In the genes

Viking DNA is rewriting ancient history

Vikings are not who you think they are.

Viking man
Lorado / Getty Images

Ancient Viking warriors steal our modern-day imaginations more than most other ancient peoples. Brutal, seafaring, and mystical, their society and mythology is the basis of one of the most influential Marvel franchises, Thor. And the actor in the titular role, Chris Hemsworth, is the stereotypical Viking: blond, blue-eyed, built, and tall.

You might say it was in his genes to play Thor. But in truth, Viking genetics tell a much more complex history than popular cultural re-tellings of their story would have us believe.

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories from 2020 which redefine 'human.' This is number 20. See the full list here.

In September 2020, the largest ever Viking DNA study flipped everything we thought we knew about their history on its head. By sequencing the genomes of more than 400 Viking men, women, and children, scientists revealed this ancient warrior people may have been far more diverse in origin and behaviors than we first thought.

The study rewrites Viking lore, and demonstrates the power of modern-day scientific techniques to cut through the haze of history and reveal the truth about our ancestors.

The study, originally published in the journal Nature, completely upended the scientists' own expectations, too.

"The history books will need to be updated."

The researchers compared the Viking DNA set to DNA from 3,855 people living in regions known to have been touched by Viking occupation at some point in history, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden. The team discovered that "Viking DNA" was not monolithic, but instead showed a high degree of intermixing with DNA from other regions, explains Eske Willerslev, lead author on the study and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen.

Some remains from a mass grave of 50 headless Vikings in Somerset, U.K. were used in this study.

Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology

"We didn't know genetically what they actually looked like until now," Willerslev said at the time.

"We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed," she said.

New histories — One of the most curious discoveries resulting from this DNA treasure trove was a pattern suggesting genes flowed from Southern Europe and Asia into Scandinavia prior to the so-called Viking Age. This suggests the spread of Viking DNA through Europe isn't just a result of them marauding through the continent. Rather, their social behavior and cultural exchanges may have been more complex.

The study also discovered some "Vikings" weren't even genetically Vikings at all. One Scottish "Viking," for example, was found buried with traditional Viking swords — despite actually being a member of a different ancient warrior culture, the Picts.

"The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was," Willerslev said. "The history books will need to be updated."

Inverse is counting down the 20 stories from 2020 which redefine what it means to be human. This is number 20. You can read the original story here.

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