A new Viking image

Stereotypes broken DNA study reveals that Vikings were not all tall and blond

new Viking image

Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix
The skeletal remains of a Viking Age woman.

METTE ESTEP
NTB

Stereotypical notions of Scandinavian Vikings as a uniform group have to be adjusted after DNA analyses of 442 skeletons. Forty-six of them were found in Norway.

The DNA study “Population genomics of the Viking world” was published in Nature on Sept. 16 and confirms much of what has been fairly certain for over 100 years. 

Because the Viking Age entailed a lot of travel and interaction with other groups of people—for Norwegians, primarily travel to Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and Scotland—Scandinavian genes were spread. The Scandinavians also mingled more with each other in this era, and immigrants came to the northern regions  from eastern and southern Europe.

But there were some surprises in the study as well, said lead researcher Jan Bill, professor of archeology at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History.

Little in common

“Before the Viking Age, there were—somewhat surprisingly—three quite different populations in comparison with each other: one in Norway, one in eastern Scandinavia in Sweden, and one in southern Scandinavia in Denmark and Scania (today southern Sweden). It shows that geography has had a great impact on who one had children with. You stuck to those living close to you. We thought the three groups were more closely integrated due to seafaring, even before the Viking Age, but obviously not,” Bill told NTB.

When the researchers looked at DNA that determine appearance, such as hair color and height, they found that there is no such thing as a typical Viking: They were not necessarily tall and blond. On the other hand, there were quite a few with darker skin pigment and darker hair.

Immigrants

During the Viking Age, estimated to be between the years 750 and 1050, the journey and mixing of genes began in earnest, especially in Europe. Vikings settled in other countries, and researchers have confirmed that they probably took wives home to Scandinavia.

“Another very interesting finding was that individuals who did not have any of the Scandinavian biology were buried as Vikings in full uniform. It must mean that they or the parents had adopted the identity and culture, which is very exciting,” said Bill.

The two Vikings who do not have Scandinavian origins are likely of Celtic descent.

The 46 Norwegian skeletons the DNA was taken from were found in eastern Norway and Trøndelag and are dated from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages, but mainly from the Viking Age, said Bill.

Noteworthy study

Several colleagues who did not participate in the study highly praised the work in interviews with National Geographic.

“It’s a fantastic study. It provides new knowledge and  strengthens almost everything we already know about the Viking Age,” said Jesse Byock, archaeologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who heads the Mosfell Archaeological Project in Iceland.

Davide Zori, associate professor and archaeologist at Baylor University, believes the study will help remove the stereotypical perception of the bearded blond Viking.

The researchers also studied today’s Europeans and maintain that contemporary Norwegians and Danes are most genetically similar to their ancestors, more so than the Swedes, while there are also traces of Scandinavian Vikings in the rest of Europe.

Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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NTB (Norsk Telegrambyrå), the Norwegian News Agency, is a press agency and wire service that serves most of the largest Norwegian media outlets. The agency is located in Oslo and has bureaus in Brussels, Belgium, and Tromsø in northern Norway

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