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Vikings may not have been blonde, or Scandinavian

Researchers sequenced the DNA from more than 400 Viking remains including from this female skeleton named Kata discovered in a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden.
Researchers sequenced the DNA from more than 400 Viking remains including from this female skeleton named Kata discovered in a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden.
(Image: © Västergötlands Museum)

Those ferocious seafaring warriors that explored, raided and traded across Europe from the late eighth to the early 11th centuries, known as the Vikings, are typically thought of as blonde Scandinavians. But Vikings may have a more diverse history: They carried genes from Southern Europe and Asia, a new study suggests. 

"We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now," senior author Eske Willerslev, a fellow of St. John's College of the University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a statement. The research "debunks the modern image of Vikings."  

For the study, which took six years to complete, an international group of researchers analyzed the DNA taken from the remains — such as the teeth and bones — of 442 people who lived sometime between about 2400 B.C. to A.D.1600 found in archaeological sites across Europe and Greenland. These people lived, for the most part, during the Viking Age, which lasted from about A.D. 750 to A.D. 1050. The researchers then compared these ancient people's DNA with already published DNA sequences from 3,855 modern-day individuals and from 1,118 other ancient individuals.

Related: Fierce fighters: 7 secrets of Viking seamen

This sweeping gene analysis suggested that the Vikings weren't just the continuation of Iron Age groups who lived from about 500 B.C. to about A.D. 700 in Scandinavia before the Viking Age. Rather, the Vikings and their ancestors would have intermingled often with people from Asia and Southern Europe. Many Viking individuals had "high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry," the authors wrote in the paper.

Researchers analyzed the DNA from some remains found in a mass grave of 50 headless Vikings in Dorset, U.K.

Researchers analyzed the DNA from some remains found in a mass grave of 50 headless Vikings in Dorset, U.K. (Image credit: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology)

"No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age," Willerslev said. They also found that many Vikings had brown hair, not blonde blond hair as typically imagined, according to the statement. 

The researchers found genetic differences among different Viking populations within Scandinavia, which suggests that Viking groups were much more isolated from each other than previously thought, Willerslev said. The coastal communities had high genetic diversity — likely due to more trading and spread of people — than communities in the heartland of Scandinavia, the authors wrote.

What's more, by comparing ancient genes to modern-day genes, the researchers were able to confirm ideas about how the Vikings moved out of Scandinavia to raid and trade. Vikings from present-day Denmark typically went to England; Vikings from Sweden went mostly east to the Baltic region; and Vikings from Norway traveled to Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and the Isle of Man. 

An artist's reconstruction of "Southern European" Vikings.

An artist's reconstruction of "Southern European" Vikings. (Image credit: Jim Lyngvild)

Their finds also revealed unique cultural tidbits. A boat burial in Estonia may have been the earliest evidence of a Viking voyage, according to the paper. It's not clear if this expedition was a raid or a "diplomatic" expedition; but the burial, made up of two boats, contained the remains of 41 men from modern-day Sweden who died violently and were buried with "high-status" weaponry. Among the burial remains were four brothers and a relative, which suggested raiding may have been a family or local activity, according to the statement. Others in the burial had similar genes, suggesting they came from the same local spot in what is now Sweden. 

And it turns out, not every person treated as a Viking was genetically a Viking. In Orkney, Scotland, the researchers found two male skeletons in a Viking burial site. They were buried with swords and other Viking items, but they weren't actually Vikings, but rather genetically similar to modern-day Irish and Scottish people. 

The findings were published yesterday (Sept. 16) in the journal Nature

Originally published on Live Science.

  • Valentine Michael Smith
    No surprise. Another White lie lain to rest.
    Reply
  • Thrane
    admin said:
    Researchers analyzed DNA from more than 400 skeletons to understand who the Vikings really were.

    Vikings may not have been blonde, or Scandinavian : Read more
    Nothing new under the sun in this "new" science. We who are born and have gone to school in Scandinavia have known this all along. When the Vikings traveled they would mix with the people of the countries the arrived in. My DNA is 65% Scandinavian and 35% Irish and Scottish. And I was dark brown. More like the Scots.
    Reply
  • Chem721
    Valentine Michael Smith said:
    No surprise. Another White lie lain to rest.

