Dark hair was common among Vikings, genetic study confirms

By Nicola Davis

They may have had a reputation for trade, braids and fearsome raids, but the Vikings were far from a single group of flaxen-haired, sea-faring Scandinavians.

A genetic study of Viking-age human remains has not only confirmed that Vikings from different parts of Scandinavia set sail for different parts of the world, but has revealed that dark hair was more common among Vikings than Danes today.

What’s more, while some were born Vikings, others adopted the culture – or perhaps had it thrust upon them.

“Vikings were not restricted to blond Scandinavians,” said Prof Eske Willerslev, a co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen.

Writing in the journal Nature, Willerslev and colleagues report how they sequenced the genomes of 442 humans who lived across Europe between about 2,400BC and 1,600AD, with the majority from the Viking age – a period that stretched from around 750AD to 1050AD.

The study also drew on existing data from more than 1,000 ancient individuals from non-Viking times, and 3,855 people living today.

Among their results the team found that from the iron age, southern European genes entered Denmark and then spread north, while – to a lesser extent – genes from Asia entered Sweden.

“Vikings are, genetically, not purely Scandinavian,” said Willerslev.

However, the team found Viking age Scandinavians were not a uniform population, but clustered into three main groups – a finding that suggests Vikings from different parts of Scandinavia did not mix very much. .

The team found these groups roughly map on to present-day Scandinavian countries, although Vikings from south-west Sweden were genetically similar to their peers in Denmark. Genetic diversity was greatest in coastal regions.

Further analysis confirmed the long-standing view that most Vikings in England came from Denmark, as reflected in place names and historical records, while the Baltic region was dominated by Swedish Vikings, and Vikings from Norway ventured to Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and the Isle of Man.

However, the team say remains from Russia revealed some Vikings from Denmark also travelled east.

The study also revealed raids were likely a local affair: the team found four brothers and another relative died in Salme, Estonia, in about 750AD, in what is thought could have been a raid, with others in the party likely to have been from the same part of Sweden.

In addition, the team found two individuals from Orkney, who were buried with Viking swords, had no Scandinavian genetic ancestry.

“[Being a Viking] is not a pure ethnic phenomenon, it is a lifestyle that you can adopt whether you are non-Scandinavian or Scandinavian,” said Willerslev, adding that genetic influences from abroad both before and during the Viking age might help explain why genetic variants for dark hair were relatively common among Vikings.

Dr Steve Ashby, an expert in Viking-age archaeology from the University of York said the study confirmed what had been suspected about movement and trade in the Viking age, but also brought fresh detail.

“The evidence for gene flow with southern Europe and Asia is striking, and sits well with recent research that argues for large-scale connectivity in this period,” he said.

“[The study] also provides new information about levels of contact and isolation within Scandinavia itself, and offers an interesting insight into the composition of raiding parties.”

But Judith Jesch, professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham said the study is unlikely to rewrite the history books.

“We long ago gave up on the most colourful popular myths about Vikings, and recent research has focused on the Viking age as a period of mobility, when people from Scandinavia migrated in various directions, and often back again, encountering and interacting with other peoples, languages and cultures in a process which I and others have called diaspora,” she said.

Even so, Jesch said the study offered food for thought. “Archaeologists have long suggested that many cultural ideas reached Scandinavia through the Danish gateway, so it will be interesting to discuss further what this gene flow [from Denmark to Norway and Sweden] means in terms of how culture is diffused. Did it happen as a result of the movements of people or by some other process?,” she said.