A longboat crashes onto the beach somewhere in England a thousand years ago. It’s the Vikings, feared by peaceful coastal villages around Europe. Blond hair streaming behind them in the salty spray, the blue-eyed raiders leap ashore brandishing fearsome swords. It’s a familiar picture from the movies, but one that modern science is starting to challenge.
Well, science isn’t quite challenging our whole concept of the Vikings, also sometimes called Norsemen. As many people who lived from 750 A.D. onwards testified, deadly Viking raids were all too real. But what a new study has shown is that the genetic make-up of those Viking marauders was quite different to what we’d been led to believe. And it potentially skews the image we have of what these fierce men looked like.
The leader of the study was Professor Eske Willerslev, director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark. And he described the importance of the work in a September 2020 press release from the University of Bristol. The professor said, “The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated.”
And the scale of this study of Viking genetics is unprecedented. An international team of scientists for the University of Copenhagen, and the English universities of Cambridge and Bristol worked on the project. The research involved analysis of DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of 442 people who were buried in Viking cemeteries. These burial grounds are located across Europe from the Scottish Orkney Islands to the eastern European country of Estonia.
The results of the analysis have thrown up some groundbreaking conclusions about the Vikings. And it seems that we’ll really have to think again about these fierce warriors and pirates. Much of what we think we know about them has turned out to be wrong. So just who were these Viking raiders from Scandinavia?
The name “Viking” comes from an ancient Scandinavian word vikingr. It comes as no surprise that the term actually means “pirate.” And the Vikings’ first major raid on Western Europe came with a particularly violent assault on a small island just off the coast of the north-east of what is now England.
The island in question was Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island. It’s a small piece of land that’s joined to the mainland by a tidal causeway. And the Viking raid was particularly shocking because Lindisfarne was the site of one of the earliest Christian monasteries in England. A monk called Aidan established the holy place in 635 A.D.
At the time this part of modern England was part of the kingdom of Northumbria. But on June 8, 793 A.D. Viking marauders disturbed the peace of the kingdom with their brutal raid on Lindisfarne. And an English scholar called Alcuin of York left a vivid account of the raid, which is recorded on the English Heritage website.
Alcuin wrote, “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets.” Centuries later, the brutality of this raid was still remembered. A chronicle from the 12th century, Historia Regum, the History of Kings, includes an entry about the attack.
According to this account the Vikings, “laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church.” There had been earlier minor Viking incursions, but the raid on Lindisfarne was on a larger and more shocking scale. And it set the scene for the common perception in the following centuries of Vikings as barbarous buccaneers.
But where had these pirate Vikings come from? Geographically, they were from Scandinavia, the northern European countries we now know as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. And the Viking people lived in both inland and coastal locations. Agriculture was their main occupation inland, while those that lived by the sea looked to fishing to make a living.
Technological innovations came in boatbuilding in the seventh and eighth centuries, when the Vikings mastered the art of powering their boats with sails rather than oars alone. Plus the Vikings improved the hulls of their ships by using overlapping boards. The end results were fast moving vessels that could ply coastal and inland waters. And crucially, they could land on beaches.
Thus by the eighth century the Vikings had fast boats that were ideally suited to both sea crossings and coastal raiding. But what made them go on these violent enterprises which terrorized folk across Europe? Written records are scant, and historians are left to speculate as to why the Vikings embarked on a reign of terror.
One theory has it that it was simply a case of too many people on too little land that drove the Vikings into pillaging. Fertile land was limited and as the population increased, fields became increasingly sub-divided until there weren’t enough agricultural acres to go round. Or perhaps traders came home after their journeys, telling of wealthy lands overseas. Remember the saying: the grass is always greener on the other side?
So this news of easy pickings in other lands may have proved too much to resist. But another alternative could have been that troubles caused by warring chieftains drove some Vikings to seek peaceful pastures elsewhere. In any case, after that raid on Lindisfarne the Vikings struck in Ireland, Scotland and France during the 790s.
The Viking wave of terror became more established in the 850s when raiders began to spend the winters in France along the River Seine. Plus they camped in Ireland and on the southern lands of England. Using these coastal settlements as bases, they pushed their influence inland. This practice of overwintering became entrenched, and now the Vikings built fortified harbors in places such as Dublin in Ireland.
Then Vikings went on to found settlements on the Scottish islands – the Orkneys, Shetland and the Hebrides off the west coast of the country. From 865, two brothers, Halfdan and the intriguingly named Ivar the Boneless, occupied what had been Anglo Saxon kingdoms in England. It would be another 200 years or so before things calmed down.
The raids began to stop in the 11th century, but not before the Vikings put one of their own on the English throne. He was King Canute, the man famous for ordering the sea tides to cease and desist. Sadly, that tale is almost certainly nothing more than legend. But what is true is that the Vikings had now become an integral part of life in Britain and other European countries.
Yes, the Vikings’ influence extended across western Europe. And Canute was actually at the head of an empire encompassing what are now Denmark and Norway as well as England. Other Viking fiefdoms included an area of the French region of Normandy and substantial areas of Scotland, much of the Ukraine and parts of modern Russia.
But aside from the territorial gains of these warrior Scandinavians was the mythology that surrounded them. That is a phenomenon that has continued into modern times in movies, TV shows, literature and even opera. Richard Wagner, we’re looking at you. The German composer wrote an operatic classic, Der Ring des Nibelungen which glorified the Vikings and their warlike culture.
