The Secret History of the Vikings

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Their work on ancient DNA from Viking Age horses is more promising: Kool
and Boessenkool have collected about 100 samples, in different states of
preservation, from which they hope to build a detailed picture of how
equine populations moved and changed.

“We have no idea what story will be told, but we’re going to have a good
data set to tell it with,” says Boessenkool.

University of Oslo biologist Bastiaan Star relied on ancient DNA from a
different animal to chart Viking ingenuity in a 2017 PNAS study. Through
genetic material preserved in fish bones from archaeological sites, Star
and colleagues uncovered the apparent origin of a trade route that
continues today.

The team’s research showed that Vikings initially caught cod in the arctic
waters off Norway’s Lofoten Islands, whose climate allows for preservation
through air drying, rather than more expensive salting. After preservation,
the fish were then shipped south for consumption in Germany and elsewhere.

“The Vikings were very smart about their surroundings,” says Star. “They
went to the Lofotens because they knew there was a massive cod spawn and
they could dry the fish without salt, making it an extremely cheap protein.
They used their environment to its maximum potential.”


Aside from the occasional academic skirmish and setbacks due to DNA
degradation, genomic-driven studies of the Viking Age are gathering
momentum and, promisingly, are including more input from other disciplines.

“We can sequence DNA, but without knowing the stories, the context, it’s
meaningless,” says Boessenkool. She notes that, despite DNA’s popular image
of objective precision, the data often requires interpretation, which is
based on a researcher’s assumptions. “Sometimes the [genetic] signals are
very clear, but sometimes they’re not.”

She adds: “The geneticists publish the DNA data, but too often they don’t
actually listen to what the archaeologists are saying. We’re very aware of
that, and trying not to be that way. But also, we’re biologists. We’re from
different worlds [than the archaeologists] and speak a different language.”

The current body of DNA-derived research on the Vikings is just the tip of
the spear. Uppsala archaeologist Price is two years into a decade-long, $6
million project to reveal the economic, social and environmental factors
that led to the Viking Age.

Paleogeneticist Eske Willerslev, who gained fame for using ancient DNA to
revise our understanding of First Americans, is working on a separate
project involving genetic material from the Viking Age.

Willerslev’s team declined to comment ahead of any published work, but
among the expected early results: a DNA-based study of multiple men found
buried in two Scandinavian boats on the Estonian coast. The boats,
excavated between 2008 and 2012, have been dated to the mid-eighth century
and are from the Late Vendel Period, the Viking Age precursor.

Excavation head and Tallinn University archaeologist Jüri Peets hopes DNA
will determine kinship between the men, which could provide another clue to
how the Viking Age evolved.

As Uppsala University’s Hedenstierna-Jonson, lead author of the
controversial Bj 581 study, explains, “We need as many pieces as we can get
to get closer to the actual truth, although I don’t believe we will ever be
able to know everything. After all, it’s all about people and they were —
and are — wonderfully complex and unpredictable.”

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