Research highlight

Genetics: Genetic insights into Vikings’ European explorations


September 17, 2020

Distinct populations of Vikings influenced the genetic makeup of different parts of Europe, reveals an analysis of ancient human genomes published in Nature this week.

The maritime expansion of Scandinavian populations during the Viking Age (around AD 750–1050) altered the political, cultural and demographic map of Europe. To explore the genomic history of this period, Eske Willerslev and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 442 ancient humans from across Europe and Greenland, covering the Bronze Age (approximately 2400 BC) to the Early Modern period (around AD 1600).

During the Viking Age, the authors observed foreign gene flow into Scandinavia from the south and east. They also found evidence that confirmed the movements of Vikings outside of Scandinavia: Danish Vikings headed to England; Swedish Vikings sailed east to the Baltics and Norwegian Vikings travelled to Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. However, their analysis also included examples of ancestry with affinities to present-day Swedish populations in the western fringes of Europe and modern Danish populations in the east. They suggest that these individuals were from communities with mixed ancestries, brought together by complex trading, raiding and settling networks that crossed cultures and continents.

As part of their analysis, Willerslev and co-authors sequenced the genomes of 34 Viking individuals from a burial site in Salme, Estonia, and found evidence of an expedition that had included close family relatives — four brothers were identified, buried side by side. They also found two additional pairs of kin in their dataset, but the related individuals were found hundreds of kilometres apart from each other. This, the authors note, illustrates the mobility of individuals during the Viking Age.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2688-8

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