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DNA Sequencing Provides Window on Viking Life

Skeleton in stone grave
DNA from a female skeleton named Kata found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden was sequenced as part of the study. Västergötlands Museum

The world’s most extensive DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons has just been completed by researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Canada, which means we know have more information about their movements than ever before.

Mix and Mingle

In conducting the sequencing work, remains from the UK, Estonia, Greenland, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Ireland, and Iceland were analyzed by Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen and his team. In all, the remains of 442 men, women, and children were examined.

According to the researchers, one of the finds that most surprised them was the fact that Vikings were not pure Scandinavians, as has been believed. There was an influence in the gene pool from Asia, Southern Europe, and the British Isles. Also of note was the fact that many Vikings had brown hair, not blonde as popular portrayals of the group might convey.

Many unearthed bones lying on the ground
A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

“We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books—but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking was,” said Willerslev. “No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

To that end, the DNA analysis helped the researchers get insight into how the Vikings traveled. They determined that Danes generally went to England; Norsemen traveled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland; and Swedes mostly headed east. Additionally, the researchers were surprised to find groups of family members who had died together. For example, they found that four Viking members of a raiding party interred in a boat burial in Estonia were brothers.

“While the ‘big picture’ discoveries are great, I was blown away by the fact that the analyses revealed the presence of four brothers in the Estonian boat burial and a possible nephew and uncle on either side of the North Sea,” said SFU archaeology professor Mark Collard, who was also involved in the research. “These findings have important implications for social life in the Viking world, but we would’ve remained ignorant of them without ancient DNA. They underscore the power of the approach for understanding history.”

The research has been reported in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature.