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Viking Women Helped Men Colonize New Lands

Dec 09, 2014 04:02 PM EST

Vikings are often depicted as raping and pillaging barbarians, using brute strength to overtake new lands. But a new study of ancient Viking DNA shows that it wasn't just men moving to new territories; women accompanied their male companions, making traveling a family affair.

These explorers traveled long distances, establishing colonies in Iceland and many parts of Northwestern Europe, and even sailed as far as North America. The popular notion was that Viking expeditions consisted entirely of men, who found and established new homes, later to be joined by their wives and children who stayed behind. Some scientists even believe that Viking men searched for greener pastures, seeking out women in foreign lands given the shortage of women at home.

To gain a better understanding of Viking colonization patterns, Erika Hagelberg of the University of Oslo and her colleagues compared ancient Norse and Icelandic mitochondrial DNA with that of modern Northwestern Europeans. These 45 skeletons, which date back to between 796 AD and 1066 AD, were first unearthed in various locations around Norway and are now held in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo.

Analysis of maternal DNA from their teeth and long bones revealed a similarity between these ancient Norsemen and modern-day people in the North Atlantic isles, particularly from the Orkney and Shetland Islands (near Scandinavia). This tells researchers that Viking women likely helped colonize new lands, too.

It looks like women were a more significant part of the colonization process compared to what was believed earlier," Jan Bill, an archaeologist associated with the University of Oslo who was not involved in the study, told Live Science.

"It overthrows this 19th century idea that the Vikings were just raiders and pillagers," added Hagelberg.

What's more, a related study indicates that half of Viking warriors were female, putting them right in the middle of the action.

Vikings, men and women alike, did indeed travel together, but not for long. According to the new study, as pillaging and plundering became more and more permanent, they could not do so for long without putting families in harm's way.

"This picture that we have of Viking raiding - a band of long ships plundering - there obviously would not be families on that kind of ship," Bill added.

Next researchers plan to compare ancient Norse DNA to ancient DNA from Britain, Scotland and the North Atlantic Isles, to paint a clearer picture of how these populations are related.

The findings were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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