Then the high-born lady saw them play the wounding game,
she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak;
she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen’s lives,
she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows.
The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (st. 49), The poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
I just love ancient DNA. Not only does it provide us a way to “view” long deceased individuals who we may be related to, one way or another (Y, mtDNA or autosomal), but it gives us a peephole into history as well.
Recently, a Viking warrior long presumed to be male has been positively identified as female through DNA analysis.
The paper titled A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics by Hedenstiera-Jonson et al provides details.
Oral history tells us of female Viking warriors, but mostly, those stories have been dismissed as mythology. But guess what – they weren’t.
A Viking warrior grave excavated in Birka, Sweden in the 1970s was originally identified as a female. That finding was initially dismissed in light of the extensive warrior burial artifacts. The skeleton was presumed to be a warrior male due to extensive funerary objects indicating a high ranking individual. Similar female warrior burials have been dismissed as well by saying that the warrior artifacts might have been heirlooms and don’t identify the burial as a warrior.
The warrior burial has now been indeed proven to be a female using DNA analysis.
From the paper’s authors:
This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female. As long as the sex is male, the weaponry in the grave not only belong to the interred but also reflects his status as warrior, whereas a female sex has raised doubts, not only regarding her ascribed role but also in her association to the grave goods.
A great deal can be told about skeletal remains through their bones – and certain traits indicate males or females. In 2014, a scientist again suggested that the bones of this burial suggested the warrior had been a female, but that commentary was met with significant skepticism because of the warrior’s high rank based on the grave goods. DNA was determined to be the only way to resolve the question. Thank goodness this avenue was pursued and was productive.
From their abstract:
The objective of this study has been to confirm the sex and the affinity of an individual buried in a well-furnished warrior grave (Bj 581) in the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden. Previously, based on the material and historical records, the male sex has been associated with the gender of the warrior and such was the case with Bj 581. An earlier osteological classification of the individual as female was considered controversial in a historical and archaeological context. A genomic confirmation of the biological sex of the individual was considered necessary to solve the issue.
From their results:
The genomic results revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome and thus a female biological sex, and the mtDNA analyses support a single-individual origin of sampled elements. The genetic affinity is close to present-day North Europeans, and within Sweden to the southern and south-central region. Nevertheless, the Sr values are not conclusive as to whether she was of local or nonlocal origin.
And their discussion:
The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period. The results call for caution against generalizations regarding social orders in past societies.
The paper further states that over 3,000 warrior graves are known, with approximately 1,100 excavated. I have to wonder how many of those graves might be females too.
The Birka warrior was confirmed to be a female by the absence of a Y chromosome, but her mitochondrial DNA can tell us even more.
Her mitochondrial DNA is haplogroup T2b.
The list of mtDNA mutations in the supplement (namely those obtained from a canine tooth) are actually quite thorough (see page 15 of the supplement). They include all of the mutations that lead up to and including mtDNA haplogroup T2b. And then they go on to include two more that do not yet fit into any currently-named subgroup of T2b. These are T5774C and C16354T.
People who are curious about their own mtDNA can determine their status at position 16354 by a simple HVR1 test at FTDNA, but position 5774 requires a full mtDNA sequence test.
Within the T projects for which I’m an administrator, there are a few people with T5774C with none that have both of these two mutations. At least not yet… it would be nice to encourage more people to do full mtDNA testing.
If you have tested at a company other than Family Tree DNA that provides you with only a haplogroup, and it’s T, T2 or T2b, you might want to consider the mitochondrial test at Family Tree DNA to obtain a more definitive haplogroup and your actual mutations. Someone, someplace, may well match this Viking warrior woman.
Who is She Most Like?
The report indicates that the Birka female warrior showed autosomal genetic affinity to the following present-day populations:
- British Island of England and Scotland,
- North Atlantic Islands of Iceland and the Orkneys
- Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Norway
- Baltic counties of Lithuania and Latvia
- Sweden from the south-central and southern region
The warrior was more like northern Europeans than southern Europeans, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Your Mitochondrial DNA
Mitochondrial DNA holds so many secrets and provides testers with information you can’t possible discover about your ancestors any other way. Males and females can both test. If you haven’t taken the full sequence mitochondrional DNA test, please consider doing so.
You can click here to order the mtFull Sequence test or upgrade an existing test to the full sequence level.
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