The Star-Herald

Blood of Vikings

My husband and I recently re-watched a BBC production called “Blood of the Vikings.” No, it’s not the latest Stephen King horror movie, but a report of the archaeological and DNA search for traces of the Viking presence in England, Scotland and Ireland.  

If you’re not up on your British history, the island nation was invaded successively by Angles and Saxons from present-day Germany, Romans, Vikings from either Norway or Denmark, and later by William the Conqueror. The Conqueror came from Normandy, himself the descendant of Vikings who raided France as far inland as Paris. In his army were mercenaries from several parts of Europe. 

If you have British descent some of your DNA may reflect this mixed heritage.

Vikings fascinate people. While the history and physical archeological evidence of Viking incursions is undeniable in parts of Britain, the DNA study done on male descendants in areas where Vikings were known to have invaded and settled (not all were raiders) was less satisfactory. Using DNA from men whose ancestors had lived in one spot for generations, the study expected to find a strong Viking presence. They found evidence of Norwegian DNA in the islands off northern Scotland, a relatively short hop from Norway and in the Irish Sea, but very little in Ireland around Dublin, which was supposedly a Viking stronghold.  

Isolating DNA from Denmark was complicated by the invasion of William the Conqueror and made it difficult to clearly identify Danish DNA as opposed to Angle or Saxon DNA because of the similarities and the physical closeness of these peoples. Names of towns and geographical features, however, testify to the presence of long-ago Vikings.

So, do you have a Viking ancestor? Very likely. The Vikings had their own province in Britain called Danelaw, which encompassed much of northern England. The Vikings were searching for gold or precious jewels, but their biggest money-maker, to use a modern term, was slaves. Entire villages were emptied of their inhabitants by killing them outright and seizing the strongest males and fertile females and selling them into slavery. The Vikings seem to have been all over Europe and parts of North America. Vikings from Denmark settled Iceland and later Greenland and North America before retreating from the latter two areas. The first murder of native Americans by Europeans was the result of a Viking landing in North America.

My own DNA shows Danish ancestry and southern Sweden, a different group of Vikings. I do have ancestors who came with William the Conqueror, and thus I may have DNA from the Normans. 

When you do your autosomal DNA, which matches you against people from all over the world, you may get hits that surprise you. Remember, half your genes come from Mom and half from Dad, and your parents’ remaining DNA is shed. A sibling may inherit a slightly different mixture than you did. 

But don’t be surprised if you find traces of those seafaring and raiding Vikings lurking in your genes.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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