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More Genetic Information about the Viking Age

Updated 23 September 2020

Is it possible to understand the Viking expansion based on genetics?

Researchers have now tried. They studied the genomes of 442 human remains from northern Europe, the North Atlantic and the Baltic. Their main result shows the level of migration within Scandinavia, as well as the dynamics to and from the region. Inland, there was little movement. On the coast, the variety in genetics is much larger. This is probably due to the hustle and bustle of the trading places there, and the long(er)-distance connections they might have had.

The study also confirms an old educated hunch in Viking studies; that certain groups settled in certain parts. Indeed, the Danes went to England, Norwegians to the West (Ireland, Iceland, Greenland) and the Swedes to the Baltic and beyond. Still this is generally-speaking, I assume? The odd Norwegian may have joined a Danish Viking group in England. And even in Scotland a Viking burial was found with Viking artefacts, but the deceased was a local man and not a Scandinavian. So, there are plenty of nuances to take into account, still. For example, families would venture beyond Scandinavia togther, or sometimes far apart. There is a ship burial in Estonia in which four brother were lain next to each other, but the researchers also found matching DNA of an uncle and nephew on either side of the North Sea.

Then lastly, there is the matter of hair. Since the nineteenth century, Vikings are pictured with long blond hair, much as we associate blond hair with modern-day Scandinavians. The genomics show, however, that Vikings often had dark hair. If you want to find out why, note that the original article is behind the paywall. But there are excellent summaries in The Science Times and on Medievalists.net and two podcast episodes.

Further Reading

Original Article (behind paywall): Ashot Margaryan, Daniel J. Lawson, Martin Sikora et al., ‘Population genomics of the Viking world,’ in: Nature Volume 585 (2020), pp. 390-396.
Nature‘s podcast. The first c. 8 minutes are an interview with Cat Jarman and Martin Sikora.
History Extra’s podcast with Cat Jarman about this very article.
Read the article on The Science Times.
Read the review on Medievalists.net

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