Public interest in the Vikings is growing these days, with several current TV series about bloody watching overeating. But the Vikings never went out of style, either as pure entertainment or because of their true historical significance.
Scientists periodically remind the public that the people we call Vikings did not think of themselves as a group and are largely, but not universally, from the geographical area we now call Scandinavia. The Viking Age, from about 750 to 1050, involved brutal raids, extensive trade and commerce, and probably most of the people who remained at home on the farm.
Based on DNA analysis and comparison with modern populations, they found that people genetically similar to modern Danes and Norwegians tend to head west in their raids and trade, while Swedish-like people head primarily east. The findings are based on the graves of attackers or traders in England, Ireland, Estonia and elsewhere.
However, they found that this was only a general model. Sometimes similar Swedish groups headed to the West and the rest to the East.
They also found significant genetic diversity in ancient remains, showing the migration of Southern Europeans, before the Viking Age, to the Danish region, which undermines any idea of a northern genetic identity. Some of Britain’s earliest inhabitants, the Picts, were buried, for example, as Vikings.
Researchers have also found people of mixed Sámi and European descent. They themselves are reindeer herders of some Asian genetic background who have lived in Scandinavia and other countries for thousands of years. They are believed to have been in conflict with the Scandinavians of European heritage during the Viking Age.
Dr Wheelerslev said the general opinion was that the two groups were hostile. But perhaps, he said, there were hostile interactions between them, leading to offspring with a mixed heritage and part of Viking groups.
David Reich of Harvard University, an ancient DNA-based population research specialist who did not participate in the study, said the study was one of the largest ever performed on ancient DNA. One of the results, he said, was that not only broad models emerged, but also concrete discoveries that showed the connections between people. “You can ask detailed questions about how people are connected to each other on a site,” he said.
For example, the earliest evidence of a Viking expedition comes from a burial site of about 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. No one knows if it was an attack, or if a diplomatic or trade expedition went wrong, but the men appear to have been forcibly killed and buried as warriors.
DNA analysis showed that four of the men were brothers and 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 just-published Children of Ashes and Elms: A History of the Vikings, said: “We suspected that you were attacking with your family, but this shows that they really did. “
“There’s a story behind it,” he said, “Saving Private Ryan or something.”
It will soon be available to watch a favorite Viking Channel.