Viking Women Were Busy Storming Britain, Not Stuck At Home, Science Says

LERWICK, SCOTLAND - JANUARY 27: Locals dressed as Vikings march through the streets January 27, 2004 in Lerwick, Shetland. The traditional festival of fire, known as Up Helly Aa, takes place annually on the last Tuesday of January. The climax of the day came with participants wearing costumes as they hauled a Viking long boat through the streets of Lerwick to the edge of town where up to 1000 paraders set the vessel ablaze by throwing torches into the galley. Though its origins are unclear, some say the event reflects the ancient Norse practice of burning a galley as an offering to the sun. (Photo by Chris Furlong/Getty Images)
Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If I asked you to conjure up an image of Middle Age Vikings, there's a decent chance you'll think of the same things, well, that most people stereotypically think about. Burly, horn-helmeted men, conquering and pillaging the British through nautical invasion. A lot of what we know of history can be colored by popular misconception, however — for example, those horned helmets are widely considered a fallacious myth. And now, thanks to DNA research, yet another opoular myth about the Vikings has fallen by the wayside: Viking women stormed Britain by boat too, dispelling the notion that the Norse parties who arrived on their shores were exclusively male.

The discovery, as detailed by The Verge's Daniel Zadik, comes thanks to the unearthing of 80 Viking skeletons in Norway, which led to the successful reconstruction of 45 sequences of mitochondrial DNA, or mDNA for short. Contrary to ribosomal DNA (rDNA), mDNA is passed down exclusively through the female side of the family — mother to child — creating an exact duplication, save for any instances of genetic mutation

So, by piecing the mDNA of these Viking-era skeletons back together, researchers have revealed a whole lot about the role of women in that conquering Norse society.

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Specifically, they found that women traveled out on raiding longboats just as men did, as evidenced by the presence of Norse women's DNA in the period that the Vikings colonized Britain. This undercuts a longstanding assertion about the driving force behind their outward expansion — the idea it was spurred by the low numbers of women in Nordic society. Professor Erika Hagelberg, of the University of Oslo in Norway, described this finding to The Independent.

It seems to support the view that a significant number of women were involved in the settlement of the smaller isles, which overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage. It is true that the Vikings are thought to have taken local women [from the places they landed], but the DNA evidence in this study and the Icelandic study does indicate that Norse women were involved in the colonization process. This somewhat contradicts one of the views about Viking raids, namely that they were driven by a shortage of women at home.

Obviously, it'd be nice if this were a story of strong womanhood that wasn't also a story about violent colonization of foreign lands, but it's a remarkable discovery nonetheless. And a testament to the power of modern scientific research — were it not for the age of DNA analysis, we may never have known just how front-and-center Viking women were.

Image: Getty Images

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