Viking society may have been a prime example of gender equality a millennium ago when women across much of Europe were not as highly valued as their male counterparts. New research argues that this early viewpoint may have helped to contribute to the prosperity of Scandinavian nations today.
Using archaeology to trace health and nutritional equality from Scandinavians living between the 8th and 11th centuries, scientists write in the journal Economics & Human Biology that men and women of the Viking era experienced “remarkable” equality, especially compared with other European regions that preferred boys.
“We hypothesized that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage,” said researcher Laura Maravall in a statement. “The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population.”
Researchers at the University of Tubingen analyzed the teeth and skeletons of Scandinavian remains dating back thousands of years in order to compare the health of men and women using data from Europe’s Global History of Health Project, a continent-wide database that includes studies on human skeletons from more than 100 European sites from the last 2,000 years. They found that the enamel in teeth, as well as the femur lengths, were relatively equal in males and females. If equality was lacking, scientists argue that undernourished or ill children would have displayed permanent damage to tooth enamel in a condition known as linear enamel hypoplasia.
Rather, health values were relatively similar between both sexes, meaning that boys and girls had similar access to food and other resources. These findings were confirmed by an analysis of thigh bone length – longer femurs hold information about height, which can be an indication of good health and a sufficient diet.
“Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” said study co-author Jörg Baten, adding that urban life was different. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”
The researchers argue that equality may have been linked to the type of work done. Growing crops was largely seen as a man’s task because it requires “greater muscular strength,” but raising livestock allowed women to contribute to the family income, in turn raising their position in society.
Scandinavian women were generally more well off than women in other European regions, particularly the Mediterranean and Eastern European cities, and they have been able to hold their place in society for the last 1,000 years, into the Industrial era and beyond. The researchers argue that this is why Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland rank so highly today in terms of education, health, economic prosperity, and life expectancy.