UHI academics contribute to international Viking DNA research project

DNA from a female skeleton, found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. (Picture: Västergötlands Museum)

Two academics from the University of the Highlands and Islands were part of an international team of researchers involved in a project hailed as “the world’s largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons”.

Dr Ingrid Mainland, Senior Lecturer at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and Julie Gibson, Orkney Islands Council County Archaeologist and UHI researcher, contributed to the paper, Population genomics of the Viking world, which was published in Nature on September 16.

(The paper is available to read online here)

Led by Professor Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, the research team extracted and analysed DNA from the remains of 442 men, women and children.

The remains were recovered from archaeological sites in Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and mostly date to the Viking Age (c.AD750-1050). Eight individuals in the study came from Orkney – three from Newark, Deerness; two from Buckquoy, Birsay, and three from the Brough Road, Birsay.

The team’s analyses yielded a number of findings. One of the most noteworthy is that contrary to what has often been assumed, Viking identity was not limited to people of Scandinavian ancestry — an individual, buried in a “Scandinavian fashion” in Birsay, Orkney, was found to be of Scottish ancestry.

Two other individuals from Orkney had 50 per cent Scandinavian ancestry, and five such individuals were found in Scandinavia. This suggests that Pictish populations may have been integrated into Scandinavian culture by the Viking Age.

They also found evidence that there was significant gene flow into Scandinavia from the British Isles, Southern Europe, and Asia before and during the Viking Age, which further undermines the image of the Vikings as “pure” Scandinavians.

Another discovery that runs counter to the standard image of the Vikings is that many had brown, not blonde, hair.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. (Picture: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology)

The analyses’ results also shed light on the Vikings’ activities. For example, consistent with patterns documented by historians and archaeologists, the team found that Vikings who travelled to England generally had Danish ancestry, while the majority of Vikings who travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland had Norwegian ancestry. In contrast, Vikings who headed east were mostly from Sweden.

Interestingly, explained Simon Fraser University archaeology professor Mark Collard, data revealed a number of close kin among the 442 individuals. Four members of a Viking raiding party interred in a boat burial in Estonia were found to be brothers, while two individuals buried 300 to 400 kilometres apart in Sweden were found to be cousins. Perhaps even more strikingly, the team identified a pair of second-degree male relatives (i.e. half-brothers, nephew-uncle, or grandson-grandfather) from two sites, one in Denmark and one in England.

“We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was,” said Prof Willerslev. “No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

Of all the team’s discoveries, Prof Collard is most intrigued by the identification of close kin.

“While the ‘big picture’ discoveries are great, I was blown away by the fact that the analyses revealed the presence of four brothers in the Estonian boat burial, and a possible nephew and uncle on either side of the North Sea.”

“These findings have important implications for social life in the Viking world, but we would’ve remained ignorant of them without ancient DNA. They really underscore the power of the approach for understanding history.”