The groundbreaking research, led by experts in the UK, has exposed the diverse genetic background of the Vikings. Archaeologists analysed more than 400 Viking skeletons from excavations across Europe and Greenland using cutting-edge technology. The findings, published today (September 16) in the journal Nature, also shatter many preconceived notions about who the Vikings were and what they looked like.
The six-year study was led by researchers at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, under the guidance of Professor Eske Willerslev, director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, 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.
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“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 word Viking derives from the Scandinavian word vikingr, meaning pirate.
And the Viking Age typically refers to a period of Norse activity between the years 800 AD and the 1050s AD – just before the Norman conquest of England.
During this time, the Vikings shaped the course of history, raided and pillaged their way across Europe and even reached America 500 years before Christopher Columbus did.
And yet, our understanding of the Vikings as proud warriors, traders and raiders of Scandinavian heritage was wrong all along.
According to Professor Willerslev’s study, the genetic history of the Vikings was influenced by genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the dawn of the Viking Age.
Even more surprisingly, the study found many Vikings had brown and not blonde hair.
Professor Willerslev said: “We didn’t know genetically what they actually looked like until now.
The history books will need to be updated
Professor Eske Willerslev, Fellow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge
“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 were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”
The researchers sequenced the DNA of 422 Viking Age men, women, children and babies.
DNA samples were collected from teeth and bones uncovered in Viking cemeteries across Europe, including the UK, Poland, Ukraine, Scandinavia, and Russia.
One sample, for instance, was collected in Estonia where four Viking brothers had died on the same day.
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Other skeletons were recovered from Orkney, Scotland, where despite having no genetic link, the bodies were buried in Viking fashion.
The discovery suggests the Orkney locals adopted the Viking way of life, further expanding the scope of the who the Vikings were.
According to the researchers, Vikings from what is modern-day Norway travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland.
Vikings from modern-day Denmark made their way to England and Vikings from what is today Sweden, found themselves in the Baltic states.
Dr Ashot Margaryan, first author and Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen, 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.”
Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper from the 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.”
The experts also determined the genetic legacy of the Vikings lives on in the UK, with up to six percent of the population still having Viking DNA in their genes.
For comparison, the population of Sweden is estimated to have about 10 percent of Viking DNA.
Professor Willeslev said: “The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated.”
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