Horned helmet, full beard, large: that’s the cliché of a Viking. But the truth is a little more complicated, as new analyzes show.
When the Vikings came to their horned helmets, the famous composer Richard Wagner had the “Ring of the Nibelung” performed in 1876. To make the Nordic heroes of the epic appear more warlike, he put horns on them. Historical Vikings no longer existed at the time, but they have been reliably shown with horned headgear ever since – apparently not the only cliché that is wrongly attributed to the Northmen.
A large genetic study now provides a much more differentiated picture of the Scandinavian population during the period between the years 750 and 1050. The typical Vikings therefore probably never existed. The individual groups differed greatly from one another. This leaves traces in the human genome to this day, reports an international research team in the journal Nature.
“The events of the Viking Age changed the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe in a way that is still visible today,” writes EskeWillerslev’s team from the University of Copenhagen. Viking language, culture and technology spread to many parts of Europe and even reached Asia.
In order to clarify the identity of the Vikings, the researchers sequenced the genomes of 442 human remains related to the Vikings, which not only come from Scandinavia, but from an area that extends from Greenland to Poland and Russia. They compared the results with the genetic make-up of a good 1,100 people from the past and more than 3,800 from the present.
The results paint a surprisingly mixed picture – both in Scandinavia and in the rest of the Viking influence area. The researchers could identify three groups: Sweden-like, Norway-like and Danes-like.
However, the boundaries in between ran along natural barriers such as rivers and not along today’s state borders. For example, the people in the south-west of today’s Sweden were more like the Danish Vikings.
The Sweden-like group – especially on the eastern Swedish island of Gotland – therefore has strong family ties to Eastern Europeans. This also reflects the trade relations in the Baltic Sea region since the Bronze Age. The influence of the Norwegian group, on the other hand, extends to Ireland, Iceland and Greenland, while the Danish group is more oriented towards England.
However, the genetic landscape of Scandinavia changed over time: “We found that the gene flow within Scandinavia runs roughly from south to north and is dominated by movements from Denmark to Norway and Sweden,” the team writes.
In addition, people from southern Europe and Asia have been coming to Scandinavia at least since the Iron Age, which began around 500 BC. The islands of Gotland and Öland were important trading centers as early as Roman times.
“So far we didn’t know what genetically constitutes the Vikings,” says geneticist Willerslev. “We found genetic differences between different Viking populations in Scandinavia, which shows that the groups in the region were much more isolated from one another than previously known.” Many Vikings were more brown-haired than blond, which goes back to influences from outside Scandinavia.
Analysis of a grave in Orkney, Scotland, shows that Vikings were not necessarily of Scandinavian descent. The two men buried there are genetically similar to today’s Irish and Scots, but were buried in the Viking style with swords and other accessories.
According to the study, people in Scandinavia today are still very similar to those who lived in the region at that time. The exception is Sweden, where only around 15 to 30 percent of the genetic material can be traced back to the population at the time. In Poland, Scandinavian influences now make up up to five percent of the genetic make-up, in England a maximum of six percent.
By the way, north men and women did not completely do without horns. Instead of wearing them on their heads, they held the horns in their hands – to drink from. The cliché is true.