The Vikings were not the blonde and genetically pure Norse that many might imagine. A new study paints a more nuanced picture of Scandinavian ancestry.
If you – like most people – think that the Vikings were beautiful, blonde men and women who were genetically pure as freshly fallen snow, think again.
A new study published in Nature involving researchers from the University of Copenhagen and other universities paints a new and much more nuanced picture of Scandinavian ancestry that may surprise most people.
Even the Vikings who lived in Scandinavia were a genetic agglomeration of ancestry from the southernmost southern Europe, the easternmost eastern Europe, the far north and the British Isles.
Oh, by the way, the vast majority were not blonde.
“The people living in Scandinavia today are more blonde than the Vikings. The vast majority were dark-haired. In addition, Vikings throughout Europe were very rarely 100% Vikings genetically. Instead, they were mixtures of various ancestry, ranging from southern Europeans to the Sami people in the northernmost regions,” explains a researcher behind the study, Eske Willerslev, Professor and Director, Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen.
Sequenced genomes of the remains of 442 Vikings
The researchers carried out the largest genomic mapping of Viking remains from all of Europe.
They extracted DNA from the bones of 442 remains of Vikings and carried out whole-genome sequencing, enabling them to compare Viking DNA with both modern DNA and ancient DNA from other peoples in Europe.
Further, the researchers linked the genetic discoveries to archaeological findings from the excavations in which the bones were found.
The result is unprecedented and detailed insight into who had children with whom more than a millennium ago, where people went and what they brought back with them.
“The Vikings often reproduced with people from other parts of the world. Sometimes they settled outside Scandinavia and influenced the genetic composition of the people there; at other times, they returned to Scandinavia and brought genetic and appearance traits with them,” explains Eske Willerslev.
When asked whether this genetic patchwork resulted from romance or rape, Eske Willerslev replies:
Probably both, because both rape and love were maybe not that different than they are today.
Kept their distance from inland societies
The results show most surprisingly that the Vikings in Scandinavia, including especially in Sweden, did not have much reproductive contact with the people who lived inland.
An agrarian society lived far inland in Sweden at the same time as the Vikings but did not share many genetic characteristics with the Vikings.
In fact, the research shows that the entire genetic mix, which dispersed across Europe in the Bronze Age and even as early as after the Neolithic era of the Stone Age, largely passed by the inland people in Sweden during the Viking Age.
“The Vikings lived at the coast, and genetically they were a completely different people than the agrarian societies inland. The inland inhabitants were more similar to the peasants who lived in Europe several thousand years earlier than they were to the Vikings. One could almost say that these peasants genetically missed the entire Iron and Bronze Ages,” explains co-author Ashot Margaryan, Assistant Professor, Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen.
Vikings from Denmark, Norway and Sweden did not mix
The researchers also found interesting patterns in how the Viking genes dispersed in Europe.
They examined the genes of the Vikings that archaeologists have found around Europe and discovered that the Vikings living in what is now modern Denmark largely raided or settled in England. The Vikings in the territory of modern Sweden raided the Baltic countries, and the Vikings in modern Norway raided in Ireland, Iceland and Greenland.
Nevertheless, the Vikings from these three territories very rarely mixed with each other reproductively, but kept to themselves, without the researchers being able to explain why.
“That’s the good thing about science: the answers are quite clear compared with the interpretations archaeologists sometimes have to deduce. Separating the facts from the political distortion in the sagas is difficult. Our data very precisely show who went where and whether they settled or raided and came back. However, we cannot say why,” explains Eske Willerslev.
Viking family brutally killed in Estonia
Speaking of raids, the study also provides new insight into this aspect of Viking culture.
Modern popular culture has the notion that a Viking chieftain gathered the strongest and most fearsome warriors in his settlement, who then headed out to plunder and bring back gold and other treasures.
A Viking tomb in Estonia indicates an entirely different result of a raid.
The Vikings interred in the tomb in Estonia had apparently inappropriately assessed their plundering capabilities, because they were brutally slaughtered on arrival in Estonia.
The researchers examined their genes, and most were blood relatives of one another.
“So maybe they just took family members on raids, and the selection was not exactly merit-based,” says Eske Willerslev.
Adopting the Viking culture in Scotland
A final result shows that some Vikings in Europe were not Vikings at all genetically.
For example, bones found in an apparent Viking tomb in Scotland, in which the swords and symbols seem to indicate Viking culture, show that the bones belonged to a person who had no genetic commonality with the Vikings. The person just embraced the culture.
Elsewhere in such places as England, Ireland and Scotland, the researchers found that the people who lived there had Viking genes but did not live by the norms of Viking culture.
“People have moved around Europe, so genes and culture have mixed for millennia. But we took a snapshot of the Viking Age and determined the genetic picture at that time compared with that at the end of the Viking Age. The result shows very clearly that the Vikings both influenced and were influenced by people from all over Europe culturally and genetically,” says Eske Willerslev.
“Population genomics of the Viking world” has been published in Nature. The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded DKK 7.950.623 to co-author Gabriel Renaud for the project Ancient Genomes Reconstruction. The Danish National Research Foundation, Innovation Fund Denmark, Lundbeck Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Carlsberg Foundation and Villum Foundation funded the study.