Science reveals the results of a massive genetic study of Viking remains across Europe, which found that people from all genetic backgrounds took up the Viking way:
Over the course of almost 10 years, a team led by geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen assembled samples from across Scandinavia dating to the Viking Age, from about 750 C.E. to 1050 C.E., as well as some earlier and later samples. The team also gathered human remains from burials elsewhere in Europe and beyond that had Viking grave goods or burial styles. “We approached every place where we could see there should exist somehow an association with Vikings,” Willerslev says. Ultimately, the team was able to sequence 442 Viking Age genomes from as far afield as Italy, Ukraine, and the doomed Viking settlements of Greenland.
The results tell dramatic stories of individual mobility, such as a pair of cousins buried in Oxford, U.K., and Denmark, separated in death by hundreds of kilometers of open ocean. The genetic details may also rewrite popular perceptions of Vikings, including their looks: Viking Age Scandinavians were more likely to have black hair than people living there today. And comparing DNA and archaeology at individual sites suggests that for some in the Viking bands, “Viking” was a job description, not a matter of heredity.
Viking-style graves excavated on the United Kingdom’s Orkney islands contained individuals with no Scandinavian DNA, whereas some people buried in Scandinavia had Irish and Scottish parents. And several individuals in Norway were buried as Vikings, but their genes identified them as Saami, an Indigenous group genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than to Europeans. “These identities aren’t genetic or ethnic, they’re social,” Jarman says. “To have backup for that from DNA is powerful.”
To the team’s surprise, there was little evidence of genetic mixture within Scandinavia itself. Although a few coastal settlements and island trading hubs were hot spots of genetic diversity, Scandinavian populations farther inland stayed genetically stable—and separate—for centuries. “We can separate a Norwegian person from a Swedish person from a Danish person,” [Aarhus University archaeology Søren] Sindbæk says.
Study co-author and National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette Arneborg says DNA recovered from burials in Greenland shows a mix of Scandinavian men from what is now Norway and women from the British Isles. Yet the artifacts and burials look completely Scandinavian.