Science

Ancient DNA analysis debunks a toxic myth about Vikings

Visitors to Scandinavia shook up its genome, but only for a short time.

Lars Einarsson

The Viking Age

has been chronicled in countless books, movies, and TV shows, but that doesn’t mean our media-influenced picture of the period is the whole truth.

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Like any culture in the distant past, there’s a lot we don’t know about Scandinavia during the Viking Age. A new study published in the journal Cell shows that even the ancestry of the Vikings isn’t as clear as we may believe.

Lars Einarsson

David Díaz del Molino

Researchers from Sweden and Iceland analyzed nearly 300 genomes from Scandinavians who lived as early as 2,000 years ago and compared them to modern-day populations.

The samples came from sites as diverse as burial chambers, sunken ships, and the scene of a massacre in 500 CE.

Daniel Lindskog

They found that Scandinavians were far from a cultural monolith, as modern interpretations tend to paint them. Individuals from the eastern Baltic, Great Britain, Ireland, and southern Europe had a major impact on Scandinavia’s gene pool throughout history.

Daniel Lindskog

Daniel Lindskog

During the famed Viking Age, migration was at its highest. Because of this, Great Britain and Ireland in particular are represented in the genome across Scandinavia.

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Some genetic variation is explained by what we already think about Vikings. Raids on nearby settlements involved capturing people as slaves, whose presence in the gene pool points to a grim and violent legacy.

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Ancient Scandinavians also had contact with people as far away as the Middle East through trade. Merchants and missionaries were voluntarily migrating to Scandinavia at the time, bringing genes not found in the native population.

Lars Einarsson

The study found the remains of one woman in central Sweden who appears to have been of completely British-Irish ancestry, whose burial suggests she was of high status.

That means there were likely at least some migrants who integrated into Scandinavian society. But their impact may not have been long-lasting.

Daniel Lindskog

The study actually found far lower levels of non-native genes in modern Scandinavian populations than those of the Viking Age.

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It’s easy to assume the modern world has brought us closer together. Between the internet, language exchange, and the relative ease of travel, the world feels to us more connected and diverse than ever before.

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Tretyakov Gallery

This finding shows that the image of ancient peoples being isolated from each other — one that’s often reinforced through homogeneous media representation — may be more modern fiction than historical fact.