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Vikings Were More Genetically Diverse Than Previously Thought

“What do you do for a living?”

That is generally an easy question to answer – at least until the coronavirus pandemic shook things up. Even so, most people can give an answer that has nothing to do with their ethnicity or culture. It’s not a job to be a “Canadian” or “Buddhist.” However, a new study aims to reclassify one particular historic cultural designation into a job. The name that’s no an ethnicity but a job description? Viking!

“We conclude that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial transregional engagement: distinct populations influenced the genomic makeup of different regions of Europe, and Scandinavia experienced increased contact with the rest of the continent.”

In a new study published in the journal Nature, a group of researchers — led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen — describe the monumental task of mapping the genomes of 442 Viking age skeletons, dating from 2400 BCE to 1600 CE, a period that includes the so-called Viking Age from about 800 CE to around 1050 CE. 750. The skeletons were of men, women and children from across Europe and Greenland, with the purpose of the study to follow the gene flow from Scandinavia to other countries. What they found turned the popular image of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic warriors upside-down.

  • Skeletons from famous Viking burial sites in Scotland were actually local people who could have taken on Viking identities and were buried as Vikings.
  • Many Vikings actually had brown hair not blonde hair.
  • Viking identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. The study shows the genetic history of Scandinavia was influenced by foreign genes from Asia and Southern Europe before the Viking Age.
  • Early Viking Age raiding parties were an activity for locals and included close family members.
  • The genetic legacy in the UK has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA.

The study’s press release points out that the people we lump into the category of Vikings actually came from diverse groups. Some Vikings traveled from what is now Norway to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, while others sailed from Denmark to England, and Vikings from what is now Sweden raided the Baltic countries. It appears that, upon encountering Vikings, many people took on the name and the activities both by force and by choice – the study found that many ‘Vikings’ had high levels of non-Scandinavian DNA. In fact, the Celtic-speaking Picts of what is now eastern and northern Scotland called themselves Vikings but had no Scandinavian genes whatsoever.

“The word Viking comes from the Scandinavian term ‘vikingr’ meaning ‘pirate’.”

“Pirate” is not an ethnicity or genetic group but a job description. This study suggests it’s time to start looking at the Vikings the same way – knowing that what is looking back may be a person from what is now Estonia with brown hair, brown eyes, short stature and no real desire to raid and pillage – just the hope that the local single women think he’s a Viking.

Does this mean all of those television shows and movies will have to add a warning?

“Vikings in this depiction are not as close as they appear.”

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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