    At least a few may be wondering about the "remains found in a mass grave of 50 headless Vikings in Dorset, U.K."

    All those headless bodies found in such a highly civilized place as Dorset? So just who developed the most violent of cultures? No one can recall any commentary such as "The sun never sets on the Viking Empire". Perhaps there was good reason for that, eh?!?

    Some might wish to call for an investigation into what looks like an atrocity perpetrated against Vikings in what
    appears to be an act of pure vengeance. Perhaps justice had not yet reared its more rational head in such a place as Dorset, U.K.

    This does not mean that such injustice cannot now be rectified. One might suspect there could be some grieving relatives of those pitiful Vikings seeking some form of closure for such vicious activities. Time should have no limitations for addressing such heinous acts.

    Yet another mystery to be solved on the evolution of "civilization"......
    Reply
  • J99
    Valentine Michael Smith said:
    No surprise. Another White lie lain to rest.
    Since you used a capital letter "W" I'm going to guess that you are possibly implying that because it was thought that some Vikings were blonde (but as has long been known not nearly all were of course), that somehow you believe that people not knowing everything about some Viking DNA, mainly those trading with others around Europe and into parts of Asia had "outside or other" DNA in the mix, is in some way racist? I'm asking because I do seriously want to know, if indeed that is what your meaning here is, how you arrived at that opinion? Do you believe that people generally not knowing that there was some Southern European genetics and/or that of parts of Asia (and I am making an educated guess that it's Western Asia not Eastern peoples, but maybe that could be too, the article didn't say, and as that is how far Vikings went, mostly from Sweden into Rus and founded Kevan Rus. I just don't see how not yet possessing such knowledge constitutes hat you ma be implying. If, however, I have assumed wrong and the capital "W" is simply an overlooked, unintentional error then I apologize. Of course even then even a regular ol' "white lie" is not a "lie" per se if it's simply not knowing a fact. Like another poster after you said. This is not totally new information. No one ever thought they were all blonde lol.
    Reply
  • HVB
    Another reminder that we shouldn't confuse genes with culture. Given time, genes move about readily.

    Scandinavians who went Viking took slaves, traded, met locals, mingled, befriended, and eventually lived amongst locals across Europe. Gene flow is inevitable even in lieu of a consistent cultural lineage (which itself evolved and blurred).
    Reply
  • Valentine Michael Smith
    @Chem721 : grieving relatives....... Maybe you meant that in a Monty Python way?.....

    @J99 : in speaking of 'race', I would mean Humanity. Above I meant Western, more specifically Am culture, and particularly Am PopCul.
    Reply
  • Chem721
    Valentine Michael Smith said:
    grieving relatives....... Maybe you meant that in a Monty Python way?.

    It was meant in keeping with the entire post- one individual's view on the history of "civilization". It cannot be ruled out that it was tinged with a bit of cheeky satire.

    So yes, Monty Python fits in there too!
    Reply
  • Chem721
    Valentine Michael Smith said:
    grieving relatives.......

    Actually, it would seem that modern forensics could likely provide some grieving relatives after all. This would require DNA analyses of course, and use the data from the poor victims and compare it to all the peoples of Norway, Sweden etc. and attempt to establish the presence of living relatives. They are very likely out there.

    This could usher is a new field of legal activity : Archeological Liability. Since there is no statute of limitations for murder, DNA analysis of the current population of Dorset might even include aspects of their descent, and therefore direct responsibility. Of course this type of legal activity could involve countless slaughters, enslavements, etc., but limited to the extent that DNA can unequivocally establish living descendants.

    Your comments regarding any future litigation could be useful.
    Reply
  • Valentine Michael Smith
    .....depending on the society, that could lead to selective retiring of persons based on their lineage.
    Reply
  • Chem721
    Valentine Michael Smith said:
    .....depending on the society, that could lead to selective retiring of persons based on their lineage.

    We are highly amused that you brought this back to mind. Not only can we establish likely descendants of the victims of these heinous crimes, but also those of the perpetrators. Simply digging up the bones and dating those to time of these horrible activities, we can extract the DNA from locals living at that time,and match them with locals currently surviving. We can get to the bottom of this if justice is to prevail.
    Reply