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Viking Women Colonized New Lands, Too

Vikings may have been family men who traveled with their wives to new lands, according to a new study of ancient Viking DNA.

Vikings may have been family men who traveled with their wives to new lands, according to a new study of ancient Viking DNA.

Maternal DNA from ancient Norsemen closely matches that of modern-day people in the North Atlantic isles, particularly from the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The findings suggest that both Viking men and women sailed on the ships to colonize new lands. The new study also challenges the popular conception of Vikings as glorified hoodlums with impressive seafaring skills. [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Men]

Iron Age Fashion: Photos

"It overthrows this 19th century idea that the Vikings were just raiders and pillagers," said study co-author Erika Hagelberg, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oslo in Norway. "They established settlements and grew crops, and trade was very, very important."

Vikings hold a special place in folklore as manly warriors who terrorized the coasts of France, England and Germany for three centuries. But the Vikings were much more than pirates and pillagers. They established far-flung trade routes, reached the shores of present-day America, settled in new lands and even founded the modern city of Dublin, which was called Dyfflin by the Vikings.

Some earlier genetic studies have suggested that Viking males traveled alone and then brought local women along when they settled in a new location. For instance, a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggested that Norse men brought Gaelic women over when they colonized Iceland.

Modern roots To learn more about Norse colonization patterns, Hagelberg and her colleagues extracted teeth and shaved off small wedges of long bones from 45 Norse skeletons that were dated to between A.D. 796 and A.D. 1066. The skeletons were first unearthed in various locations around Norway and are now housed in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo.

The team looked at DNA carried in the mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell. Because mitochondria are housed in the cytoplasm of a woman's egg, they are passed on from a woman to her children and can therefore reveal maternal lineage. The team compared that material with mitochondrial DNA from 5,191 people from across Europe, as well as with previously analyzed samples from 68 ancient Icelanders.

The ancient Norse and Icelandic genetic material closely matched the maternal DNA in modern North Atlantic people, such as Swedes, Scots and the English. But the ancient Norse seemed most closely related to people from Orkney and Shetland Islands, Scottish isles that are quite close to Scandinavia.

Viking 'Hammer of Thor' Unearthed

Mixed group "It looks like women were a more significant part of the colonization process compared to what was believed earlier," said Jan Bill, an archaeologist and the curator of the Viking burial ship collection at the Museum of Cultural History, a part of the University of Oslo.

That lines up with historical documents, which suggest that Norse men, women and children - but also Scottish, British and Irish families - colonized far-flung islands such as Iceland, Bill told Live Science. Bill was not involved with the new study.

"This picture that we have of Viking raiding - a band of long ships plundering - there obviously would not be families on that kind of ship," Bill said. "But when these raiding activities started to become a more permanent thing, then at some point you may actually see families are traveling along and staying in the camps."

As a follow-up, the team would like to compare ancient Norse DNA to ancient DNA from Britain, Scotland and the North Atlantic Isles, to get a better look at exactly how all these people are related, Hagelberg said.

The findings were published today (Dec. 7) in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

The findings were published today (Dec. 7) in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Originally published on Live Science.

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The Vikings' longboat allowed them to travel over long distances with many menin a short period of time.

This tunic was found randomly bundled up in an hunting area on the Norwegian Lendbreen glacier at 6,560 feet above the sea level. Radiocarbon dating established it was made between 230 and 390 A.D.

Relatively short and constructed from a simple cut, the greenish-brown tunic would have fitted a slender man about 5 feet, 9 inches tall. It featured a boat neck, had no buttons or fastenings, but was simply drawn over the head like a sweater.

The pre-Viking tunic showed hard wear and tear and had been mended with two patches on the reverse side.

The tunic is woven in a weave called diamond twill that was popular over large parts of northern Europe at that time. The image shows a detail of the sleeve fabric (left) and the pattern of a section of the irregular diamond twill (right).

The tunic is not the only textile item recovered from the Norwegian ice patches. Approximately 50 fragments await dating and analysis. As global warming progresses, more can be expected.