The latest DNA sequencing technology has been used on more than 400 Viking skeletons from archeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland – and oh, is it changing the narrative.

The six-year research project, published in Nature in 2020, debunks the modern image of Vikings.

Here's a rundown on the study's key takeaways:

  • Skeletons from well-known Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and who were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings had brown hair – they didn't exclusively have blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. In fact, the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by pre-Viking Age genes from Asia and Southern Europe.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were also an activity for locals and included close family members.

Vikings successfully assimilated other peoples

According to a press release from the University of Bristol, co-first author dr. Daniel Lawson played a pivotal role in the international research effort, led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen.

"The Vikings have an image of being fierce raiders, and they certainly were. What was more surprising is how well they assimilated other peoples. In Norway and Britain, Scottish and Irish people have integrated into Viking society well enough for individuals with no Scandinavian ancestry to receive a full Viking burial. We studied two Orkney skeletons from Viking graves with Viking swords who share ancestry with present-day Irish and Scottish people, who could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied," Lawson stated.

Work from the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol specialized in separating out very similar ancestries.

"People in Scandinavia during the Viking age were relatively similar, but we developed advanced methods to separate their ancestries. This showed that Norwegians predominantly went to Ireland and Iceland, whilst Danes came to England," Lawson, Senior Lecturer in Data Science at the University of Bristol, added.

"But Vikings were often diverse, with ancestry from all over Scandinavia and the British Isles found in the same raiding party. The Vikings coming to Britain and Ireland were part of a wider migration spanning several centuries."

Research debunks modern image of Vikings

Lead author of the study professor Eske Willerslev, a fellow of St. John's College at the University of Cambridge and director of the University of Copenhagen's Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, accentuated the most exciting findings.

"We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia, which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed. 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."

The international expert team sequenced the entire genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children, and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in Viking cemeteries.

A number of fascinating discoveries ensued. For example, the researchers analyzed DNA from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four Viking brothers died the same day. The scientists also revealed male skeletons from a Viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not genetically Vikings – despite being buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia.

The study shows that Vikings from what is now Norway traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland. Vikings from what is now Denmark traveled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to Baltic countries on their all-male "raiding parties," the press release stated.

Largest-ever DNA analysis of Viking remains

Co-first author, dr. Ashot Margaryan, assistant professor at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, emphasized that the results were startling.

"We carried out the largest-ever DNA analysis of Viking remains to explore how they fit into the genetic picture of ancient Europeans before the Viking Age. The results were startling, and some answer long-standing historical questions and confirm previous assumptions that lacked evidence.

"We determined that a Viking raiding party expedition included close family members as we discovered four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died the same day. The rest of the occupants of the boat were genetically similar, suggesting that they all likely came from a small town or village somewhere in Sweden," he noted.

Furthermore, DNA from Viking remains was shotgun sequenced from sites in Greenland, Scandinavia, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, Poland, and Russia.

The study also found genetically Pictish people, a Celtic-speaking community that lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods, "became" Vikings without genetically mixing with Scandinavians.

The genetic legacy of the Viking Age lives on today, with 6% of people of the UK population predicted to have Viking DNA compared to 10% in Sweden.

"The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated," Willerslev concluded.

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