DNA tests aim to discover the Viking warrior in us all

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The Independent Online

Tony Hancock's proud boast in The Blood Donor that the stuff coursing through his veins was 100 per cent British "with just a dash of Viking" is to be put to the test.

Tony Hancock's proud boast in The Blood Donor that the stuff coursing through his veins was 100 per cent British "with just a dash of Viking" is to be put to the test.

DNA from 2,500 men is to be collected and tested in order to find out how much of our Viking heritage has survived.

The research is being conducted on behalf of a BBC2 series, Blood of the Viking, which will be broadcast next year. The programmes aim to answer the question of what the Scandinavian invaders left behind here, apart from some place names and an impact on our early medieval history.

The DNA project, conducted by Professor David Goldstein at University College London, has been publicised in some of the key areas under investigation, from Kirkwall in Orkney to Penzance in Cornwall.

Six thousand men have already volunteered. The idea is to distinguish the genetic signatures of people with Scandinavian origins from those with Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

The Vikings carried out repeated raids on Britain from 793 to 1066, interspersed with some longer periods of settled occupation. "The Vikings left a really strong impression on the British, starting in Northern Scotland and moving huge armies across England," says series producer Paul Bradshaw. "And yet there is so little physical evidence of them."

At first Bradshaw thought he would base the investigations on archaeological evidence, "but we found this was very patchy, so we began to think maybe a genetic investigation should be started". He admits that he did not know whether genetic science was "up to it". But, as luck would have it, a meeting with Professor Goldstein confirmed that recent breakthroughs in genetic science open the way for a serious search for evidence of the Vikings.

The methodology is complex. To start, DNA will be taken from modern Scandinavians on the assumption that it is similar to Viking DNA. To check this, DNA will be obtained from Viking archaeological sites. This will then be checked with DNA from places the Vikings visited in the British Isles. Norwegian DNA is expected to match DNA found on Orkney.

Goldstein acknowledges that just as historians and anthropologists are keener to use geneticists, so geneticists are benefiting from the expertise of historians. They are useful in putting up theories such as the one behind the reason to use male DNA in the experiment.

"The Y chromosome shows up sharper geographical differences than other parts of the genome," he says.

Why should this be so? One theory is that women have moved around more than men during the bulk of evolutionary history, thanks to their tendency to move when they married. The effect of roaming women on most of the genome is to wipe out geographical distinctions. However, the Y chromosome is the only part of the genome not affected by the female line, and retains the geographical differences. At least that's the theory.

Historians are needed to suggest such things, and scientists are on the look out for historians prepared to put up hypotheses and theories which can help genetic studies.

With their help Goldstein is hoping to make a sophisticated geographical map of the genetic structure of the British Isles, which, rather than focusing on the finer detail of historical events, could be of use in epidemiology - the study of the relationship between genes and disease.

This is all a long way from studying the Vikings and their contribution to the gene pool, but the subjects are connected through the new leaps forward in genetic science.

Bradshaw explains another part of the project. Through something called mitochondrial DNA, a part of the genome present in men but not influenced by the female line, he says that geneticists may be able to establish, albeit roughly, how many women were amongst the Vikings who came to Britain.