Were Women Viking Warriors? New DNA Evidence Proves Science Has Its Biases, Too

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It's part of the human condition that we all have biases that cloud our vision and make us misinterpret evidence that's right in front of us. Rarely do researchers ever use DNA testing to disprove that bias, but that's exactly what happened in Sweden. DNA testing has confirmed that women were Viking warriors, not just men. Yet even with DNA evidence on the side of women wielding Viking swords, some experts still don't believe it. And it was a female scientist — Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson — who proved those experts wrong and, consequently, helped to uncover gender biases still present in the field of science.

The recent finding by researchers at Stockholm University, led by Hedenstierna-Jonson, is the really culmination of an investigation that began well over a century ago. However, the discovery sheds light on the false assumptions scientists often make about men and women in history. The researchers' abstract reads:

Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons.

In the late 1800s, archaeologists uncovered a fascinating Viking grave in the ancient Swedish town of Birka, home of around 3,000 Viking graves. They quickly determined that the person buried there in the ninth century or 10th century was a great warrior, due to what was buried along with the human skeleton. They found the skeletons of two horses, numerous weapons of different kinds, and even a strategy-based board game, which they said indicated that the warrior was also a military strategist.

There was something odd about the skeleton, however — it looked female. Historians then and throughout the 20th century assumed that this couldn't be the case, though, because that just wasn't how Viking society worked, period.

The new study decided to follow up on the initial study with a deeper look at the bones — specifically, with a look at the bones' DNA. The study, which extracted DNA material from one of the skeleton's teeth and an arm bone, determined that the skeleton's genetic material did not contain a Y-chromosome. That means conclusively that the skeleton belonged to a woman.

In the abstract of their article, the researchers wrote:

The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period. The results call for caution against generalizations regarding social orders in past societies.

In this case, historical generalizations had caused people to discount the idea that a skeleton that looked female could possibly have belonged to a woman. Now, DNA evidence shows that the female-looking skeleton was indeed female — and still, some experts are disputing the fact that she was actually the warrior being honored, despite the fact that a man's skeleton found in a grave like that would automatically be assumed to have been a warrior.

It's especially fascinating that a grave in this particular society would have been misgendered for so long, as female warriors show up all over the place in writings from the Middle Ages and in Viking mythology, but historians always assumed it was just that — mythology. This is the first time that hard science has proven otherwise, adding a new thread to the existing knowledge of gender in Viking society.

“Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons,” the researchers said in their analysis. Critics of the study, they said, have even questioned whether the DNA actually came from the right bones. “I think that’s because of how we view history, and many of us would like to think that we live in the best (and more gender-equal) of worlds now,” Hedenstierna-Jonson said.

The gender bias lives on, apparently. But now science has opened up a new view into history, and hopefully it's only the beginning. There are more biases left to be busted, but at least now we know for sure that women could be Viking warriors.