What? Grandma & grandpa were…impure?

I’m reading this recent article on Population genomics of the Viking world, the one with a bazillion authors, and it’s nice and well done, but the popular press seems to find it surprising, when it’s pretty much what I would have expected.

The maritime expansion of Scandinavian populations during the Viking Age (about AD 750-1050) was a far-flung transformation in world history1,2. Here we sequenced the genomes of 442 humans from archaeological sites across Europe and Greenland (to a median depth of about 1×) to understand the global influence of this expansion. We find the Viking period involved gene flow into Scandinavia from the south and east. We observe genetic structure within Scandinavia, with diversity hotspots in the south and restricted gene flow within Scandinavia. We find evidence for a major influx of Danish ancestry into England; a Swedish influx into the Baltic; and Norwegian influx into Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. Additionally, we see substantial ancestry from elsewhere in Europe entering Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Our ancient DNA analysis also revealed that a Viking expedition included close family members. By comparing with modern populations, we find that pigmentation-associated loci have undergone strong population differentiation during the past millennium, and trace positively selected loci-including the lactase-persistence allele of LCT and alleles of ANKA that are associated with the immune response-in detail. We conclude that the Viking diaspora was characterized by substantial transregional engagement: distinct populations influenced the genomic makeup of different regions of Europe, and Scandinavia experienced increased contact with the rest of the continent.

Well, yes. If my Scandinavian ancestors were all tall, blue-eyed, blonde- and red-haired giants out of a Frazetta painting, how did I end up with this [sweeps hand dramatically over frumpy body] particular genetic complement? Why are my relatives so…variegated? I’ve been to Norway, and the people there are wonderfully diverse. This result should be what we all expected — and the scientists who did it were certainly unsurprised, just appreciative of the data — but somehow, the stories in the popular press all about how this upsets stereotypes. Like this one, “Vikings may not be who we thought they were, DNA study finds”.

History books typically depict Vikings as blue-eyed, blonde-haired, burly men sailing the North Atlantic coast to pillage wherever they set foot on land. While some of that may be true, a new genetic study of Viking DNA is flipping much of this history on its head.

In the largest genetic study of Viking DNA ever, scientists have found that Vikings — and their diaspora — are actually much more genetically diverse than we may have thought and were not necessarily all part of a homogenous background.

Notice what the title and the opening paragraph do: they center the story on public misconceptions about a group of humans. I guess “Humans had children with other humans” isn’t quite as exciting as “Cartoon version of ancient people isn’t quite accurate”. The real interesting question, other than the science of the study, is about how pervasive racist myths are.

It’s all about gene flow, which is important and interesting and pretty much universal, and not at all scary, all you white supremacists out there with your phony Asatru tattoos.

Finally, our findings show that Vikings were not simply a direct continuation of Scandinavian Iron Age groups. Instead, we observe gene flow from the south and east into Scandinavia, starting in the Iron Age and continuing throughout the duration of the Viking Age, from an increasing number of sources. Many Viking Age individuals—both within and outside Scandinavia—have high levels of non-Scandinavian ancestry, which suggests ongoing gene flow across Europe.

I wish I could hang around for a thousand years to see the results of anthropological studies of American graveyards. “History books typically depict Americans as obese, orange-skinned, and profoundly stupid, lying and cheating their way to exploit other people’s wealth. While some of that may be true, a new genetic study is revealing that they were much more diverse and complex than that.”


  1. hillaryrettig says

    Here’s my pitch for Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, the best and funniest novel ever written. (Also proof of the fact that comedy = tragedy + time.) Also supports the “impure grandparents” theory.

    Note: the movie, The Long Ships, has nothing in common with the book, but is good, campy fun. I guess it also supports the theory, if you’re ready to believe Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine as Vikings.

  2. stroppy says

    Yeah, ok. So I know that Ancestry.com and such places are, well, whatever. Still can someone ‘splain it to me how every other time they revise my DNA story, Scandinavia pops in and out of my profile? The percentages are low, single digits each for Norway and Sweden so this is no doubt at the limits of their resolution. Even so I’m wondering if this could be an artifact of residual background noise from the Viking age? I understand that they were quite liberal when it came to spreading around their DNA back in the day–and not just in Europe apparently.

  3. whheydt says

    Re: charlesanthony @ #3…
    It also includes “seize the women and take them back as slaves”, where much of the rape would have taken place.

  4. lb says

    My family always thought we were 100% Scandinavian, don’tcha know? Then my sister did a DNA test and we discovered we have (gasp!) some Welsh in there somewhere! Uff da! It explains why my sister and I have developed rosacea, though. Damned Welsh! LOL!

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    hillaryrettig @1: You’re confusing The Long Ships (with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier) with The Vikings (with Curtis, Borgnine and Kirk Douglas). Quite understandable.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    charlesanthony & whheydt: There was sometimes also peaceful trading and settlement, not necessarily by the same people that did the raping/pillaging/enslavement.

  7. unclefrogy says

    you mean that there are unlikely any “pure races”
    it looks like they are suggesting there was a lot of unregulated sex going on in the the Scandinavian population in the past making them just like the rest of the human population world wide.
    that kind of suggests that the observation that humans are very interested in sex and not very good at restricting it to in groups and out groups is not a modern development.
    I am shocked
    uncle frogy

  8. springa73 says

    I don’t think that the idea of “pure races”, or even “races” in anything like the modern sense, even existed at the time of the Vikings. Those ideas came into being in the last 200-300 years and probably would have seemed just as bizarre to medieval people as they do to the scientifically-minded today.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    The rounded ships (knarr) used for high-seas trade voyages were wider than the sleek, long fast ships that could also navigate rivers and would have been used for military expeditions as well as trade. So there was a big, peaceful side to the nautical economy.
    Many craftsmen were apparently brought as slaves from England and ended up in Birka, west of Stockholm, producing much of the goods the Swedish viking-era people traded with. The slave trade was apparently going East from England instead west from Russia, as was previously believed.
    As viking-age Scandinavians were not obsessed with race, not all gene transfer was the result of slave trade. Traders moved back and forth wherever they found opportunities. The vikings that established themselves outside Scandinavia were assimilated in a couple of generations, like the rulers of Novgorod.

