We thought we knew all about the Vikings. But some new research suggests we were wrong.
In the largest study of its kind, published in the journal Nature Wednesday, researchers found that many Vikings actually had brown hair. And they weren’t just Scandinavians.
In a six-year study, archaeologists and academics used DNA technology to analyze more than 400 Viking skeletons from sites in Scandinavia, Greenland and the UK.
They found that the Vikings were not only from Scandinavia, but also had genes from both Asia and southern Europe in their bloodline.
The study, led by academics from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found that Viking burial sites in Scotland contained local people who may have assumed “Viking identities”
Researchers say their findings shatter many preconceptions about Vikings.
“The findings change the perception of who a Viking actually was. The history books will need to be updated,” said Eske Willerslev, a colleague at St John’s College in Cambridge.
“We didn’t know genetically what they looked like until now,” Willerslev added.
He said the new research “unmasks” the traditional image of Viking blondes, as “many had brown hair and were influenced by genetic influence from outside Scandinavia.”
The study also revealed genetic differences between the various Viking populations within Scandinavia, suggesting that the different groups were more isolated than previously thought.
And the research also indicated that Viking identity was not something unique to the Vikings themselves.
Two skeletons found on Orkney, off the north-east coast of Scotland, which had DNA similar to modern-day Irish and Scots, were buried in Viking-style tombs. This suggests they may have assumed Viking identities, the researchers say.
The word “Viking” comes from the Scandinavian word “vikingr”, which means “pirate”, and the Viking Age refers to the period of the Middle Ages between 800 and 1050, the researchers explained.
Vikings are known to have traveled across Europe and beyond by sea. Many of these expeditions involved raiding the monasteries, but the Vikings also traded in goods such as furs, tusks and seal fat.
The researchers found that these men-only raid groups were made up of friends, family and neighbors.
The data collected will also be useful in studying natural selection in the past, according to lead author Fernando Racimo, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen.
He said the data “allows us to unravel how the selection went before, during and after the Viking movements across Europe,” with the potential to “begin to infer the physical appearance of the ancient Vikings and compare them to Scandinavians of today”.
The genetic inheritance of the Vikings is still present today, the researchers said, with around 6% of people in the UK and 10% of people in Sweden carrying Viking DNA in their genes.