World’s largest Viking DNA study debunks many modern myths

16 Sep 2020

An artistic reconstruction of ‘southern European’ Vikings. Image: Jim Lyngvild

DNA sequencing of more than 400 Viking skeletons found across Europe showed genetic ancestry from beyond Scandinavia.

The findings of a six-year study into the genetic history of the Vikings are being considered so important that “history books will need to be updated”.

A research team led by Prof Eske Willerslev of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge has published its findings to Nature on the genetic sequencing of 442 mostly Viking-era men, women, children and babies. Whole genomes were sequenced from teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries.

“We didn’t know genetically what [Vikings] actually looked like until now,” Willerslev said.

“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.”

Among the interesting discoveries was that DNA remains from a boat burial in Estonia showed four brothers had died on the same day. Also, male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings, despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

Distant reach

The genetic data also showed that the Vikings from modern-day Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, while Vikings from Denmark set up camp in England and Vikings from Sweden travelled to the Baltic region on all-male ‘raiding parties’. Furthermore, many Vikings had high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry from southern Europe and even Asia.

Prof Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, said the extensive reach of the Scandinavian diaspora – from the American continent to the Asian steppe – helped shape those lands for the generations that followed.

“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”.

Going forward, another lead author of the study, assistant professor Fernando Racimo, said this is the first time scientists 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,” he said. “We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic