Delving into Viking DNA

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A large study, led by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, has mapped the DNA of the Viking world. The results (recently published in Nature: paint a complex picture of population movement across Europe during this period.

Over ten years, the team sequenced the DNA of 442 individuals whose remains were excavated at archaeological sites across Europe and Greenland, combining it with previously published genetic data from 1,118 ancient human remains as well as DNA from 3,855 people living today. One of the biggest findings from the study was how region-dependent the genetic differences within Scandinavia were. While we often lump all Scandinavians from this period together under the term ‘Viking’, there were actually fairly distinct groups, with individuals from the areas of present-day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark displaying specific genetic signatures.

The Ridgeway Hill mass grave in Dorset (see CA 299) which featured in the DNA study. CREDIT: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

Not only did these groups remain separate within Scandinavia, they also appear to have chosen different regions to invade. The DNA results largely accord with archaeological and historical evidence, indicating that those with Swedish-like DNA mainly travelled eastwards, including around the Baltic region and into present-day Poland; those with Norwegian-like DNA explored the North Atlantic islands, Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland; and those with Danish-like DNA largely went to the British Isles. This adds to other evidence suggesting that the use of the word ‘Dane’ in written sources from medieval Britain – which is sometimes thought of as a catch-all term for ‘Scandinavian’ – may originally have referred to those hailing specifically from Jutland.

The results also show that the term ‘Viking’ was not necessarily a label affixed only to those originating from Scandinavia. Two individuals from Orkney were buried in a Viking fashion, but had no identifiable Scandinavian heritage. Instead, they were more genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish populations. The project also found other evidence for cross-cultural connections between the Picts and the Vikings, including two more individuals buried in Orkney who had half Scandinavian ancestry, and five individuals with similarly blended DNA found in Scandinavia.

This last example is just one of many from the dataset which shows movement happening in the reverse direction, with individuals from Britain making their way into Scandinavia – and into the local genetic signature as well.

This news article appears in issue 369 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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