DNA Study Debunks What We Thought We Knew About Vikings

By: Beth Moreton | Published: Jul 04, 2024

Stories about the Vikings have long been taught throughout history, to the point where people were certain that they knew everything there was to know about them — until now. 

A new DNA study has completely debunked everything we previously thought we knew about the Vikings, including where they came from, what they looked like and what they did for a living.

Pieces of Viking History Are Popping Up Everywhere

Not many items throughout history have survived, as they often end up buried deep underground at some point, never to be found again.

A gold, woven Viking gold ring next to a ruler.

Source: @artnet/X

However, one woman found a ring she thought was just a piece of costume jewelry on an auction site during the summer of 2022. As the ring looked like it could be genuine gold, she took it to an expert who confirmed it was from the Viking Age.


Who Were the Vikings?

“Viking” comes from the Scandinavian term “Vikingr,” which means “pirate.” They were around from as early as 800 CE and lasted until some time in the 1050s.

A Viking boat on the water with hills in the background.

Source: Steinar Engeland/Unsplash

They were able to change the political and genetic course throughout Europe. For example, Cnut the Great became the King of England, and Olaf Tryggvason is believed to have been the first person to bring Christianity to Norway.

The Aims of the Vikings

When the Vikings participated in expeditions and conquests, they gained their fierce reputation from raiding monasteries and villages located along the coasts of Europe.

A Viking with a helmet and cape standing in a modern street with cars and shops.

Source: NICO BHLR/Unsplash

However, their main aim was to trade fur, tusks and seal fat. They would even take these trades as far as North America.

What We Previously Thought About the Vikings

History has told us that Vikings were brutal predators who had traveled by sea from Scandinavia to try and raid their way throughout Europe. 

A black and white image of a Viking wearing a helmet with people walking past him.

Source: Denis Oliveira/Unsplash

Tales of these travels have been taught to schoolchildren worldwide for centuries. But we were taught wrong for all those years. The Vikings weren’t who we thought they were.

DNA Sequencing Studied 400 Viking Skeletons

A new piece of DNA sequencing technology has studied the skeletons of 400 Vikings, who were found scattered around various burial sites across Europe and Greenland.

A Viking with a blonde beard wearing a helmet. He is also holding an axe and a red and white shield.

Source: Stipa Jennifer/Wikimedia Commons

This project wasn’t just done overnight, as it took six years to completely study all of these skeletons to help give us more accurate information on Viking origins. 


Only Now Knowing What Vikings Looked Like

Before this DNA testing, images we have been shown of Vikings were simply made up based on tales we had been told over the last few centuries, almost creating a stereotype for what the average Viking looked like.

A Viking with brunette hair and a beard in armor and holding an axe. Another Viking is lying on the ground next to him.

Source: Gioele Fazzeri/Unsplash

However, these images aren’t true. DNA testing showed that only a few Vikings actually had blonde hair and that many of them were brunettes. 


Not All Vikings Were Vikings

One of the more interesting things about this study was that not all Vikings were Vikings. One particular Viking burial site in Scotland points to this.

A computer screen showing an image of a Viking skeleton.

Source: Polska Akademia Nauk/Wikimedia Commons

The study found that some male skeletons buried in a Viking burial site were not genetically Vikings. However, they were buried with swords and other items a Viking would have had.


Not All Vikings Went to the Same Countries

It was previously thought that Vikings all traveled together, but depending on which country these Vikings came from made a difference in which country they would travel to and conquer.

A map of Europe that shows the territories and voyages of the Vikings.

Source: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

Vikings from Norway traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, compared to Vikings from Denmark, who traveled to England, and Vikings from Sweden, who traveled to the Baltic. Many of these Vikings also had DNA from southern Europe and Asia.


Some Vikings Were More Isolated Than Others

The study also found that some Vikings were more isolated than others. These were Vikings based in inner Scandinavia.

A group of people dressed as Vikings, wearing tunics and helmets and holding axes and shields. They are reenacting a Viking battle.

Source: Silar/Wikimedia Commons

However, not all Vikings were this isolated. Those based in the south of Scandinavia were more likely to be diverse, as they were geographically closer to Southern Europe and Asia.


Viking DNA Is Still Around Today

While it may be believed that the Vikings ended at their final conquest, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Three male Vikings dressed in traditional Viking dress while holding axes and shields. Some women are next to them, wearing headbands and dresses.

Source: Silar/Wikimedia Commons

Viking DNA is still present today. 6% of the U.K. population and 10% of the Swedish population still have Viking DNA today.


Needing to Update the History Books

As the history books have long held a certain image of Vikings that we now know to be incorrect, these books will need to be changed.

Five Vikings in a row wearing helmets and holding shields.

Source: Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons

Evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev has said that history books will need to be updated to better reflect these new findings. Children should be taught factual history and not stories that have probably changed over the years.