Tall, blond, strong and relentless Scandinavian warriors. Thanks to some sagas and legends – and movies and Netflix – this is how the Vikings established themselves in the popular imagination.
But now, a new study, the largest genetic analysis of this culture to date, overturns many of the judgments we had from this powerful group of navigators who conquered parts of Asia, Greenland and Europe around the first millennium AD.
“The results change the perception of who the Vikings really were. The history books will have to be updated,” says evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev, leader of the study, in a statement released by the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, one of the institutions of teaching involved in discovery.
The research involved the genetic analysis of more than 400 Viking skeletons in different locations in Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Poland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Russia.
“The study took more than six years to complete since its inception and involved collecting bone samples from across Europe in collaboration with a large team of archaeologists,” explains Fernando Racimo, an expert at the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, and one of the authors.
According to Racimo, scientists began by extracting and sequencing the genetic material from the samples and then analyzing it and comparing it with other ancient and current genomes, interpreting the results “in their cultural and historical context.”
“The whole effort involved a large team of geneticists, statisticians, archaeologists, linguists and historians,” he says.
The study was carried out by scientists at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and Cambridge (United Kingdom), and the results were published on Wednesday (16/09) in the scientific journal Nature.
What does the study say?
The researchers assumed that the maritime expansion of Scandinavian populations during the Viking Era (around 750-1050 AD) was a profound transformation in world history.
To this end, the team sequenced the genomes of 442 humans (including men, women, children) from archaeological sites in Europe and Greenland to understand the global influence of this expansion.
“The biggest achievement (from research) is that we now have a very detailed picture of the genomic structure inside and outside Scandinavia during the Viking era and the genetic impact of Viking expeditions across the continent,” says Racimo.
To the surprise of many, and contrary to the group’s frequent “racial purity” theory, they found that the Vikings, genetically, not only came from Scandinavia, but also had DNA from Asia, southern Europe and the British Isles.
“We concluded that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial transregional involvement: different populations influenced the genomic composition of different regions in Europe and Scandinavia experienced greater contact with the rest of the continent,” points out the study.
According to Racimo, the research also revealed how the Viking routes also led the group’s genetics to diversify.
“We also saw that the ancestry of southern Europe increased in southern Scandinavia during the Viking era, probably due to the increase in trade routes and the frequency of expeditions to the south of the continent and vice versa,” he observes.
As a result, scientists found that not all Vikings were blond or had fair skin and blue eyes.
“Our research discredits the modern image of blonde-haired Vikings, as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetics from outside Scandinavia,” says Willerslev in a statement released by the University of Cambridge.
Research suggests that being a Viking was more of a concept and culture than a question of genetic inheritance, as was believed until now.
In fact, the team found that two Viking skeletons buried in the northern islands of Scotland had Scandinavian and Irish heritage, but none Scandinavian, at least genetically.
“I was particularly surprised by the amount of mixing that occurred between the Vikings and the local population within each of the regions we studied. Often, we found that several individuals who were ‘culturally’ Vikings or buried in the Viking style also had affinities with ancestry with local people, for example, Celtic-type people in the west and on the North Atlantic islands, “Racimo tells BBC News Mundoy, the BBC’s Spanish news service.
The study also points out that Viking ships on their expeditions were sometimes made up of members of the same family or who were associated in their travels with the populations or regions they inhabited.
Who were the Vikings?
Traditionally, Vikings were considered warriors and navigators from northern Europe who conquered parts of that continent, Asia, and arrived in America around the year 1000.
“Scandinavian diasporas established trade and settlements that stretched from the American continent to the Asian steppes. They exported ideas, technologies, language, beliefs and practices and developed new socio-political structures,” says Søren Sindbæk, archaeologist at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, a study collaborators.
Vikings changed the political and genetic course of Europe, but they also explored other continents.
Many expeditions involved attacks on monasteries and cities along Europe’s coastal settlements, but according to historians, trade in products such as sealskin, prey and fat was often their main objective.
The Nordic Sagas, the ancient Scandinavian collection of myths and legends, recounts the height of Viking conquest and exploration a millennium ago.
According to his reports, Canuto the Great became king of England, Olaf Tryggvason brought Christianity to Norway and a Viking named Leif Ericson was the first European to reach the American continent before Christopher Columbus’ expedition.
According to legend, Ericson led an expedition from the new Nordic settlement in Greenland to the west, sailing towards the unknown, in search of land and resources to deal with the deficiencies of the Greenland colony.
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