In the popular imagination, the Vikings were fearsome blond-haired warriors from Scandinavia who used rowboats to conduct raids across Europe in a brief but bloody reign of terror. But the reality is far more complex, according to an analysis of the genomes of 442 ancient humans from archaeological sites in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and the rest of the world. other Eastern European countries.
The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term ‘viking‘ sense ‘pirate. ‘
The Viking Age generally refers to the period from 800 AD, a few years after the first recorded raid, until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
The Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe and beyond: Cnut the Great became King of England, Leif Eriksson would have been the first European to reach North America – 500 years before Christopher Columbus – and Olaf Tryggvason is credited with taking Christianity to Norway.
Many expeditions involved raids on monasteries and towns along Europe’s coastal settlements, but the goal of trading goods like fur, tusks, and seal fat was often the more pragmatic goal.
“We didn’t know genetically what they looked like until now,” said lead author Professor Eske Willerslev, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center at the University of Copenhagen.
“We found genetic differences between different Viking populations in Scandinavia, showing that the Viking groups in the region were much more isolated than previously believed.”
“Our research even demystifies the modern image of blond-haired Vikings, as many had brown hair and were influenced by the genetic influx from outside of Scandinavia.”
Professor Willerslev and his colleagues sequenced the entire genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies.
Researchers analyzed DNA from the remains of a boat buried in Estonia and found that four Viking brothers died on the same day.
They also revealed that the male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland were not genetically Vikings, although they were buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.
There was no word for Scandinavia in the Viking Age, it came later. But the study shows that Vikings from present-day Norway traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland.
The Vikings from what is now Denmark traveled to England. And the Vikings from present-day Sweden traveled to the Baltic countries during their all-male “raids”.
“We performed the largest DNA analysis ever performed on Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic image of ancient Europeans before the Viking Age,” said first author Dr Ashot Margaryan, researcher in the evolutionary genomics section of the Globe Institute. at the University of Copenhagen.
“The results were surprising and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm earlier hypotheses that lacked evidence. “
“We determined that a Viking raid expedition included close family members when we discovered four brothers in a boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The other occupants of the boat were genetically similar, which suggests that they probably all came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden.
Scientists also found that the Picts genetically “became” Vikings without genetically mixing with the Scandinavians.
The Picts were Celtic-speaking people who lived in what is now eastern and northern Scotland during the late British Iron Age and early Middle Ages.
“The Scandinavian diasporas established trade and colonization stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe,” said Professor Søren Sindbæk, archaeologist at the Moesgaard Museum.
“They exported ideas, technologies, languages, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. “
“It is important to note that our results show that the ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people of Scandinavian genetic ancestry.”
The genetic legacy of the Viking Age continues today with 6% of the British population predicting to have Viking DNA in their genes, compared to 10% in Sweden.
“The results change the perception of who a Viking really was. The history books will have to be updated, ”concluded Professor Willerslev.
The results were published in the journal Nature.
A. Margaryan et al. 2020. Genomics of populations in the Viking world. Nature 585, 390-396; doi: 10.1038 / s41586-020-2688-8