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The Vikings were more complicated than one might think

Public fascination with Vikings is high these days, with several television series available for bloody binges. But Vikings have never gone out of style, either as pure entertainment or because of their real historical significance.

Periodically, scholars remind the public that the people we call Vikings did not think of themselves as a group and came largely, but not universally, from the geographic area we now call Scandinavia. The Viking Era, circa 750 to 1050, included brutal raids, extensive trade and commerce, and probably the majority of people who stayed home on the farm.

Now, one of the largest genetic investigations ever done on ancient DNA has largely reinforced the current historical and archaeological understanding of the Vikings, but it also offers some surprises about their travels and uncovers some touching personal stories. Ninety researchers, led by Eske Willerslev, an ancient DNA specialist at the University of Copenhagen, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature on their analysis of the genomes of 443 ancient humans from Europe and Greenland.

Based on DNA analysis and comparison with modern populations, they found that people genetically similar to modern Danes and Norwegians generally headed west in their forays and trades, while “Swedish-like” people headed mainly towards East. The findings are based on graves of marauders or traders in England, Ireland, Estonia and elsewhere.

However, they found that this was only a general pattern. Sometimes Swedish-type groups headed west and others east.

They also found considerable genetic variety in the ancient remains, indicating the migration of southern Europeans, before the Viking era, to the area of ​​Denmark, which undermines any idea of ​​a single Nordic genetic identity. Some of Britain’s earliest inhabitants, the Picts, were buried as Vikings, for example.

The researchers also found people of mixed Sami and European ancestry. The Sami are reindeer herders with an Asian genetic background who have lived throughout Scandinavia and other countries for thousands of years. It was thought that they were in conflict with Scandinavians of European heritage during the Viking era.

Dr. Willerslev said the common opinion was that the two groups were hostile. But perhaps, he said, there were non-hostile interactions between them that resulted in offspring that were of mixed heritage and were part of Viking groups.

David Reich of Harvard University, a specialist in ancient DNA-based population studies who was not involved in the research, said the investigation was one of the largest ever undertaken on ancient DNA. One result of this, he said, was that not only general patterns emerged, but also specific findings that show relationships between people. “You can ask detailed questions about how people are connected to each other within a site,” he said.

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