It was a Viking saga written in genes. In 2008, construction work on an isolated Estonian beach near the town of Salme uncovered the skeletons of more than 40 powerfully built men. They were buried around 750 C.E. in two ships with Viking-style weapons and treasure—apparently the aftermath of a raid gone wrong. DNA from the bones has now added a poignant detail: Four of the men, buried shoulder to shoulder holding their swords, were brothers.
The new data come from a massive effort to sequence the DNA of Vikings across Europe. The results, published today in Nature, trace how the Vikings radiated across Europe from their Scandinavian homeland, and how people with roots elsewhere also took up Viking ways. “The big story is in line with what’s told by archaeologists and historians,” says Erika Hagelberg, an ancient DNA expert at the University of Oslo who was not part of the research team. “It’s the small details of particular sites that are really compelling.” The Estonian site, for example, offers powerful evidence that the crew was a tight-knit group from the same village or town. “Four brothers buried together is new and unique … [and] adds a new dimension,” says Cat Jarman, an archaeologist working for the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, who was not part of the research team.
Over the course of almost 10 years, a team led by geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen assembled samples from across Scandinavia dating to the Viking Age, from about 750 C.E. to 1050 C.E., as well as some earlier and later samples. The team also gathered human remains from burials elsewhere in Europe and beyond that had Viking grave goods or burial styles. “We approached every place where we could see there should exist somehow an association with Vikings,” Willerslev says. Ultimately, the team was able to sequence 442 Viking Age genomes from as far afield as Italy, Ukraine, and the doomed Viking settlements of Greenland.
The results tell dramatic stories of individual mobility, such as a pair of cousins buried in Oxford, U.K., and Denmark, separated in death by hundreds of kilometers of open ocean. The genetic details may also rewrite popular perceptions of Vikings, including their looks: Viking Age Scandinavians were more likely to have black hair than people living there today. And comparing DNA and archaeology at individual sites suggests that for some in the Viking bands, “Viking” was a job description, not a matter of heredity.