In fact it was an 1876 performance of Wagner’s opera that introduced the world to the idea of Vikings with horns stuck on their helmets, a complete myth. Obviously fictional but still highly influential on our ideas about Vikings is the Marvel Comics superhero Thor. And there have been any number of Viking movies, too.
Perhaps the first Viking movie, titled predictably enough The Vikings was a feature released as early as 1928. Better known today is the 1958 film The Vikings starring Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas and Janet Leigh. But bringing us more up to date is the 2019 release, Valhalla. You see, Valhalla was a paradise of Norse myth reserved for Vikings killed in battle.
We’ve dealt with the horned helmets fabrication, but it’s far from the only Viking myth that we’ve gotten used to. In fact, we’re still increasing our understanding of what the Vikings were all about today. And the study we’re talking about, involving the analysis of centuries-old DNA from Viking skeletons, has provided some startling insights.
It turns out that these Scandinavians were much more genetically diverse than researchers had believed. And, as Professor Willerslev told the Medium website in September 2020, “With this new study we’re able to establish that the Viking Age was indeed something special. The Vikings travelled much farther, had lots of southern European genes and were very likely part of a much more extensive cultural exchange with the rest of the world than any contemporary peasant society.”
So the Vikings were far from an insular people who occasionally left their Scandinavian homeland to pillage and plunder their fellow Europeans. They were, in fact, notably diverse people as Willerslev pointed out. He said, “The Vikings had a lot more genes from Southern and Eastern Europe than we anticipated.”
And Willerslev added that the six-year study had shown that the Vikings, “frequently had children with people from other parts of the world. In fact, they also tended to be dark-haired rather than blond, which is otherwise considered an established Viking trait.” So bang goes another commonly held belief. The Vikings were far from universally blond.
The team of scientists analyzed 442 sets of bones from burial grounds across Europe. And the remains, both bones and teeth, mainly came from Viking times – between 750 A.D. to 1,050 A.D. Then they compared this genetic information with existing DNA data from 1,118 ancient people and 3,855 contemporary people.
One archaeological site indicated that the Vikings, at least some of the time, liked to keep their pillaging in the family. Because the bones of 41 different Vikings from Sweden were found buried in two boats in what is now Estonia. They had met murderous deaths at hands unknown, and four of the warriors were actually brothers. Presumably the family that raided together had stayed together.
Another fascinating find came from the Scottish Orkney Islands. Because a burial site there had all the trappings of a Viking interment. Included in the grave, which housed two warriors, were characteristically Viking artifacts such as swords. But genetic analysis showed that the two men were not Vikings at all – but more closely related to the modern populations of Ireland and Scotland. So presumably some people took up the Viking lifestyle even though that was not their heritage.
Plus the study yielded fascinating revelations about the Vikings’ movements across Europe. It seems that the raiders who troubled the English were from modern-day Denmark. But the Vikings that plied their murderous trade around the Baltic Sea were from Sweden. And those that sailed their longboats to Greenland, Iceland and Ireland hailed from Norway.
And it seems that the different populations of Vikings in Scandinavia were quite isolated from one another. Because different groups exhibited distinctive variations in their collective genetic material, suggesting that there was little intermingling between them. But Vikings living by the sea had a high level of diversity. The researchers believe this would have been because of the raiding and trading they were famous for.
Another scientist involved in the research, Ashot Margaryan, commented on why Vikings from Sweden, Norway and Denmark respectively seemed to keep an arm’s length from each other. He told the Medium website, “The Vikings from these three ‘nations’ only very rarely mixed genetically. Perhaps they were enemies or perhaps there is some other valid explanation. We just don’t know.”
In September 2020 Willerslev told the LiveScience website that, “No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.” And that swapping of genes explains why many of the Vikings would not have been blond but dark haired.
Willerslev emphasized the importance that the Norsemen had during their era. He said, “The Vikings travelled much farther, had lots of Southern European genes and were very likely part of a much more extensive cultural exchange with the rest of the world than any contemporary peasant society.” As we’ve seen, the Vikings even produced a king of England, Canute.
Canute was far from the only Viking to play an important role in history. There’s Leif Eriksson, who is believed to have travelled to North America 500 years before Christopher Columbus in 1492. Another Viking, Olaf Tryggvason, is said to have introduced Christianity to Norway. It’s clear that the Vikings were an influential lot who indulged in much more than piracy and looting.
In a Bristol University press release, Professor Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum who was involved in the research, confirmed the significance of Viking culture. He said, “Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlement stretching from the American continent to the Asian steppe.”
Sindbæk continued, explaining that, “They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures. Importantly our results show that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry.” As we’ve seen, that warriors’ grave on the Orkneys confirmed Sindbæk’s last point.
Plus Dr. Daniel Lawson of the University of Bristol further explained how the Vikings intermingled with other Europeans. Quoted in the university release, he said, “The Vikings have an image of being fierce raiders, and they certainly were. What was more surprising is how well they assimilated other peoples. Scottish and Irish people have integrated into Viking society well enough for individuals with no Scandinavian ancestry to receive a full Viking burial, in Norway and Britain.”
Another academic involved in the research, Prof. Fernando Racimo, expanded on the importance of the study’s findings. He said, “The Viking genomes allow us to disentangle how selection unfolded before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe, affecting genes associated with important traits like immunity, pigmentation and metabolism. We can also begin to infer the physical appearance of ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians today.”
And while the Vikings may no longer take to their longboats to raid unfortunate European villages and towns, their genetic heritage lives on. For example, some six percent of British people have some Viking DNA in their genes. In modern Sweden, the proportion rises to ten percent. So, it’s fair to say the Vikings, blond or not, still live among us today.