Ground-Breaking DNA Sequencing Study Shows Vikings Weren’t Who We Believed Them to Be

Published: Jan 09, 2023

We have all grown up watching several interpretations of Vikings in various forms of media, but there is one common thread that binds them – their ferocity. People saw them as bloodthirsty warriors whose main occupation was to pillage and plunder. 

They were mainly heavy-set, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, with long blonde tresses billowing in the air. Our ears still ring with their battle cries and metals clanging for their fights ahead; they were intense, and we’ve pictured them that way for ages. Turns out, we were all, mostly wrong. In 2020, a DNA sequencing study debunked those theories. 

Vikings As We Know

In History books, Vikings have always painted a terrifying picture. They were burly men from the Scandinavian Islands whose favorite pastime was to raid for survival. Their battle instincts rivaled none, and they were some of the most feared warriors on planet earth at one point. 

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Source: Silar / wikicommons

With axes, swords, lances, and spears, always at the ready, these men were known to watch out for their own and never intermingle with other communities and cultures. At least, that’s what we have been led to believe from the scores of television shows and books on them. 

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Meaning of the Word "Viking"

The academic world has always defined Vikings as people of Scandinavian descent who had plundered and raided their way through Europe between the eighth and the 11th century. Interestingly, the term “Viking” comes from the Old Norse word “Vikingr,” which means pirate. 

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Source: Janter~commonswiki / wikicommons

“Vikingr” went on expeditions by the sea in a group with other Vikingar, the plural for the term. There is enough evidence of the usage of those terms by the Scandanavians during the Viking Age, roughly 793 to 1066 CE, from the runic inscriptions and the praise poetry known as skaldic verse they left behind.

Ferocious Sea Raiders of Scandinavia

It was long believed that during the Middle Ages, the fearsome Norsemen were Scandinavian traders and seafaring pirates who had settled in North Western Europe for over three centuries. These ferocious sea raiders often undertook large-scale voyages, indulging in conquests, trading, and colonizing their way through Europe until they reached North America. 

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Source: Uriel1022 / wikicommons

While the DNA study has put many of these theories to rest, it has firmly confirmed that the Vikings did exist. Even though their raids were terrorizing, there are more layers to them than we have seen so far. 

Get Ready for the New Picture

The knowledge we have gained about Vikings comes from centuries-old giant runestones on which they themselves had carved out the innumerable stories of their lives. It’s written using the runic alphabet, the most commonly used writing system by the people from Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and Britain once upon a time. 

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Source: Silar / wikicommons

With more revelations coming to the fore from the 2020 study, we must brace ourselves for the new picture that’s slowly emerging. It’s time to get ready for something novel about the Vikings that we have never imagined of them. 

Pioneering Research Studies

Let’s not mince words here; the new genetic study has been flipping the illusion of Vikings on its head, and we are less than prepared to accept the new spins on the mighty Norsemen. It’s a groundbreaking research study that has halted most previous theories about the Vikings.

Source: Yigit Altay / wikicommons

Simply put, the authenticity of the DNA sequencing and its results changes the perception of Vikings in a significant way. So, what about them is so different from how we have perceived them so far?

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A Six-Year Research Project

The in-depth six-year research project was successfully led by Professor Eske Willerslev, the director of the University of Copenhagen’s Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre. Its results, published in the Nature journal, effectively debunk our modern take on the age-old Vikings and their traditions. 

Source: JC Merriman / wikicommons

We have long held this notion that Vikings are primarily out on raiding parties with their large fleet, generally traipsing through Europe picking up fights with the Kings. Alas, the study proves that it wasn’t that kind of world for the Vikings. 

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Time to Update History Books

From all the things the 2020 genetic study has laid bare about the Vikings, it is about time we update our History books. After all, most of the depictions of the tribe on television, in films, and in storybooks as brutal predators come from those historical records. 

Source: Useendk / wikicommons

To be fair, there has been limited source for the material on Vikings until the latest study revealed much more about them. We still have a long way to go get a more accurate picture of the Norsemen and their lives. 

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DNA Sequencing of Viking Skeletons

International scientists from Denmark and England traveled from the Scottish Orkney Islands to Estonia, extracting 442 Viking skeletons from various cemeteries. They had to cover all the regions that had the Viking remains scattered across Europe. 

Source: NASA / wikicommons

From their bones and teeth that were taken for genetic sequencing, the scientists could make out that they were mostly men, women, kids, and babies. The team analyzing the DNA soon realized that the remains dug up in Estonia were from boat burials, which used to be the farewell norm in the Viking Age.

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The Viking Funeral

We have seen this on many television shows on Vikings that the body of the person who passes away is usually set afloat or ablaze on a boat. This kind of funeral rite was mainly reserved for sending off prominent figures. 

Source: Louis Moe / wikicommons

Most Norsemen were also known to practice ship burials, in which the deceased person was put in a boat and buried underground along with their worldly possessions, including weapons and tools. Sometimes the bodies of slaves who were done away with during the funeral are also laid to rest in that boat. 

