Myth-Busting Study Reveals Vikings Were More Genetically Diverse Than We Thought

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK, which helped make up the largest ever sequencing of Viking DNA. Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

Vikings are typically thought of as a singular group of blonde-haired, blue-eyed warriors that raided foreign lands from their icy Nordic home, yet a new study reveals that the iconic ancient marauders may actually have been more heterogeneous than previously thought. Appearing in the journal Nature, the paper indicates that the Viking Empire was composed of numerous genetically distinct groups that emerged in different regions of what is now Scandinavia, some of which contained Southern European and Asian genes.

Over a period of six years, the study authors sequenced the genomes of 442 Viking age skeletons, dating from 2400 BCE to 1600 AD. In doing so, they shed new light on the genetic origins of the Viking populace, while also revealing how different factions within the Viking world spread through Northern Europe.

“We found that Vikings weren't just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before. Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe,” explained study author Martin Sikora in a statement.

A more detailed look at the data revealed that distinct Viking populations targeted different areas of Europe, with Norwegian Vikings mainly heading to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland, while Swedish Vikings traveled predominantly to the Baltic countries. Danish Vikings, meanwhile, journeyed to England, and the genetic consequences of these international raids are still visible today, with some 6 percent of the British population bearing Viking genes.

On the subject of raids, the study also revealed how the Vikings traveled in family units to pillage foreign lands. One of the earliest raids involved a group of 41 men from Sweden, who traveled to Salme in Estonia on two boats in the mid-8th century, only to meet their deaths in violent circumstances. Genetic analysis revealed that this group included four brothers and that several of the other men were also closely related.

The study authors also found evidence of supposed Vikings with no Scandinavian genetic ancestry. 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.

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

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. According to study author Eske Willerslev, “our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”

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