World’s Largest DNA Analysis of Viking Skeletons Yields Unexpected Results About Who They Really Were

An artistic reconstruction of ‘Southern European’ Vikings emphasizing the foreign gene flow into Viking Age Scandinavia detected in the study.
Credit: Jim Lyngvild

In the popular imagination, Vikings were fearsome blonde-haired warriors from Scandinavia who used longboats to carry out raids across Europe in a brief but bloody reign of terror. But the reality is more complex, says Simon Fraser University Archaeology Professor Mark Collard.

Collard is a member of an international team of researchers that has just published the results of the world’s largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons, in the journal Nature.

Led by Prof. Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, the research team extracted and analyzed DNA from the remains of 442 men, women, and children.

The remains were recovered from archaeological sites in Scandinavia, the U.K., Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland, and Russia, and mostly date to the Viking Age (ca. 750-1050 AD).

The team’s analyses yielded a number of findings. One of the most noteworthy is that contrary to what has often been assumed, Viking identity was not limited to people of Scandinavian ancestry—the team discovered that two skeletons from a Viking burial site in the Orkney Islands were of Scottish ancestry.

They also found evidence that there was significant gene flow into Scandinavia from the British Isles, Southern Europe, and Asia before and during the Viking Age, which further undermines the image of the Vikings as ‘pure’ Scandinavians.

Another discovery that runs counter to the standard image of the Vikings is that many had brown hair, not blonde hair.

The analyses’ results also shed light on the Vikings’ activities. For example, consistent with patterns documented by historians and archaeologists, the team found that Vikings who traveled to England generally had Danish ancestry, while the majority of Vikings who traveled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland had Norwegian ancestry. In contrast, Vikings who headed east were mostly from Sweden.

Interestingly, says Collard, data revealed a number of close kin among the 442 individuals. Four members of a Viking raiding party interred in a boat burial in Estonia were found to be brothers, while two individuals buried 300 to 400 kilometers apart in Sweden were found to be cousins. Perhaps even more strikingly, the team identified a pair of second-degree male relatives (i.e. half-brothers, nephew-uncle, or grandson-grandfather) from two sites, one in Denmark and one in England.

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