Ancient Icelandic Viking Settlers Expand the Y DNA Tree

The harsh yet starkly beautiful volcanic island of Iceland was only settled about 1100 years ago, between 870 and 930 CE (current era). Obviously, the original settlers had to originate in locations where populations were already established. During this time, Vikings had been raiding islands and coastal regions of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Their DNA, now unearthed, tells their tale.

This 2018 paper, Ancient genomes from Iceland reveal the making of a human population by Ebenesersdóttir et al, along with the supplementary material, here, provides insight into the genomes of 27 ancient Icelanders who are a combination of Norse, Gaelic and admixed individuals. The Irish Times wrote a non-academic article, here.

Unequal contributions of the ancient founders, plus isolation resulting in genetic drift separates the current Icelandic population from the founder populations. These ancient Icelandic genomes, autosomally, are more similar to their founding populations than today’s Icelanders.

While autosomal DNA recombines in each generation, Y and mitochondrial DNA does not, revealing the exact DNA of the original founding members of the population. This, of course, allows us to peer back in time. We can see who they match, historically, and where. Today, we can see if our Y and mitochondrial DNA matches them as well.

The authors of the paper selected 35 ancient individuals, believed to be first-generation founders, to have their whole genomes sequenced, of which 27 were successful. Sometimes the ancient DNA is just too degraded to sequence properly.

Nineteen of these burials are pre-Christian, 2 from Christian burials and one that is “Early Modern,” dated to 1678 CE. Ages are expressed, as follows:

  • Pre-Christian <1000 CE
  • Pre-Christian 950-1050 CE
  • Early modern Born 1678 CE
  • Pre-Christian <1050 cal CE

Dates that say “cal CE” mean that they were carbon 14 dated and calibrated and CE (alone) means that those dates are based on the archaeological context of grave goods, other remains, and environmental indicators such as volcanic ash.

As he did with the 442 ancient Viking genomes that I wrote about, here, Goran Runfeldt who heads the research department at FamilyTreeDNA downloaded the Icelandic genomes, extracted and aligned the mitochondrial and Y DNA results.

Michael Sager analyzed the Y DNA and those results, once again, have refined, enhanced or split at least 8 branches of the Y DNA tree.

For instructions about how to see if your mitochondrial or Y DNA results match any of these ancient genomes, please click here. If you haven’t yet tested, you can order or upgrade a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, here.

The Graves

This map, provided in the paper by the authors, shows the burial locations of the remains, noted by sample numbers. Circles are females, squares are male. Light gray was later excluded from the author’s study.

Some of these burials and grave goods are fascinating. For example, note the horse and dog burials.

Goran and Michael have been kind enough to share their analysis, below, along with comments. Thanks, guys!

Sample: DAV-A9
Location: Dalvík (Brimnes), North, Iceland
Study Information: One of the largest and most studied pre-Christian burial sites in Iceland. Thirteen human skeletal remains, six horse skeletons, and the remains of three dogs were found at the site. In one of the graves, the deceased individual had been placed in a sitting position at the rear of a boat
Age: Pre-Christian 900-1000 CE
Y-DNA: I-FGC21765
FTDNA Comment: Likely splits this branch
mtDNA: H1

Sample: DKS-A1
Location: Öndverðarnes, West, Iceland
Study Information: Grave goods included a sword, a spearhead, a knife, a shield-boss, a bone-pin, and fragments of iron. According to a morphological analysis, the skeletal remains show evidence of developmental delay that could be explained by hypogonadism caused by Klinefelter syndrome, testicular disorder or castration.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-YP6099
mtDNA: U5a1h

Sample: FOV-A1
Location: Fossvellir, East, Iceland
Study Information: The remains are thought to have been placed at the site after the individual was deceased. The bones had been carefully arranged on top of each other and were surrounded by stone slabs and turf.
Age: Christian 1246-1302 CE
Y-DNA: R-DF23
mtDNA: HV17a

Sample: GRS-A1
Location: Grímsstaðir, North, Iceland
Study Information: Three pre-Christian burials were found in close proximity to each other near the site of a farmstead. We analysed one of the skeletal remains (GRS-A1), which were excavated in 1937. No grave goods were found at the site.
Age: Pre-Christian <1050 cal CE
Y-DNA: R-BY92608
mtDNA: K1a1b1b

Sample: GTE-A1
Location: Gilsárteigur, East, Iceland
Study Information: In 1949, field-leveling exposed a pre-Christian burial site near an old farm site. The remains of two skeletons were excavated in 1957. Both burials contained grave goods.
Age: Pre-Christian <1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-CTS4179
mtDNA: H4a1a4b

