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article imageDNA shows Viking women also colonized new lands

By Karen Graham     Dec 8, 2014 in Science
A new genetic study conducted by researchers with the University of Oslo has revealed that a significant number of Viking women sailed with their husbands on voyages of conquest. The study contradicts the stereotypes we have often held about Norsemen.
Vikings were probably family men, traveling with their wives on conquests and voyages of discovery, according to the study. Maternal DNA from ancient Norsemen closely matches that of modern-day people living in the North Atlantic Isles, particularly the Orkney and Shetland Islands.
The study, published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions B on December 8, suggests that both men and women, and possibly whole families traveled on the iconic longboats so to form "instant" communities in newly-conquered lands.
An illustration called  A Viking Foray   from the book   Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sa...
An illustration called "A Viking Foray," from the book, "Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas."
Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline) (1909).
The study involved analyzing DNA markers from 45 Late Iron Age skeletal remains dated from A.D. 796 and A.D. 1066 in Norway. The team looked at the mitochondrial DNA, in particular because it can be passed to offspring, revealing parental lineage. The team then compared DNA samples from 5,191 people across Europe, including additional DNA samples previously analyzed from 68 ancient Icelanders.
The ancient Norse and Icelandic DNA samples closely matched the maternal DNA samples in modern North Atlantic people, such as Swedes, Scots, and the English. But the study found the closest matches to the ancient DNA samples with people living in the Scottish Isles.
"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.
More important, the study challenges the misconceptions and stereotypes that have become part of the 19th-20th-century cultural myth we associate with Vikings. "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."
The prow of a longboat at the Exhibition in Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
The prow of a longboat at the Exhibition in Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
Grzegorz Wysocki
Jan Bill also pointed out, "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. 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."
The study also concedes that Viking men had sex with the local women of the communities they raided. But it also shows that Norse women were at the heart of new communities that were set up. Bell points out, ‘We know they transported cattle, sheep and other livestock, so why not take the kids as well?"
More about Vikings, genetic studies, Stereotypes, colonizers, norsemen
 
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