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Mitochondrial DNA Proves Women Were Instrumental Viking Colonizers

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
Norse women were important agents in the Vikings' overseas expansion and settlement.

The Vikings weren’t just masculine raiders and pillagers. They were adventurous sea-faring women, too.

Previous studies had presumed that Viking men brought women over to new colonies after they’d already settled in new territory; for example, a 2001 study claimed that Norse men first settled the land and later fetched Gaelic women to populate it.

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But new maternal DNA evidence taken from late Iron Age skeletal remains in Norway suggests that the infamous Vikings—known for their gruesome tirades, fearsome swords , and masterful ships —included women who “were actively involved in the settlement of new lands,” according to a new study . These travelers were, in fact, not your stereotypical savages; they were pioneers who traversed long distances and reaped the land for future generations.

Here’s Tia Ghose, writing for LiveScience:

To learn more about Norse colonization patterns, Hagelberg and her colleagues extracted teeth and shaved off small wedges of long bones from 45 Norse skeletons that were dated to between A.D. 796 and A.D. 1066. The skeletons were first unearthed in various locations around Norway and are now housed in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo.

The team looked at DNA carried in the mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell. Because mitochondria are housed in the cytoplasm of a woman’s egg, they are passed on from a woman to her children and can therefore reveal maternal lineage. The team compared that material with mitochondrial DNA from 5,191 people from across Europe, as well as with previously analyzed samples from 68 ancient Icelanders.

What they found was that ancient Norse and Icelandic DNA is very similar to the maternal DNA found in modern North Atlantic people, like Swedes, Scots, and the English. In particular, ancient Norse DNA is closely related to that of people from the Scottish Orkney and Shetland Islands near Scandinavia. This data suggests that Norse women were important agents in the Vikings’ overseas expansion and settlement.

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