Vikings have mostly been portrayed as violent sex-mad marauders, but a new study of the genes suggests they did not live up to their reputation.
The wild men from the north may have done a fair amount of pillaging, but when it came to rape – or even consensual sex – the evidence indicates a different story.
Analysis of thousands of DNA samples from the UK, continental Europe and Scandinavia revealed a surprising lack of Viking genes in England, despite the Norsemen once occupying much of the country.
Even in Orkney, which was a part of Norway from 875 to 1472, the Vikings contributed only about 25% of the current gene pool.
The international team led by scientists from Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust wrote in the journal Nature: “While many of the historical migration events leave signals in our data, they have had a smaller effect on the genetic composition of UK populations than has sometimes been argued.
“In particular, we see no clear genetic evidence of the Danish Viking occupation and control of a large part of England suggesting a relatively limited input of DNA from the Danish Vikings and subsequent mixing with nearby regions, and clear evidence for only a minority Norse contribution (about 25%) to the current Orkney population.”
The Vikings, from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, carried out extensive raids and occupations across wide areas of northern and central Europe between the eighth and late 11th centuries.
Danish Vikings in particular took over large parts of England, eventually settling in a region stretching from Essex to County Durham which was ruled by “Danelaw”.
The findings support previous research from the University of Oslo suggesting that Viking men were family-orientated and not particularly bothered about the British women they conquered.
Rather than Viking raiding parties consisting wholly of testosterone-charged men, researchers found that significant numbers of women, and possibly whole families, travelled on the longboats.
DNA extracted from 45 Viking skeletons showed that women played an integral part in establishing settlements in the UK.
The team behind the new research, led by Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, from Oxford University, and Professor Peter Donnelly, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, looked for tell-tale single-letter changes in the genetic code in the DNA of 2,039 people from the UK.
They were compared with similar genetic data from more than 6,000 individuals from 10 countries across Europe.
The study found that Anglo-Saxon immigrants, who pre-dated the Vikings, made less of an impact on the population of southern England than had previously been thought.
They contributed less than half of the DNA of people living in the region today, suggesting that the Saxons mixed with rather than replaced the Romano-British population that preceded them.
In some parts of the country, distinct differences were seen in the genetic profiles of populations living extremely close to one another.
The people of north and south Wales, for instance, were as genetically different as those from central and southern England and northern England and Scotland.
Genetic differences between people in Cornwall and Devon were at least as great as those between the northern English and Scottish.
The earliest migrants whose descendants still made a substantial contribution to the UK’s population were thought to have come from western Germany, Belgium and north-western France.
Prof Donnelly said: “Genetics tells us the story of what happens to the masses.
“There were already large numbers of people in those areas of Britain by the time the Danish Vikings came so to have a substantial impact on the genetics there would need to be very large numbers of them leaving DNA for subsequent generations.”
The key findings of the study include:
1. There was not a single “Celtic” genetic group. In fact Celtic parts of the UK are among the most distinct from each other genetically. The Cornish, for example, are much closer genetically to other English groups than they are to the Welsh or Scots.
2. Cornwall and Devon contain separate genetic groups divided by a line that almost exactly follows the modern county boundary.
3. Analysis suggests there was substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice age settlement, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but made little impact in Wales.
4. The Welsh appear to be genetically more similar to Britain’s earliest settlers than do other people in the UK.