Fallen in battle, these Swedish Vikings are part of a larger genetic puzzle
17 September 2020
In a recently published article in the journal Nature, 90 researchers from various countries have collaborated to develop new knowledge about the Viking-era population. Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, has contributed DNA analyses of people buried in Viking boat burials on a beach on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia.
Of course, it is impossible to be sure exactly what happened to the early Swedish Vikings who landed on the Estonian island sometime around the year 750; however, the contents of the graves close to the village of Salme show that many of them met a violent death.
DNA analysis of buried warriors
The grave designated Salme I contained the remains of seven men between the ages of 18 and 45. The skeletons of 34 men were discovered in Salme II, the bones indicating that they had sustained multiple stab and cut wounds inflicted by sharp-edged weapons. The interpretation of archaeologists is that the occupants of the graves were Swedish warriors who were rapidly buried in their boat after a battle.
The archaeological studies and analyses of bones were conducted by researchers from Tallinn University, while Marie Allen and her colleague Magdalena Buś extracted and analysed the DNA.
“The aim of our study was to see if we could say anything more about the people in the graves. Were they related in some way? And did they come from Sweden? Isotope measurements taken from teeth from the graves during an earlier study indicated that they came from the Mälar Valley,” explains Marie Allen.
DNA results revealed that one family was particularly hard hit by the violence. Four of the 34 men stacked on top of one another in the Salme II boat burial were full brothers. It was also shown that the remaining occupants of the grave also originated from the same district. To confirm that the individuals came from Sweden, the DNA was compared with samples analysed in other studies.
“The greatest challenge when analysing such ancient material is that DNA has degraded into tiny fragments. There are techniques available today that allow us to do so but if the fragments are too short, it is impossible to piece them together. The skeletons in these graves were relatively well preserved and the teeth and temporal bones were good sources of DNA,” says Marie Allen. It is possible to glean more about the individuals in the graves, such as their hair and eye colour and even facial shape and features. Analysis is ongoing and will be expanded for the Salme Vikings. Researchers may even be able to read characteristics such as lactose or gluten intolerance, immunity and metabolism in the DNA.
“Most of our research addresses the same type of questions we ask ourselves in forensic DNA analysis, where we also work with issues of kinship, origin and appearance. And forensic material may also be highly degraded if it has been stored incorrectly and comes from a cold case. We learn more about analysing challenging samples from both fields,” says Marie Allen.
Earlier research confirmed
The major study presented in Nature, in which the Salme burial analyses are included, cover DNA from 400 individuals. The study contributes a large quantity of data for better understanding the spread of Vikings and Viking culture.
The extensive DNA data confirms previous research findings regarding the Viking era, as Uppsala University archaeologist and co-author of the study Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson explains:
“There is clear support in the archaeological material for the results presented in the study. While we had already divined from the material culture that different parts of Viking-era Scandinavia had their primary contacts in somewhat different directions, we now have further support for this.
I find it particularly exciting that we can now begin to discuss identities in this context in a better and more nuanced manner. Being a Viking was a cultural rather than genetic affiliation. The study also highlights something that archaeologists and historians have been talking about for a long time – that the Viking-era Scandinavian population is not the same thing as the Vikings.”
Other Uppsala researchers who have contributed to the article in Nature are archaeologist Neil Price and osteoarchaeologist Sabine Sten.
From living heritage to zombie churches
22 mars 2023
Churches are preserved by an antiquarian system that risks killing them instead of keeping them alive. The Swedish State and the Church of Sweden therefore need to define new joint visions and goals to enable the ecclesiastical cultural heritage t...
Democracy researchers to participate in literature festival
22 mars 2023
War, crime and literature as a path to reconciliation is the theme of the Uppsala International Literature Festival on March 23–25. One of the organisers is the Democracy and Higher Education research programme at Uppsala University. Christina Kul...
ERC grant for research into Swedish slavery
03 februari 2023
Fredrik Thomasson, researcher at the Department of History at Uppsala University, has received the ERC Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This grant relates to a project on Swedish colonial history on the island of Saint ...
The names given to the clouds, an important part of the university's history
04 januari 2023
The book “Molnspanare– en meteorologisk historia” (Cloud spotters – a meteorological history) tells of the emergence of meteorology as a scientific subject. Among other things, you can read about how the Latin names and classification of the cloud...