  10. acroyear says

    There’s a related bit (not sure if it was the same study or a separate one) about how the Irish aren’t “Celtic” – comes from the other end of the idea.

    In the Viking case it is all about the diversity that easy travel brings along.

    In the Irish case, it is more a matter that a cultural/political takeover doesn’t need to also mean a genetic one. This is, again, unsurprising to anybody actually paying attention to anything at all – the Gauls of modern France didn’t stop being Gauls just because the Romans were in charge, bringing their technology, roads, clothing with them. The Romans ran things economically and culturally, but Gaul didn’t suddenly become awash with Italian-Etruscans and the original population all killed off.

    It is like the British conquest of India – India today, culturally, is still VERY modeled on the British system (music and religion the exceptions…). A parliamentary system, British bureaucracies, and more. But the people didn’t, genetically, suddenly become British as a result of the take-over.

    Thus, the Irish – there were people there before the Celts. They adapted the Celtic ways, but built their own new religious figures on top of them (as they did again under Patrick’s Christianity), but aside from the political and cultural changes, the people didn’t stop being who they were. The Celts didn’t kill them off. Even the genetic influx later from the Vikings was more a matter at the coastline counties like Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Dublin.

    Indeed, the only really massive genetic replacement conquests have been the Americas, and North America primarily at that. Even today, many hispanics have a lot of native in them.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    birgerjohansson @12:

    The vikings that established themselves outside Scandinavia were assimilated in a couple of generations, like the rulers of Novgorod

    And the rulers of Normandy, and those of some Gaelic-speaking lands. Many clans of the Isles and Highlands of Scotland claim descent from Norse-Gael rulers, which seems consistent with genetic studies;

    The results of a later study, published in 2011, revealed that, of a sample of 164 men bearing the surname MacDonald, 23% carried the same marker borne by the clan chiefs. This marker was identified as a subgroup of haplogroup R1a,[170] known to be extremely rare in Celtic-speaking areas of Scotland, but very common in Norway.

  12. chris says

    One set of great grandparents came from Norway, yet their descendants include those with brown hair and eyes, and even the ability to tan (except me, I got my dad’s prone to burn complexion). The explanation was that the family were “black Norwegians”, or the folk descended from slaves dragged away from the Mediterranean area. I don’t know if that is true, because I learned so many of our family stories are just wrong.

    I laughed at my brother buying into genetic testing. I basically told him we are essentially related to every European who survived the Black Death, because that is how the genealogy math works. Thank you Adam Rutherford: https://www.theguardian.com/science/commentisfree/2015/may/24/business-genetic-ancestry-charlemagne-adam-rutherford

  13. davidc1 says

    @7 Two Viking movies ,well if you have gone to the trouble of building Long ships ,you might as well get your moneys worth .
    And Kirk Douglas had fantastic depth perception seeing as he only had one ear ,i mean eye .The way he chucked them axes around .
    And Tony Curtis ,him with his inordinately long wrist ,after he had his hand cut off .

    A lot of the RWNJ’s and Gammons i battle with on faceache ,like to chuck the phrase Indigenous People around ,when talking about British people ,they don’t like it when to tell them that English people are just Northern Europeans ,with bad teeth .

  14. stroppy says

    “…buying into genetic testing…”

    Depends on what you expect to get out of it. Ethnicity isn’t static over time. Tests assume fairly recent history (last century or two, I think) and comparison is made to reference panels of people currently living in different regions.

    That kind of testing is probably best suited to those with a historical bent who would enjoy watching Finding Your Roots on PBS. It’s a useful complement to the genealogical services that some sites offer. Ancestry, for instance, provides access to a lot of resources if you’re seriously into it, but they do make you pay. It also has an active social community.

    At least that’s how I see it.

  15. nomdeplume says

    I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover “Vikings” were having sex all over the place. Who knew? Why wasn’t I told.

    If you get a chance watch the “Norsemen” series – a comedy about Vikings.

  16. unclefrogy says

    I have watched a few of “Norseman”
    it is a crazy f’n show alright kind of like the outtakes of a re-enactment gone wrong,
    and probably closer to the ordinary experience of real people. Not unlike Sargent Bilko was the day to day experience of soldiers at war with all the blood and guts edited out.
    uncle frogy

  17. chrislawson says

    But did they trace the THOR gene, the one true marker of Nordic superiority? (It’s similar to the KILT gene in True Scotland.)

  18. chris says

    stroppy: “Depends on what you expect to get out of it.”

    Part of it was to clear some stories we heard, but he also wanted to know why his oldest has an immune disorder. My oldest has genetic heart disorder, he was tested for the then known eighteen genetic known to cause — he had none of them. Yeah, genetic testing is often not useful. Especially the type that are on the consumer market.

    I am also not too fond of that DNA being used to find criminals.

  19. chris says

    “known eighteen genetic sequences> known to cause it

    I hate it when my brain is faster than my typing.

  20. charley says

    @1 hillaryrettig
    Your pitch worked on me. The Long Ships was available as a Kindle download from my local library, and it’s a fun read. A little like The Sopranos with pirates instead of mobsters.