Sample: HSJ-A1
Location: Hrólfsstaðir, East, Iceland
Study Information: A comb, knife, and pieces of charcoal were found in the grave.
Age: Pre-Christian <1000 CE
Y-DNA: I-BY202281
FTDNA Comment: forms a branch with 2 men (Scotland and England). I-BY202281. The two modern samples share an additional 11 markers that HSJ-A1 is ancestral for
mtDNA: H3g1

Sample: KNS-A1
Location: Karlsnes, South, Iceland
Study Information: Grave goods included a spearhead, a knife, two lead weights, three beads, and a small stone.
Age: Pre-Christian 950-1050 CE
Y-DNA: R-Z290
mtDNA: H5

Sample: KOV-A2
Location: Kópavogur, West, Iceland
Study Information: Two skeletal remains. Based on archaeological evidence, the remains were identified as a female, born 1664, and a male, born 1678. According to historical records, they were executed in 1704 for the murder of the female’s husband. The male was beheaded, and his impaled head publicly exhibited, whereas the female was drowned. Their remains were buried in unconsecrated ground at a site called Hjónadysjar.
Age: Early modern Born 1678 CE
Y-DNA: R-L151
mtDNA: H1

Sample: MKR-A1
Location: Viðar (Másvatn), North, Iceland
Study Information: The remains date to <1477 C.E. based on volcanic ash chronology, and are thought to be from a pre-Christian burial site.
Age: Pre-Christian <1050 cal CE
Y-DNA: R-YP1258
mtDNA: K1c1b

Sample: NNM-A1
Location: Njarðvík, East, Iceland
Study Information: A human skull (NNM-A1) was found at a site considered to be a badly damaged pre-Christian burial.
Age: Pre-Christian <1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-BY56981
mtDNA: H2a2b5a

Sample: ORE-A1
Location: Ormsstaðir, East, Iceland
Study Information: Pre-Christian site near an old farmstead was excavated after being exposed during field leveling. One human skeleton (ORE-A) was found, along with an axe, a knife, and three lead weights. A single human bone from another individual was found nearby.
Age: Pre-Christian 900-1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-PH93
mtDNA: K1a3a

Sample: SBT-A1
Location: Smyrlaberg, North, Iceland
Study Information: Pre-Christian burial site in an old gravel quarry. Two years later its excavation revealed a male skeleton (SBT-A1) and an iron knife. Another grave, badly damaged, was found nearby, but only fragments of bone were recovered.
Age: Pre-Christian <1000 CE
Y-DNA: I-FGC74518
FTDNA Comment: Shares 6 SNPs with a man from England. Forms a branch down of I-BY46619 (Z140). Branch = I-FGC74518
mtDNA: H3g1a

Sample: SSG-A2
Location: Sílastaðir, North, Iceland
Study Information: A cluster of four pre-Christian graves. Based on morphological analysis, three of the skeletons were deemed male, and one female.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-BY41282
FTDNA Comment: Split the R-BY23441 block – derived only for BY41282 (Z246)
mtDNA: J1c3g

Sample: SSG-A3
Location: Sílastaðir, North, Iceland
Study Information: A cluster of four pre-Christian graves. Based on morphological analysis, three of the skeletons were deemed male, and one female.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1000 CE
Y-DNA: I-FGC9493
mtDNA: T2b2b

Sample: SSJ-A2
Location: Surtsstaðir, East, Iceland
Study Information: The remains of two individuals were found at the site, along with grave goods.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1000 CE
Y-DNA: I-Y129187
mtDNA: U5a1a1

Sample: STT-A2
Location: Straumur, East, Iceland
Study Information: Pre-Christian burial site was excavated, which included the remains of four individuals (one child, one male, one female, and another adult whose sex could not be determined by morphological analysis). Grave goods included a horse bone, a small axe, thirty boat rivets, a lead weight, two pebbles, and a knife.
Age: Pre-Christian 975-1015 cal CE
Y-DNA: R-FT118419
FTDNA Comment: Shares 22 SNPs with a man from Wales. They form the branch R-FT118419 (Z251)
mtDNA: U4b1b1

Sample: SVK-A1
Location: Svínadalur, North, Iceland
Study Information: Human skeletal remains were brought to the National Museum of Iceland. They had been exposed for many years near an old farmhouse. There were no grave goods found at the site, but the remains are thought to be pre-Christian.
Age: Pre-Christian <1050 cal CE
Y-DNA: I-FGC21682
FTDNA Comment: Joins VK110 and VK400 as an additional I-FGC21682* (P109)
mtDNA: I2

