Thu. May 19th, 2022

Invaders, pirates, warriors–the history books taught us Vikings were brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.

Hans Splinter, CC license

The cutting-edge DNA sequencing now available on more than 400 Viking skulls from archeological sites across Europe and Greenland will help rewrite history as it has done before:

Skeletons found at the famous Viking burial site in Scotland were actually local people who could take on Viking identities and were buried with them as Vikings. Many Vikings had brown hair and not blonde hair. The genetic legacy of the UK has left the population with up six percent Viking DNA. However, the study shows that the genetic history and evolution of Scandinavia were influenced by genes from Asia and Southern Europe prior to the Viking Age.

The six year-long research project debunks modern Vikings’ images.

Dr Daniel Lawson of the University of Bristol is co-first author. The most surprising thing about the Vikings was their ability to integrate other peoples.

“Scottish, Irish and other people have integrated well into Viking society so that individuals without Scandinavian ancestry can receive a full Viking burial in Norway or Britain. Two Orkney bones were examined from Viking graves. The Viking swords are indicative of ancestry that could be shared with current-day Irish or Scottish people.

Work from the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol specialized in separating out very similar ancestries.

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“People who lived in Scandinavia during Viking age were very similar. However we discovered advanced ways to separate their ancestries. According to Dr Lawson, Senior Lecturer and Data Scientist, this showed that Norwegians travelled to Ireland and Iceland a lot, while Danes went to England.

“But Vikings were often different, with ancestry originating from all over Scandinavia and the British Isles being found in the same raiding party. The Vikings arriving in Britain or Ireland were part an ongoing migration that had been going on for several centuries.

History lessons

Viking comes from the Scandinavian term Viking, which is “vikingr” meaning “pirate”.

The Viking Age generally refers the time from A.D.800 (a few centuries after the first recorded raid), to the 1050s (a few generations before the Norman Conquest of England 1066).

The political and genetic history of Europe was changed by the Vikings. Cnut the Great was made King of England. Leif Eriksson became the first European to arrive in North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Olaf Tryggvason is also credited with bringing Christianity to Norway. While many expeditions involved raiding monasteries or cities along the coasts of Europe, the primary goal was often to trade goods such as fur, tusks and seal fat.

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Lead author Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge and director of the University of Copenhagen’s Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, said: “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 were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”

DNA testing

A team of international academics sequenced 442 people, mostly Viking Age children and adults from their teeth and the petrous bones they found in Viking cemeteries. They examined DNA taken from a boat burial in Estonia, and found that four Viking brothers died simultaneously. The scientists have also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically Vikings despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

The Viking Age had no mention of Scandinavia. It came later. But the research study shows that the Vikings from what is now Norway traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland. The Vikings from what is now Denmark traveled to England. Vikings from Sweden, which is now Denmark, traveled to England on their all-male “raiding parties”.

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The DNA sequences of the Viking remains were done at locations in Greenland (Ukraine), Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

Analysis by the team also revealed that genetically Pictish people were able to ‘become’ Vikings through their genetic mixing with Scandinavians. The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

The Viking Age changed Europe’s political, cultural, demographic map in ways that are still apparent today in place names and surnames as well as modern genetics.

Professor Soren, an archaeologist, from Moesgaard Museum Denmark who co-authored the groundbreaking paper, said: “Scandinavian Diasporas established trade, settlement stretching from America to the Asian steppe. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs, and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Our research shows that “Viking” identity is not restricted to those with Scandinavian genetic ancestry.

Assistant Professor Fernando Racimo, also a lead author based at the GeoGenetics Centre in the University of Copenhagen, stressed how valuable the dataset is for the study of the complex traits and natural selection in the past.

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He said, “This is our first detailed look at how variants evolved under natural selection over the past 2,000 years of European history.” The Viking genomes provide a detailed look at how selection played out in Europe during, after, and after Viking migrations. They also reveal the genetic changes that affected important traits like immunity and pigmentation. It is also possible to compare the appearances of ancient Vikings to those of today.

Source: University of Bristol

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today with six per cent of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA in their genes compared to 10 per cent in Sweden.

Professor Willerslev concluded of the research, published in Nature, “The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books need to be updated.”

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