Viking sex tourists lived happily ever after with Britons

Science Editor,Steve Connor
Saturday 12 August 2000 00:00 BST

Whether British females were kidnapped or charmed may never be known, but scientists have confirmed what historians have suspected: Viking men had a soft spot for the British female.

Whether British females were kidnapped or charmed may never be known, but scientists have confirmed what historians have suspected: Viking men had a soft spot for the British female.

So soft it seems that the Vikings came all the way to the British Isles to pick up "wives" to colonise the newly-discovered territory of Iceland. What may have started off as a trade in sex slaves almost certainly ended with Viking men and British women having children in stable family relationships.

As would be expected of a former Viking colony, a genetic analysis of the Y chromosome of present-day Icelandic men has found that the vast majority of their male ancestors came from Scandinavia.

However, an analysis of mitochondrial DNA - which we inherit solely from our mothers - has found that much of the female line of present-day Icelanders can be traced back to Britain and Ireland.

The findings, to be published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, reveal a clear difference between the male and female origins of one of the most important Viking settlements. It also raises the question: did the women go freely or were they forced?

"Genetics tells us nothing of this," said Agnar Helgason, a molecular biologist at the Institute of Biological Anthropology at Oxford University, who led the investigation with colleagues from DeCode Genetics, the firm with rights to Iceland's extensive genetic database.

"They may have started out as slaves and been taken as concubines or wives, but I'm sure the marriages were as happy as any at that time. That was just one of the ways that marriages were established then," Dr Helgason said.

The study focused on comparing the genes on the Y chromosome of men from Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland and other parts of Britain. A separate investigation compared the mitochondrial DNA of the Icelandic female line with other parts of western Europe.

"Our analyses of the Y chromosomes suggest about 80 per cent of the founding males in Iceland were from Scandinavia. From the mitochondrial DNA, our best guess is that at least half the women came from the British Isles," he said.

"What emerges is a difference between the geographical origin of the founding males and founding females. It seems that a greater proportion of founding males were from Scandinavia while a greater proportion of the founding females were from the British Isles."

The medieval Book of Settlements said that Iceland became settled by about 400 people who colonised the last uninhabited outpost of western Europe in just 60 years, between AD870 and AD930.

Haraldur Olafsson, an Icelandic historian, wrote in a recent book (Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga, published by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History), that the colonisers came from Celtic as well as Viking centres.

"Most came from Norway, although some were from Denmark and Sweden. Many had stayed for a while in Shetland, Orkney, northern Scotland or Ireland before sailing to Iceland. The founders of the new Icelandic society were therefore a mixture of Nordic and Celtic folk," Dr Olafsson said.

Colleen Batey, a curator of Glasgow Museums, said the Vikings had established settlements in Britain and probably formed relationships with indigenous Celts before sailing for Iceland. "The evidence, such as it is, would suggest intermarrying and a certain degree of acceptance of that. It doesn't necessarily mean forced marriages," Dr Batey said.

Nevertheless, the Vikings, like others at that time, traded in slaves - female and male.

"Usually colonisation is male-dominated and the females become very valuable. Often females were taken from the indigenous population as wives and then family groupsform and function in the same way," said Dr Helgason. "Clearly [Vikings] would have raided and traded women. Historians have been arguing about this for a number of years and I think our study shows that this may have been the case."

"I don't think the Vikings were special in this. They certainly weren't all that different from the indigenous population of that time in the British Isles."

"Slave-trading was quite a big thing at that time in the British Isles so I don't think that taking females as slaves and then as concubines or wives made Vikings different. That was quite a common thing."

Further research commissioned by the BBC will concentrate on what the Vikings left behind in Britain by analysing the Y chromosomes of British men living in former Viking settlements, such as York.

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