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Genes of the Vikings traced across Europe.    Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock

Tracking the Genetic Fingerprints of the Viking Woman Hunters

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Scientists have tracked ancient Viking genes across Europe further detailing the cultural, political and economic impact of the legendary raiders and traders of the Middle Ages. 

The Germanic Iron Age ended under the weight of the invading Roman Empire , and after the Italian conquistadors themselves collapsed the Germanic migration period (400–600 AD) saw the reformation of people groups, preceding the Viking Age (AD 750–1050). At this time Scandinavians mastered ship-building and refined sail making methodology and these advances in technologies led them to set out raiding and trading their way across Europe, and reaching North America.

Now, a new study published in the journal Nature by Professor Eske Willerslev and colleagues from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, presents a new genetic study and information on the “maritime expansion” of Scandinavian Vikings between 750–1066 AD, revealing hitherto unknown aspects of the impact that Vikings had on Middle Age European culture and politics.

With Culture Comes Status, And With Status Comes Horrors

Tracking the Viking Age genomic spread of Scandinavian people groups across Europe, the team of researchers gathered 442 ancient human DNA samples dating back to the Germanic Bronze Age about 2400 BC, all the way through to the Early Modern period occurring around 1600 AD, from all across Europe and Greenland. The study showed that during the Viking Age, “a foreign gene flow,” spilled into Scandinavia from the south and east, and it shows what can be described as chart of Viking conquest and colonization outside Scandinavia.

Examples of a few archaeological Viking Age sites and samples used in the study, clockwise from top left: a) Salme II ship burial site, Estonia, b) Ridgeway Hill mass grave, England, c) Balladoole ship burial, Isle of Man, d) Viking Age site in Varnhem, Sweden . (Nature)

Examples of a few archaeological Viking Age sites and samples used in the study, clockwise from top left: a) Salme II ship burial site, Estonia, b) Ridgeway Hill mass grave, England, c) Balladoole ship burial, Isle of Man, d) Viking Age site in Varnhem, Sweden . ( Nature)

Some of the primary patterns that arise from the scientists’ genomic map show how Danish Vikings primarily invaded in England to the west, Vikings from Sweden sailed eastwards to the Baltic states, while Norwegian Vikings set up an empire encompassing Iceland and Greenland to the north and Ireland in the west. But let’s not in any way get misty eyed about this genetic spread for the Viking seed was in part spread through rape and the kidnapping high-status females who were entrapped during the pillaging and plundered European towns.

“Conquest and Colonization”, The Mask Of Rape And Entrapment

According to a paper discussed in 2016 Science Alert article it was long believed “a population boom” triggered Viking raiding groups to first set sail from the shores of Scandinavia, however, other research suggested the prime motivation was finding sexual partners. According to Live Science , based on archaeological evidence gathered from mass graves and clues from Nordic sagas, it was discovered that the richest and most powerful of Viking males had many wives, and concubines, and that young Vikings “went in search of additional wives to assert their status.”

Also dove-tailing into the new Viking gene map are the conclusions of a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Iceland and deCODE Genetics in Reykjavík , which the Irish Post said “revealed the fate of thousands of slaves - mostly women - transported from Ireland and Scotland to the Norse Vikings' fledgling Icelandic colony in the 9th and 10th centuries.”

The painting depicts, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. ( Haukurth / Public domain )

The painting depicts, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (  Haukurth / Public domain  )

Returning to the new study, the researchers’ analysis also presents examples of ancestry with affinities to present-day Swedish populations in the western fringes of Europe and modern Danish populations in the east.” And accounting for the genetic samples taken from ancient communities with “mixed ancestries,” the scientists concluded that the people were brought together by “complex trading, raiding and settling networks that crossed cultures and continents.” In other words: invading, rape and slavery away from home.

Genetic Fingerprints Of A Viking Expedition

For Ancient Origins readers, so far as intrigue is concerned, one particular aspect of this new study towers above all that has thus far been written. Relating to the genomes of 34 Vikings, this included a burial site in Salme, Estonia, where remains were found to include “four brothers buried side by side, with two additional pairs of kin”. And why this is so, so awe inspiring, is because the researchers describe these Vikings as having been part of an “expedition.”

Skeletons from Salme II ship burial site of the Early Viking Age, excavated in present-day Estonia. Described as an ‘expedition’.(Nature)

Skeletons from Salme II ship burial site of the Early Viking Age, excavated in present-day Estonia. Described as an ‘expedition’.( Nature)

And if the idea of an ancient family of Viking explorers setting up a new station, or outpost, in the expanding Nordic empire isn’t enough to stir one’s imagination, then get this: the new genetic study revealed that relatives of this Viking family had been buried “hundreds of kilometers” distant, and the authors think this “illustrates the mobility of individuals during the Viking Age.”

And what this also suggests is that an ancient Scandinavian Viking mafia, a family of greedy traders set out to conquer their own patch of the east, who unashamedly raped and killed in the name of gods, honor, and most of all, for sex. And if it were not for that last reason then this new study of the spread of the Viking genome could not have taken place.

The full report is available on Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2688-8.

Top image: Genes of the Vikings traced across Europe.    Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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