The public fascination with the Vikings is great these days. Several recent television series are available for bloody viewing. But the Vikings have never really gone out of style, whether for entertainment or because of their real historical significance.
Periodically, scientists remind the public that the people we call Vikings did not see themselves as a group and, for the most part, but not generally, came from the geographic area we now call Scandinavia. The Viking Age from about 750 to 1050 included brutal raids, extensive trade and commerce, and probably the majority of the people who stayed on the farm.
Now one of the most comprehensive genetic studies of ancient DNA ever undertaken has largely bolstered the current historical and archaeological understanding of the Vikings, but it also offers some surprises about their travels and unearths some poignant personal stories. Ninety researchers, led by Eske Willerslev, an old DNA specialist from the University of Copenhagen, reported in Nature on Wednesday about their analysis of the genomes of 443 old people from Europe and Greenland.
Based on DNA analysis and comparisons with modern populations, they found that people who are genetically similar to modern Danes and Norwegians generally went west in their raids and trade, while “Swedish” people mostly went east. The results are based on the graves of robbers or traders in England, Ireland, Estonia and elsewhere.
However, they found that this was just a general pattern. Sometimes Swedish groups went west and the others went east.
They also found considerable genetic diversity in the ancient remains, suggesting a pre-Viking migration of Southern Europeans to the area of Denmark, undermining any notion of a single Nordic genetic identity. For example, some of Britain's earliest inhabitants, the Picten, were buried as Vikings.
The researchers also found people of mixed Sami and European ancestry. The Sami are reindeer herders with an Asian genetic background who have lived across Scandinavia and other countries for thousands of years. It was believed that they were in conflict with the Scandinavians of European heritage during the Viking Age.
Dr. Willerslev said the common view was that the two groups were hostile. But perhaps, he said, there were non-hostile interactions between them, resulting in offspring who were of mixed heritage and were part of the Viking groups.
David Reich of Harvard University, a specialist in population studies based on ancient DNA who was not involved in the research, said the survey was one of the largest ever conducted on ancient DNA. One result of this is that not only broad patterns have emerged, but also specific insights that prove the relationships between people. "You can ask detailed questions about how people relate to one another within a site," he said.
For example, the earliest evidence of a Viking expedition comes from a burial site dating back to 750 in Salme, Estonia, where two Viking ships were buried. seven men in one, 34 in another, with weapons, provisions, dogs and birds of prey. Nobody knows if this was a raid or a diplomatic or trade expedition, but the men appear to have been forcibly killed and buried as warriors.
DNA analysis revealed that four of the men were brothers and were related to a fifth man, perhaps an uncle. One of the authors of the report, Neil Price, an archaeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden and author of the recently published book “Children of Ashes and Elm: A Viking Tale”, said: “We suspect that you and your ambushed family, but it shows that they really did. "
"There's a story behind this," he said, "save Private Ryan" or something. "
Coming soon for binge watching on your favorite Viking channel.