Researchers say the results of a six-year project debunk the modern image of vikings as brutal predators who travelled by sea from Scandinavia to pillage and raid their way across Europe and beyond.
DNA sequencing of more than 400 viking skeletons from archaeological sites scattered across Europe and Greenland has shed new light on what we know about them.
Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge – and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen, led the study.
He said: “We have this image of well-connected vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world.
“This study changes the perception of who a viking actually was – no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”
Researchers sequenced the whole genomes of 442 mostly Viking Age men, women, children and babies from their teeth and petrous bones found in viking cemeteries.
The genomes of three men and a woman from Irish Viking burials in Dublin and Co Galway were sequenced and studied.
These included sites at Islandbridge, close to the largest early Viking Age burial complex in Dublin; Finglas (a female burial excavated in 2004); a male burial from Ship Street Great in Dublin; and Eyrephort discovered near Clifden in Co Galway in 1947.
The researchers, who included members from the National Museum of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin (TCD), also analysed the DNA from the remains from a boat burial in Estonia and discovered four viking brothers died the same day.
According to the research published in Nature, male skeletons from a viking burial site in Orkney, Scotland, were not actually genetically vikings despite being buried with swords and other viking memorabilia.
While there was not a word for Scandinavia during the Viking Age, the study shows that the vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland.
The vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on their all male raiding parties, the scientists suggest.
Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: “We found that vikings weren’t just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before.
“Many vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe.”
Meanwhile, Dr Lara Cassidy, assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin said:
“It has long been suspected that many of these invaders came from Norway. It is fantastic to be able to confirm this now with genetic data.
“In general, Irish Viking genomes harbour high levels of Norwegian-like ancestry. This is a real contrast to what we see in England during the same period, where there is stronger Danish influence.”
The Viking Age generally refers to the period from 800 AD, a few years after the earliest recorded raid, until the 1050s.
Archaeologists and museum curators working in 1947 would never have imagined that we might know the hair and eye colour of the warrior who was buried with his weapons near Clifden in Co. Galway in the 9th century.