You get the Vikings you deserve
A new study on Viking genes won’t change our myths about them, because biology isn’t the answer and never has been, write ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

Wednesday 23rd Sep 2020

Eske Willerslev (seated), lead scientist on the Viking research paper, dressed up a Viking captive
THE recent rise of far-right ideologies and white supremacists in Europe has been associated with their appropriation of Viking iconography — and the appeal of the Viking myth to white supremacists is easy to see.

The ubiquity of the image of the violent sea-warrior resonates with half-formed ideas that we all carry as somehow associated with white skin and blond hair, the “Scandinavian looks” that can act as a helpful euphemism to bolster investment in “whiteness” now that Aryanism has fallen out of fashion.

Association with Vikings can be rightly identified as a historically meaningless fairytale for racists. Scientific, archaeological and historical work continues to shed light on who “the Vikings” really were. Between 800 and 1000AD, a number of seafaring cultures in northern Europe were particularly dominant. Rather than being identified as a single group, the term refers to a number of different populations that were prominent in colonisation and warfare.

We are now living in an age of genetic sequencing. The high-speed development of different types of genetic analysis now makes it possible to read DNA quickly and with a high degree of accuracy. Scientists are still trying to make out meanings from the genetic code.

One prominent use of the technology is the analysis of ancient DNA by digging up remains. While samples as old as 5,000 years have been analysed, the more recent the remains, the easier the analysis. Viking burial grounds from approximately 1,000 years ago are prime candidates.

The race to obtain valuable ancient remains is highly competitive. It is dominated by a few big-name scientists, who boast of their abilities to get access and thus secure funding to carry out the research. Along with economic capital, scientific capital accumulates: these scientists are concentrated in the richest and most famous institutions.

Last week, one of them, Eske Willerslev at the University of Cambridge published a study in Nature. The study analysed the genetic make-up of Viking skeletons found throughout Europe alongside their contemporary counterparts: the people who make up the modern day populations in the same geographical locations.

The results of the study show a mixture of stories. Vikings were less blond than the Scandinavians who have come after them; many distinctive populations are implicated in the Viking voyaging phenomenon; two prominent Viking graves on Orkney show no genetic link to other Scandinavian populations, although the graves otherwise appear to be Viking — the link being a cultural one rather than a question of biological relatedness.

Those believing a Scandinavian heritage is the key to any behaviour or cultural belonging will be disappointed. The Orcadians may have been sea-warriors and culturally and materially Vikings, but they were more closely related to people who were culturally Picts in what is now Ireland and Britain. It wasn’t genes that made them Vikings.

The Vikings were ethnically diverse and made more so by trading and colonisation. A team of many of the same authors showed earlier this summer that the Vikings carried smallpox by boat — just as coronavirus has been carried by plane this year.

As well as the short-term and sporadic movement of people as raiders and traders, there was a long-term genetic movement as populations migrated from regions south and east of Scandinavia to form the mixed-ancestry Viking populations.

Some people moved and didn’t mix; some people moved and mixed. Migration has always been part of human history.

Given what we know about people’s family histories, this complexity is entirely to be expected. More complexity is available to anyone who buys personalised gene testing; the same technology that lets us look into the genetic makeup of the Vikings is also available to tell you more about your own genetic makeup.

Unfortunately, the turn towards biological fascination has not been accompanied by genetic literacy. In return for your money, many companies offer a spurious race-based notion of ancestry linked to region or nationality: eg 3 per cent Iberian.

Although nominally shaking the notion of “race purity” as a possibility and carefully using neutral language of “populations,” the formulation cannot help but rest back on the abstract idea of racial purity and emphasise the links between race and place.

Race is a social, not a biological construct. The history of race shows it is based on colonial and supremacist power. The modern attempt to rebuild coalitions of people based on the percentages of ancestral DNA found in their cells is a threat to a serious understanding of genetics and to identity.

Besides, what of people who find they are “genetically homogenous” with genes recycled in the same family group for generations — are they to be encouraged in their racism? The risk is that by indulging the bad interpretation of genetics, we fail to formulate identities that speak to the real conditions we find ourselves in.

This Viking research will have no effect on the far right. They may as well call themselves Vikings. It has no basis in “real” Vikings but they understand the use of powerful stories and of imagined identities that allow them to believe and act as they like.

Those of us who oppose racial oppression owe it to ourselves and the people who will come after us to create better stories. We need shared ideas about where we came from and where we are going, rather than hoping that science will solve the problem for us.

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