World's largest Viking DNA study debunks many modern myths

Pablo Tucker
September 18, 2020

Worldwide journal Nature reported on the largest-ever DNA analysis of Viking remains, and revealed that most Viking DNA evident in Ireland can be traced back to Norway.

Researchers found that these all-male raiding parties were made up of friends, family members and neighbors.

But now, cutting-edge DNA analysis on archaeological remains has shed new light on the identity of Irish Vikings - and revealed that many actually had brown hair.

The genetic legacy in the United Kingdom has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA.

Over a period of six years, the study authors sequenced the genomes of 442 Viking age skeletons, dating from 2400 BCE to 1600 AD.

"During the Viking Age, not only were the Vikings going out and spreading their genes outside Scandinavia, but also there was a significant influx from overseas", says first author Ashot Margaryan from Denmark's University of Copenhagen.

It would therefore seem that certain Northern European cultures were assimilated into the Viking world without ever mixing genetically with the Scandinavian invaders.

"We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now", Willerslev says.

According to a major Danish study, many Vikings had dark hair due to DNA from Southern Europe and Asia. In contrast, gene flow within inner Scandinavia was more restricted, with some Viking populations more isolated than previously thought.

The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term "Vikingr", which means pirate. Many of these expeditions involved raiding monasteries, but Vikings also traded goods such as fur, tusks and seal fat. For instance, two individuals were given a Viking burial in Orkney, Scotland, yet were in fact descended from the local Pictish culture and bore a genetic similarity to modern-day Irish and Scottish populations.

Among the interesting discoveries was that DNA remains from a boat burial in Estonia showed four brothers had died on the same day.

Dr Ashot Margaryan, Assistant Professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen and first author of the paper, said: "We carried out the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of Ancient Europeans before the Viking Age".

"In general, Irish Viking genomes harbour high levels of Norwegian-like ancestry".

Skeletons from Salme II ship burial site of the Early Viking Age, excavated in present-day Estonia.

History books commonly report that the uncivilised Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Vikings left their homeland on a maritime rampage to raid, conquer and shake up Europe, particularly Britain, between around 800 and 1066 CE. "This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging". The study showed that during the Viking Age, "a foreign gene flow", spilled into Scandinavia from the south and east, and it shows what can be described as chart of Viking conquest and colonization outside Scandinavia.

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.

A belt found with a skeleton which may be that of Olaf Guthfrithsson - an Irish Viking who was the King of Dublin and Northumbria from 934 to 941 - or a member of his entourage. 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.

By analyzing genetic markers, the study authors also discovered that the Vikings may have been more diverse in their appearance than popular culture, and white supremacists, would have us believe. "The history books will need to be updated".

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