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Women Also Set Sail on Viking Voyages, Study Shows

Newly released DNA evidence suggests that Norse women also took to the seas to help settle new lands.

In a recently published study in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers used mitochondrial DNA evidence to show that Norse women joined their men in the long boat during Viking Age migrations to England, the Shetland and Orkney Islands and Iceland. “It seems to support the view that a significant number of women were involved in the settlement of the smaller isles,” co-author and University of Oslo professor Erika Hagelberg told The Independent, “which overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage.”

The new study, titled “Mitochondrial DNA Variation in the Viking Age Population of Norway,” is the work of a team of researchers from the University of Oslo, Stockholm University and Uppsala University. The group analyzed several dozen 950- to 1,200-year-old skeletons unearthed in Norway between 1880 and the mid-1980s. By examining teeth and sawing into pieces of bone, the team was able to extract samples of mitochondrial DNA, a form of genetic material that is housed in the mother’s egg and thus only inherited from the maternal line. The team then compared their ancient Norse mitochondrial DNA with that of more than 5,000 modern individuals from Norway, Britain, Iceland and other European countries in the hope of gaining a wider understanding of how Viking colonists first fanned out from Scandinavia.

When completed, the DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analysis revealed that the maternal DNA from the ancient Vikings proved a particularly close match to that of the modern residents of Iceland and the remote Shetland and Orkney Islands north of Scotland. According to study co-author Maja Krzewinska, the results shine a light on the path that ancient Norse women traveled as they assisted in colonizing new lands during the Viking Age. “We can also show that our Norwegian Vikings brought Norwegian women when they colonized Iceland and went to other areas,” she said in a Stockholm University press release. “It fits well with what we know from written sources and gives us an exciting picture of how migration was done in groups with high mobility like the Vikings.”

The team’s discovery flies in the face of earlier research on Vikings, some of which had maintained that the Norsemen’s itinerant nature was inspired in part by a lack of desirable mates in Scandinavia. Previous researchers have theorized that Vikings traveled in male-only groups, fathering children with local women as they raped and pillaged their way across Europe and the North Atlantic. A study from 2001, for example, argued the Vikings brought Gaelic women with them when they left to settle Iceland. “It is true that the Vikings are thought to have taken local women,” Professor Hagelberg told the Independent, “but the DNA evidence in this study and the Icelandic study does indicate that Norse women were involved in the colonization process…This somewhat contradicts one of the views about Viking raids, namely that they were driven by a shortage of women at home.”

The new paper describes Norse women as “important agents in the processes of migration and assimilation,” but its authors note that their findings are not evidence that Norse women were brandishing battleaxes and setting off on Viking onslaughts alongside their men. “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,” University of Oslo archaeologist Jan Bill told Live Science. “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.” This is illustrated in the study’s data, which show that the ancient Norwegian DNA matched most closely with modern samples from the nearby Shetland and Orkney islands. Other studies have shown that evidence of maternal Norse DNA decreased as the Vikings strayed farther from Scandinavia, suggesting that families may have been left behind to keep them out of harm’s way.

While the new study helps establish Norse women’s credentials as accomplished seafarers who accompanied Viking armies on voyages to new lands, its authors note that there is still considerable research needed for scholars to obtain a full understanding of Viking migrations. “The interesting thing now would be to carry out genetic analyses on skeletons from so-called Viking settlements in the British Isles,” Hagelberg told Forbes.com. “Hopefully our study will provide a database of Norse DNA sequences for comparison purposes.” Co-author Anders Götherstam also stressed that there was still work to be done. “What we think we can see now is that the mobility and the demographic dynamics have been greater than we previously imagined,” he said in the Stockholm University press release. “But give us a few more years and I think we have a clearer picture of the demographic history in our latitudes.”

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