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Our understanding of Vikings has been rewritten by University of Cambridge DNA sequencing project




The traditional view of Vikings as blonde-hair warriors from Scandinavia who travelled by sea to invade countries across Europe has been rewritten following a fascinating study of the DNA from 442 skeletons.

It has shown they were a lot more diverse than previously thought - and their genetic legacy means the UK population has up to six per cent Viking DNA, compared to 10 per cent in Sweden.

Researchers examined skeletons from archaeological sites across Europe and Greenland to rewrite the history books.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Picture: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology (42330319)
A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Picture: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology (42330319)

They showed Viking identity was not limited to those with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. In fact, the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.

And skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were those of local people, who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.

The six-year study was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen.

He said: “We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world.

“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.”

The Viking Age is generally taken to refer to the period from 800AD, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s - shortly before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Their influence was profound - altering both the politics of the continent, its genetics, while influencing surnames and place names.

An artistic reconstruction of ‘Southern European’ Vikings emphasising the foreign gene flow into Viking Age Scandinavia. Picture: Jim Lyngvild(42330323)
An artistic reconstruction of ‘Southern European’ Vikings emphasising the foreign gene flow into Viking Age Scandinavia. Picture: Jim Lyngvild(42330323)

The Viking Cnut the Great became the King of England, while Leif Eriksson is believed to have been the first European to have reached North America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus managed it. Meanwhile, Olaf Tryggvason took Christianity to Norway.

Prof Willerslev added: “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.

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

The study - the largest ever DNA sequencing project on Viking skeletons - showed that early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.

The word Viking come from the Scandinavian term ‘vikingr’, meaning pirate, and they are known to have raided monasteries and cities along the coasts of Europe.

Their voyages often had practical aims, however, such as trading goods like fur, tusks and seal fat.

The international researchers sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries in Greenland, Ukraine, the UK, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

And they found that male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not genetically Vikings - even though they were buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

Vikings from what is now Norway were shown to have travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. Those from what is now Denmark travelled to England, while Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all-male raiding parties.

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

DNA from a female skeleton named Kata found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. Picture: Västergötlands museum (42330321)
DNA from a female skeleton named Kata found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. Picture: Västergötlands museum (42330321)

Dr Ashot Margaryan, assistant professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and first author of the paper published in Nature, said: “We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age. The results were startling and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

“We discovered that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members, as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden.”

Prof Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an associate professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: “We found that Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia, which has never been contemplated before. Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe.”

They discovered that genetically Pictish people ‘became’ Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians.

The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland in the late Iron Age and early medieval periods.

Dr Daniel Lawson, lead author from The University of Bristol, explained: “Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway. This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging.”

Prof Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, explained: “Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures.

“Importantly, our results show that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry.

“Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied.”

Assistant Professor Fernando Racimo, also a lead author based at the GeoGenetics Centre in the University of Copenhagen, added: “This is the first time we can take a detailed look at the evolution of variants under natural selection in the last 2,000 years of European history. “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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