Sample: TGS-A1
Location: Tunga, North, Iceland
Study Information: Human skeletal remains (TGS-A1) were excavated in 1981 by inhabitants at a nearby farm. They were classified at the National Museum of Iceland as having unknown temporal origin. The remains were radiocarbon dated for this study, indicating that they date from the 10th century C.E.
Age: Pre-Christian 943-1024 cal CE
Y-DNA: R-Y10827
FTDNA Comment: Likely R-BY4659. Also PH1220+, but this is a C>T mutation also present in hg I ancient samples R7 and Carrowkeel531.
mtDNA: T2e1

Sample: TSK-A26 / ÞSK-A26
Location: Skeljastaðir, South, Iceland
Study Information: Christian cemetery at Skeljastaðir in Þjórsárdalur. The remains are dated to before 1104 C.E., as the site was abandoned in the wake of a volcanic eruption of Mount Hekla in that year.
Age: Christian 1120 cal CE
Y-DNA: R-Y77406
FTDNA Comment: Shares 2 SNPs with a man from Norway. Forms branch down of R-BY30235 (L448). New branch = R-Y77406
mtDNA: J1b1a1a

Sample: VDP-A6
Location: Vatnsdalur, West, Iceland
Study Information: Boat grave with seven skeletal remains (three females and four males), along with a dog skeleton. Grave goods included a knife, thirty beads, a silver Thor’s hammer, a fragmented Cufic coin (ca. 870–930 C.E.) and jewelry.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1050 CE
Y-DNA: R-YP1120
mtDNA: H1c3a

Sample: VDP-A7
Location: Vatnsdalur, West, Iceland
Study Information: Boat grave with seven skeletal remains (three females and four males), along with a dog skeleton. Grave goods included a knife, thirty beads, a silver Thor’s hammer, a fragmented Cufic coin (ca. 870–930 C.E.) and jewelry.
Age: Pre-Christian 850-1050 CE
Y-DNA: R-FT209682
FTDNA Comment: Shares 7 SNPs with a man from Sweden. Forms branch down of R-BY71305 (Z18). New branch = R-FT209682
mtDNA: H4a1a1

Sample: YGS-B2
Location: Ytra-Garðshor, North, Iceland
Study Information: The site included the disturbed remains of nine human skeletons (four males, two females, one child and two individuals whose sex could not be inferred based on morphological analysis). There were grave goods in all graves.
Age: Pre-Christian <1000 CE
Y-DNA: R-Y98267
FTDNA Comment: Split the R-Y84777 block (L238). Derived only for Y98267
mtDNA: J1c1a

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12 thoughts on “Ancient Icelandic Viking Settlers Expand the Y DNA Tree

  1. Iceland is intriguing for different reasons. My daughter has 4 DNA matches at MyHeritage to people in that country with the expected names (9 – 30 cM; the latter on 3 different segments). I think that they are probably related to each other too, though not extremely closely and involving sometimes different segments in common with my daughter. (I would guess a lot of Icelanders are related to each other.) The odd thing is that I have zero matches in Iceland myself. Yet some of the people on the list of shared matches (Norway, USA, Netherlands) are my matches too.
    Something strange has happened and I don’t know precisely what. They could be false matches. My daughter’s father was from Bucharest, Romania. It REALLY cannot be his DNA, less than a 1% chance. I don’t even see how it can be a combo of both parents’ DNA somehow “stitched” together. — At a FB page people commented endlessly about ancient travels of people from the Balkans somehow making their merry way to Iceland. — Anyway, Icelanders are cool… in the colloquial sense of that word. (I loved Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. It probably made many Icelanders cringe or scowl).

  2. Hi Roberta, sorry to be off topic, but this is important! I t old my grandfatger to take a test, and he just said that he just s t sent it off, but thst it said cri genetics and not 23andme… is this bad?

    • Yes. He’s not going to get matching or transferable results. They are not considered reliable. Order the test for him that you want him to take.

  3. One of the pre-Christian era Icelanders, SSG-A3, has the same mtDNA as me – T2b2b. A strange feeling. My earliest mt ancestor was born ca 1730 on the Scottish island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. Given the close interaction between Norse and Scots for centuries this mixture not too surprising. But to be able to point to a specific person who lived over 1,000 years ago stretches the imagination.

  4. I found a member of my fam, too.

    SVK-A1 and I share I2 mitochondrial DNA. It’s a rare mito haplogroup, found in about 0.4% of the population, and most commonly in Iceland, Denmark, and Scotland, and Brittany.

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