apart, which the authors suggest “markedly illustrates the mobility of individuals during the Viking Age”.

Their genetic legacy continues, with around 6% of people in the UK and up to 5% in Poland estimated to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10% in Sweden and 12% to 15% in Norway.

And the ramifications extend beyond historical insights, according to co-author Fernando Racimo.

“This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2000 years of European history,” he says.

“The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism.

“We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today.”

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