Vikings were less of a race, more of a concept or culture

DNA analysis from Orkney bones found Scottish locals had merely adopted Viking identities, University of Cambridge research finds

Blonde and burly, the Vikings are commonly viewed as a Scandinavian warrior-race who traversed treacherous seas to raid and colonise distant lands.

However, the biggest ever study of skeletons from archaeological sites in Europe and Greenland has shown that the Vikings were less of a race and more of an idea, with some even hailing from Scotland.

DNA analysis from bones from burial sites in Orkney has found that the remains were of Scottish locals who had adopted Viking identities.

Skeletons with British heritage were also found in Norway, while other Vikings had ancestors from Asian and Southern Europe. Many were found to have dark, not blonde hair.

Prof Eske Willerslev, of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, said: “This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was – no one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

“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.

“The results change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated.”

The Viking Age lasted from around 800AD until the 1050s, a few years before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Although the invaders gained infamy by raiding monasteries and coastal towns they also traded goods such as fur and tusks and often settled, exporting language, beliefs and new political structures

The results of the six-year genetic project, published in the journal Nature, show that in England their genetic legacy has left the population with up to six per cent Viking DNA

In fact, the Vikings were so popular that it now appears that Britons chose to assimilate with their culture and practices. Genetically, Celtic speaking Picts of Scotland ‘became’ Vikings without ever genetically mixing with Scandinavians. 

The team discovered that two men buried with swords and other Viking memorabilia in Orkney were in fact locals who had adopted norse traditions.

Prof Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who collaborated on the ground-breaking paper, explained:  "Importantly our results show that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry. 

“Two Orkney skeletons who were buried with Viking swords in Viking style graves are genetically similar to present-day Irish and Scottish people, and could be the earliest Pictish genomes ever studied.”

The Orkney islands, where DNA analysis from bones from burial sites found that the remains were of Scottish locals who had adopted Viking identities Credit: VisitScotland/VisitScotland

Dr Daniel Lawson, lead author and from the University of Bristol, added: “This is a different side of the cultural relationship from Viking raiding and pillaging”

The team sequenced the whole genomes from skeletons of 442 men, women, children and babies from their teeth and bones found in Viking cemeteries. 

The findings show that distinct populations travelled to different locations. For example the Vikings from what is now Norway travelled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. 

The Vikings from what is now Denmark travelled to England. And Vikings from what is now Sweden went to the Baltic countries on all male ‘raiding parties’.

Professor Martin Sikora, a lead author of the paper and an Associate Professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, said: “We found that Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians in their genetic ancestry, as we analysed genetic influences in their DNA from Southern Europe and Asia which has never been contemplated before. 

“Many Vikings have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, both within and outside Scandinavia, which suggest ongoing gene flow across Europe.”

Prof Willerslev added: “We didn’t know genetically what they actually looked like until now. We found genetic differences between different Viking populations within Scandinavia which shows Viking groups in the region were far more isolated than previously believed

“Our research even debunks the modern image of Vikings with blonde hair, as many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influx from the outside of Scandinavia.”