The history of Easter Island can teach us about sustainability
08 december 2022
Tourism has exploded on Easter Island over the last twenty years – something that has led to both financial gain and major encroachments on the island's environment. Researchers from Uppsala are now studying how history can teach us to build a mo...
Nobel Prize-winning literature often published by small publishing houses
05 december 2022
During the Christmas trade period, books written by the latest Nobel Prize laureate tend to sell at least as well as the more traditional bestsellers. It is very important for publishers to have Nobel Prize winners on their lists, according to res...
Conference: 30 years of EU citizenship
21 november 2022
This year marks 30 years since European Union citizenship came into being. It will be highlighted at an international, interdisciplinary conference in Uppsala on 22–23 November. Both researchers and all those interested are welcome to attend.
New honorary doctors in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences
03 november 2022
The faculties at Uppsala University have decided on the award of honorary doctorates for 2022. Among the new honorary doctors at faculties in the Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences are researchers in economic geography, family l...
The vulnerability of surrogate mothers in a global market
17 oktober 2022
A new dissertation on surrogacy highlights Thai women's experiences of having acted as surrogate mothers. The dissertation shows the women's vulnerability in a global surrogacy industry, but also provides a more nuanced picture of what makes women...
Historical discoveries as Linnaeus Garden is excavated
07 oktober 2022
Unique pots, eighteenth-century porcelain and the bones of countless fish and birds: archaeologists who have been excavating part of the Linnaeus Garden have come across a wealth of exciting objects that can tell us more about the people and anima...
Popular 18th-century medicine in a new form
05 september 2022
Hello to Nils-Otto Ahnfelt, PhD pharmacist and visiting researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences. Together with the historian of science Hjalmar Fors, you have developed a reconstruction of the 300-year-old medicine Hjärnes Testa...
Torgny Segerstedt Medal and Geijer Prize winners announced
05 september 2022
This year’s Torgny Segerstedt Medal has been awarded to Mikael Stenmark, professor in philosophy of religion at the Department of Theology. The Geijer Prize goes to Viktor Persarvet and Astrid Wendel-Hansen.
Digging from the present down to antiquity
30 augusti 2022
Welcome to the Viking Age! The archaeology students, with their trowels and their scrapers, have dug past the medieval layers and made their way down to the 11th century, approximately 30 centimetres below today's ground level. During the seminar ...
The sheep – Gotland’s symbol of sustainability
14 juni 2022
Sheep are the strongest symbol of sustainability on Gotland, according to Gurbet Peker. Not only do real ones graze all over the island, you can even find sheep sculpted in concrete in Visby. Peker researches the day-to-day lives of lamb farmers i...
Can democracy solve the climate crisis?
13 juni 2022
Hello Linda Wedlin, organisor and moderator of a panel discussion during Almedalen Week with the theme ‘What knowledge and what kind of democracy is needed for a successful climate transition?’ What are you going to be discussing?
Mapping people of the past by means of their bones
09 maj 2022
What is the best way to find out about a human being or animal that has been dead for perhaps several centuries? “Study the bones” is what Sabine Sten, professor of osteoarchaeology, would say. They can reveal an individual's age, body length, DNA...
Transforming space and society in Kiruna
24 mars 2022
State and corporate ideas about nature, people and the future played a decisive role in the development of Kiruna as a mining town over a century ago. Since 2004, when 6,000 Kiruna residents were informed that they would have to move because of gr...
New light cast on female pelvises in University collections
04 mars 2022
Many of the University’s museums currently hold preserved specimens of embryos, fetuses, newborns, and women’s pelvises. During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, these formed part of embryological and obstetric collections at...
350 years old remains in a Stone Age site in Portugal
25 februari 2022
An African man who lived just 350 years ago was buried in a prehistoric shell midden in Amoreira in Portugal. This was very surprising because Amoreira and other midden sites in the Muge region are well known by archaeologists for the cemeteries o...
ERC Starting Grant for historian of ideas
31 januari 2022
The Starting Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in its 2021 call have been announced. The awardees include an Uppsala researcher: Ylva Söderfeldt, Senior Lecturer at the University’s Department of History of Science and Ideas.