Quirks and Quarks

Short, dark and southern — many Vikings aren't who you thought they were

DNA evidence suggests it is time to rethink our picture of these fierce warriors of the Middle Ages

DNA evidence suggests it is time to rethink our picture of these fierce warriors of the Middle Ages

A reconstruction of ‘Southern European’ Vikings, reflecting the gene flow into Viking age Scandinavia. ( Jim Lyngvild)

It's time to re-think our standard image of Vikings. Their DNA suggests that the stereotype of the tall, blond Scandinavian pillager doesn't reflect the diversity of Vikings as a group.

Researchers analyzed DNA from 400 skeletons buried in Viking graves and were surprised to find genetic contributions from southern Europe and Asia in Viking DNA.

The study was led by Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen. 

"We find Vikings that are half southern European, half Scandinavian, half Sami, which are the indigenous peoples to the north of Scandinavia, and half European Scandinavians. We even find Vikings in Scotland that have no Scandinavian ancestry whatsoever."

'Viking' was a culture, not an ethnicity

The skeletons in Scotland were found buried in the Viking tradition along with Viking artifacts, yet the DNA analysis revealed no connection to any group in Scandinavia. This suggests that being a Viking was more of an occupation than an ethnicity. 

DNA from a woman in a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden was sequenced as part of the study. (Vastergotlands Museum)

"It seems to be a culture that you could adapt to" said Willerslev. "It didn't have anything necessarily to do with your ancestry. We can also see there were less blond people among the Vikings than those among Scandinavians today, for example."

The Norse and Canada

Another surprise was that the Scandinavian contribution to Viking diversity was itself somewhat limited. The study found there was limited contact between various groups within Scandinavia — for example inland populations were not represented in Viking DNA. And Scandinavian Vikings mixed with people from other places, but not much with each other. 

Thus Vikings from present day Denmark went to England. Those from present day Sweden went to the Baltic region, where the only known archeological evidence of a Viking raiding party has been identified. And Vikings from what is now Norway, known as Norse, went to Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. 

Rune stone from Västergötland, Sweden. DNA was extracted from remains of several individuals at this site. The runes read "…made this stone after his son Gudmar. He was killed in England." (University of Copenhagen)

The Norse Vikings were the people who are believed to have travelled to Canada — or Vinland, as they called it — by way of Greenland. Despite leaving behind the abandoned settlement L'Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, as well as grave sites on Greenland, what became of these Vikings presents a huge mystery to scientists like Willerslev.

"It seems to be a very abrupt ending for them because we don't see any evidence of inbreeding, which is normally what you see if the population gets smaller and smaller over a long period of time." Willerslev said. "And quite surprisingly, we don't find any evidence of any mixture with Native Americans, Paleo-Inuits or Inuits. And this is surprising because everywhere else where we see the Vikings, they mix up very significantly with the local population."

Changing the Viking stereotype

Willerslev is hopeful that research like his will help historians refine their picture of the Vikings.

"It has certainly changed my view on the stereotype. Being a Dane, it's kind of our identity, right? We are derived from the Vikings. These were these blond people and all that. It's a myth that we love so much that we really don't want to change it, even though the data suggests otherwise."