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Using the Latest Technology for Analysis

The team of international scientists led by Professor Willerslev used the latest cutting-edge analytical tools to research and study the DNA sequencing of the Viking skeletons. It’s the world’s largest-ever operation in this field, and the results have changed how Vikings have been viewed for centuries. 

Source: Nels A. Olson / wikicommons

All the tested remains from the archaeological sites across Greenland and England have revealed that the Vikings did not have homogenous roots. The skeletons extracted from famous Viking burial grounds in Scotland have further confirmed that they belong to local people who had taken on Viking identities and were buried as one. 

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Did We Get it All Wrong?

The results of sequencing the genetic material gathered meticulously from across Europe have been astonishing. It makes us wonder if we got it all wrong in the first place. How much of what we have known forever about Vikings from various sources was true, and how much of it do we chalk off to mere fiction or erroneous findings? 

Source: Pouazity3 / wikicommons

It’s fascinating to note that the findings have not only shed some new light on the Vikings and their genetic identities but have also questioned our earlier knowledge about them. 

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Originated in Scandinavia

We have long known that the Vikings originated from Scandinavia, largely settled in-lands and also by the coast. They were primarily fishermen and farmers who later developed a ferocious image that has stuck with them for centuries. So, where did they get such a fierce reputation from? 

Source: Antti Lipponen / wikicommons

Let’s return to their primary skill set as fishermen and seafarers to get to the truth. Initially, they were satisfied with that identity but soon, circumstances changed, and they had to become more to survive. 

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Innovative and Self-Reliant

Historical records suggest that the Vikings were intelligent and incredibly innovative people. Their methods of maximizing the resources at hand show how creatively gifted they were. As seamen, they needed their boats to sail faster. So, instead of relying on manpower alone, the self-reliant Vikings harnessed the power of the winds to set sail. 

Source: Telewizja Boleslawiec, 2018 / wikicommons

Soon, they had fast-moving vessels under their command for their voyages and expeditions. Their coastal raids steadily increased with the sea crossings becoming quicker. With everything going so well, why did they turn to pillage for survival?

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Masters of the Sea

At one point, the Vikings had it all. They had a rich food source, exceptional skills, and tools that got them everything they needed. The Norsemen were also truly gifted sailers, which made them the masters of the sea. 

Source: Public domain / wikicommons

In fact, they had the wherewithal to build a ship from scratch at short notice. The enemies could destroy their boats, and the Vikings would have another ready to set sail in a matter of time; they had the tools and the acumen to carry out their mission, whatever that might have been. 

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A Popular Theory

So, what went wrong for them? One of the most predominant theories is that they ran out of fertile land and, therefore, the requisite food to feed on and hence had to come up with extreme measures for survival. 

Source: Julian Paren / wikicommons

With insufficient food to go around ever since their villages became overpopulated, the Vikings had to rely primarily on their quick wits, skills, and weapons to make do. The scarcity of cultivable agricultural land had the tribe on tenterhooks. The burly men began to look for alternate means to make a living. 

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Seeking Greener Pastures

Another famous theory that holds water is that the traders influenced the Vikings to go overseas to search for treasures. They constantly fed the seafarers with tales of wealth they could go after, and eventually, the Vikings couldn’t resist the temptation to set sail for greener pastures. 

Source: Julian Paren / wikicommons

Most of their exploits at sea were at the behest of the warring chieftains in their struggle to gain more power and wealth. No matter their reason, everyone dreaded becoming the target of their terrifying exploits. 

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Not Enough Written Records

Unfortunately, all this confusion about Vikings’ identity arises because there need to be more written records to contribute to our knowledge on the subject. The only source we have are their short writings in runes on stone and wood. It was an expensive affair requiring skilled craftsmen. 

Source: Wolfmann / wikicommons

The Vikings Age wasn’t a structured society with designated personnel to keep written records like the later periods. Most of the cultures and traditions were spread through oral depictions, and they were one-sided accounts by the foreigners of their encounters with them. 

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Vikings' Greatest Honor

We may know the bare minimum about the Vikings, and some of them have been questioned mainly on their authenticity thanks to the DNA sequencing study, but one thing is sure. They had unshakeable faith in the Norse Gods and strongly believed in laying down their lives in the battles. 

Source: Lorenz Frølich / wikicommons

It was a tremendous honor for the Vikings to sacrifice their lives on the battleground. In doing so, the warriors wished to enter Valhalla and lead their afterlife with Odin in that sacred place. As the study has shown, there’s more.  

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Unearthing the Viking Remains

The remains of 442 exhumed Viking bodies and their genetic testing has unearthed many facts we could not know until the detailed DNA study. It shed more light when the genetic material assimilated from these ancient samples was analyzed compared to the data collected from 1,118 ancient individuals and 3,855 current residents of various countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Source: Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii Polskiej Akademii Nauk ArcheoTV / wikicommons

It showed more genetic intermixing than initially imagined, which proved that the Vikings did not have a homogenous background and instead had mixed ancestry. 

