Irish Viking genomes have been sequenced for the first time by a group of researchers from Trinity and the National Museum of Ireland. The research was part of a wider, six-year-long study of Viking genomes published today in the leading scientific journal Nature. The study is the largest ever DNA analysis of Viking remains and was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, the director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen.
Four Irish Viking’s remains were used to carry out the genome sequencing: three men and a woman. One of the remains was a male Viking buried in the Viking warrior custom, with a sword and spearhead, in Eyrephort, Co. Galway. The three other remains were from Dublin Viking burials in Islandbridge, Finglas, and Ship Street Great.
It has long been suspected that the majority of Vikings in Ireland were of Norwegian descent, and this was confirmed by the genetic make-up of the Eyrephort warrior’s remains. He is predicted to have had a darker complexion with brown hair and brown eyes. This is far from the traditional Viking stereotype we see in film and television, of the blonde Viking with striking blue eyes but in reality, the Eyrephort warrior is probably much closer to what the typical Irish Viking looked like.
Dr Lara Cassidy, an assistant professor of genetics at Trinity and co-author of the study commented on the breakthrough:
“It has long been suspected that many of these invaders came from Norway. It is fantastic to be able to confirm this now with genetic data. In general, Irish Viking genomes harbour high levels of Norwegian-like ancestry. This is a real contrast to what we see in England during the same period, where there is stronger Danish influence.”
This vast spread of Viking ancestry makes it impossible to pinpoint just one specific Viking homeland says Prof Ashot Margaryan, first author of the paper, from the University of Copenhagen:
“Scandinavia was clearly a dynamic place during the Viking Age. We see regional genetic differences between Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as influence from Southern Europe and Asia. There was never a single unified “Viking World” and now we see that there is no single Viking genetic identity either.”
Some of the Irish Viking’s studies did fit in with our usual idea of what a Viking looked like. The genetic makeup of the female Viking remains, who was buried in Finglas with an ornate comb and silver and gold brooches, suggests that she indeed had the famous blonde hair and blue-eyed pairing.
The genome sequencing of one of the Irish Vikings also showed that people of Irish ancestry integrated into Viking communities. Remains at the Viking burial in Ship Street Great showed very little Scandinavian ancestry but instead pointed towards the individual being from the north-west of Ireland. He is predicted to have been of a pale complexion, with blonde hair with red undertones.
“These new technologies have given us an unprecedented window into the world of Irish Vikings – how they looked and where they came from,” says Cassidy.
“We are only beginning to untangle the diverse ancestral and cultural identities present in Early Medieval Ireland. The next exciting step will be to sequence local populations from the same period.”
The study helps bring a greater understanding of the Vikings that played such a significant role in shaping Ireland’s history and culture.