Largest-ever study of Viking genetics reveals new insights

The largest genetic study of the Vikings ever done has just been published, and offers surprising discoveries about the medieval warriors, including that they may not be quite as Nordic as hitherto believed.

The researchers, led by scholars from the Univerisity of Copenhagen, have sequenced the genome of 442 bone fragments from the Viking Age, from throughout Europe and Greenland. They were found from archaeological sites dating between the Bronze Age to the about year 1600, and their data was compared to modern-day individuals. The results were reported in the journal Nature.


“The Vikings had a lot more genes from Southern and Eastern Europe than we anticipated.” explains Eske Willerslev, Professor at Lundbeck Foundation Center for Geogenetics at the GLOBE Institute at the University of Copenhage. “They frequently had children with people from other parts of the world. In fact, they also tend to be dark-haired rather than blond, which is otherwise consider an established Viking-trait,” n, Eske Willerslev, explains.

The new study also reveals that generally Vikings were a lot more genetically diverse than the peasant societies on the Scandinavian mainland. “The Vikings lived in coastal areas, and genetically speaking, they were an entirely different people to the peasant societies living further inland,” adds co-author Ashot Margaryan. “The mainland inhabitants had a lot less in common with the Vikings than the peasants who lived in Europe thousands of years ago. You could almost say that genetically speaking, the peasants missed out on the entire Iron and Bronze Age.”


However, the Viking’s diverse genome stems not merely from people from elsewhere travelling to their settlements. In fact, they were themselves avid travellers, and historically, we know them best for their plundering and raids abroad. But this genetic study sheds new light on who went where.

“The Danish Vikings went to England, while the Swedish Vikings went to the Baltic and the Norwegian Vikings went to Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. However, 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,” Ashot Margaryan says.

The new study also discards what we think we know about who actually went on raids together. Researchers have been able to find out more about this at Salme in Estonia, where 41 men from Sweden who died violently were buried in two boats. This took place in the mid-eighth century, decades before the first documented raid in England at Lindisfarne.

The article notes:

Kinship analysis of the genomes of 34 individuals from the Salme burial reveals 4 brothers buried side by side and a third-degree relative of 1 of the 4 brothers. The ancestry profiles of the Salme individuals were similar to one another when compared to the profiles of other burials of the Viking Age, which suggests a relatively genetically homogeneous group of people of high status (including close kin).


Eske Willerslev adds that, “Popular culture suggests that the Viking Chief would recruit the strongest warriors from neighbouring tribes or communities to join him on a raid somewhere. But at least five of the Vikings in this grave are closely related. So perhaps you just brought your family along when you went on a raid.”

The Vikings fared better in other places. In England, by way of example, it has been possible to trace an influx of people from Scandinavia by studying language and specific place names. And the new study shows that in some of those places, the inhabitants actually embraced the entire Viking culture.

“In Scotland there’s a grave, which in archaeological terms would be classified as a Viking grave. Its swords and symbols reflect the Viking culture. However, genetically speaking, the man in the grave has nothing in common with the Vikings. He is an example of how the Viking culture was embraced in certain places,” Eske Willerslev elaborates.


The researchers also examined present-day populations to see how much of their ancestry is similar to those from the Viking Age. Within Scandinavia the present-day populations for the most part do resemble their Viking counterparts, except for Sweden – the Vikings are present at only 15–30% within that country today. Outside of Scandinavia, the genetic legacy can also be seen. The article notes:

A small Scandinavian ancestry component is present in Poland (up to 5%). Within the British Isles, it is difficult to assess how much of the Danish-like ancestry is due to pre-existing Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but the Viking Age contribution does not exceed 6% in England. The genetic effects are stronger in the other direction. Although some North-Atlantic-like individuals in Orkney became culturally Scandinavian, others found themselves in Iceland, Norway and beyond, leaving a genetic legacy that persists today. Present-day Norwegian individuals vary between 12 and 25% in North-Atlantic-like ancestry; this ancestry is more uniformly 10% in Sweden.

Finally, the new study not only discards popular ideas about Vikings, from time to time, scientific circles have also discussed the Viking Age. “Some researchers and intellectuals have been of the opinion that in the North, we have a tendency to romanticize the Viking Age, because it is our own, and a very specific history. They have argued that the Viking Age wasn’t really an Age at all, but rather part of the Iron Age. However, 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,” Eske Willerslev concludes.

The article ‘Population genomics of the Viking world” is published in Nature, Vol. 585 (2020). Click here to access it.


Top Image: Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in the eighth (dark red), ninth (red), tenth (orange) centuries. Yellow denotes areas conquered by the Normans in the 11th century. Green denotes areas subjected to Viking raids. Image by Max Naylor / Wikimedia Commons