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More Discoveries Made at the Burial Sites

That was not all; the bodies from the burial sites made way for more astonishing discoveries. The gravesite in the Scottish Orkney Islands had all the markings of a Viking burial, replete with ceremonial swords and such. This place had two bodies, and neither of them was Viking. 

Source: Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii Polskiej Akademii Nauk ArcheoTV / wikicommons

In fact, their DNA sequencing revealed that one was from Scotland and the other from Ireland. The fact that these men weren’t Scandinavians startled the scientists but it opened up a plethora of infinite possibilities that were far more exciting than the theories we have assumed so far. 

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No Intermingling, As Believed

Further analysis of the DNA collected from the burial sites found another fascinating finding. The Vikings society was divided into three distinct groups according to their genetics – Vikings from Denmark were the ones to raid the English, those from Sweden traveled across to the Baltic Sea, and the third section of Norsemen who settled in Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland were originally from Norway. 

Source: Polska Akademia Nauk / wikicommons

Even more interesting is that none of these groups ever intermingled, which was different from what we have been led to believe for all these centuries.  

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Unbelievable Revelations

During the DNA study of the Viking remains, Professor Willerslev was especially thrilled to note that the Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians. In fact, their genetic ancestry has been traced back to Asian and Southern European influences, which is quite a surprising find. 

Source: Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty / wikicommons

This basically begs the question we thought everyone knew the answer to – who were the Vikings? The research clearly shows that their broader identity was not restricted to people with Scandinavian ancestry alone. It also suggests an ongoing gene flow across Europe, with many Vikings having non-Scandinavian genetic roots. 

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Vikings Representation on TV and Books

Professor Willerslev was shocked to find so many previous theories thoroughly debunked with the new findings. The Vikings so far have been largely represented on television and in books as a brood of burly men who were more brawn than brains and did nothing better than to go on long pillaging expeditions. 

Source: Uriel1022 / wikicommons

While some earlier assumptions with little evidence have now been confirmed, others have mostly been disproved thanks to extensive study. Now when we look at Thor, we’ll see more than his blonde good looks and immense strength. 

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Brunette, Not Blonde

Did we mention Vikings were blue-eyed and blonde? Let’s erase that description from our hearts and minds forever. The new study put that visually stunning imagery to rest and instead revealed that they were, in fact, primarily brunettes. Since their genetics had Asian and Southern European roots, their hair was mostly dark. 

Source: Richard Hoare / wikicommons

The television fraternity will need help changing how Vikings have been physically represented on screen. With so much diverse and opposing information on Vikings, it is time to update those History books so we get to see them represented more accurately. 

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More Than Raiders and Looters

Their social strata were divided into three major classes – Jarls, the highest echelons of their society similar to Earls, who were quite wealthy; Karls consisted of the everyday farmers, sailors, craftsmen, and warriors, while the lowest echelon, the Thralls, were the slaves. More than their social divisions, they gained notoriety primarily as hardened warriors. 

Source: Eaton Creative / wikicommons

The recent DNA study put a new twist to this tale. One of the most shocking revelations to overturn almost everything we know about Vikings is that they were more than raiders and looters, pillaging across Europe for treasures. 

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Indulged in Cultural Exchange

There is enough and more evidence to support the theory that these men were an integral part of cultural exchanges between different groups across borders. They participated in trading activities, exporting values, beliefs, and traditional practices. The Vikings also strived to contribute to the political structures of that era, and as travelers, they spread their language and cultures far and wide.

Source: Varvara Kless-Kaminskaia / wikicommons

This gives more credence to their intercultural genetic ancestry. Quite notably, the bodies found at some popular Viking burial sites weren’t even Vikings. 

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Expanding Viking Identity

While the study proves that there’s more genetic diversity to Viking identity, it also shows that the foreign gene flow into the Scandinavians from the Asian regions of the world started well before the Viking Age. For one, this new evidence has crumbled their entire identity as these terrifying warriors. 

Source: Islandshest / wikicommons

They are now found to have been more social than we first thought. Even the Irish and the Scottish integrated well into Viking society. In fact, those of non-Scandinavian descent have mingled well enough to warrant ceremonial Viking burials. 

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Transformational Period of History

The knowledge of Vikings and their activities and lives greatly enriched our knowledge of the Viking Age and their many interactions with other nations. It was a transformational period in history that we have now gained more information on, which changes many interrelated things. 

Source: Varvara Kless-Kaminskaia / wikicommons

This new insight gained from genetic sequencing will help historians better understand the dominant traits of the Vikings and the course of actions that influenced history during their time. The scientists get a better grasp of their metabolism and immunity. 

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The Truth About Vikings

The DNA sequencing study of the Vikings’ skeletons has laid bare the truth about their ancestry in a way that completely changes how we have seen them until now. Most of us have seen them through the lenses of the creatives who have presented them on-screen through television serials and historical films. The study disperses those images in one big swoop. 

Source: Legoland Billund Resort / wikicommons

We now know the Vikings were not the merciless pillagers they were made out to be. They were social beings who were culturally rich, skilled, innovative, and self-reliant. The world needs to see them for who they were.

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