The world’s largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons has revealed that many popular ideas about them are wrong – and that they weren’t all Scandinavian.
A team of international academics sequenced the whole genomes of 442 skeletons of men, women, children and babies found in Viking cemeteries in Greenland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.
Their findings, published in Nature today, reveal that Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry.
Instead, the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen, who led the research, 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.”
The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term ‘vikingr’ meaning ‘pirate’.
The Viking Age generally refers to the period from A.D. 800, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to raid monasteries and cities along the coastal settlements of Europe, but also to trade goods like fur, tusks and seal fat.
The study found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia, showing Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed.
Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England, and Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries.
Genetic analysis of one Viking raiding party buried in a boat in Estonia found they were all genetically similar and probably came from the same small village in Sweden, including four brothers who all died on the same day.
The study also found that some Vikings weren’t of Scandinavian descent at all. Instead, they were genetically Pictish people who became Vikings culturally.
Individuals with two genetically British parents who had Viking burials were found in Orkney and Norway.
Other findings from the study were that many Vikings had brown hair, not blonde; and that six per cent of people in the modern UK population and ten per cent in Sweden have Viking DNA.
Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine