Swedish Viking Age

Researchers from Stockholm University and Uppsala University uncovered new DNA evidence proving that female Viking warriors existed. The testing identified some of the remains in the iconic mid-10th century Swedish Viking Age grave in Birka as female. This is of huge value, both historically, anthropologically and socially, because it proves war was not an exclusively male practice, even at the higher ranks.

Excavated in the 1880s, the remains and artifacts from the gave include the warrior and her two glorious steeds, a sword, armor-piercing arrows, and a complete set of gaming pieces with a board. Although some of the skeletal morphology suggested that the warrior was female, the warrior’s sex was originally presumed male until cutting-edge DNA testing technology provided a quick new means to solidify our scientific understanding of human history, and turn ancient Viking sagas into natural history.

To get the complete picture provided by this grave, which has served as an example of Viking warrior burials for more than a century, archaeologists, archaeogeneticists, and geneticists collaborated in this landmark study. The team retrieved DNA from the skeleton, and it demonstrated that the warrior carried no Y chromosome and two X chromosomes. Her nomadic lifestyle was confirmed by isotope analyses, a finding that complements what historians already knew about the martial society of Northern Europe that dominated the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries.

Image Credit: Uppsala University
Image Credit: Uppsala University

“This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior,” Uppsala University Department of Organismal Biology Professor Mattias Jakobsson said to Phys.org.

“The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to have been a woman,” Stockholm University study leader Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson told Phys.org.

Connecting Past and Present

More than the first solidifying evidence of female viking warriors, this discovery is a prime example of the ways new technology enables us to better understand our ancestors. We can even look them in the eyes. Researchers in Cambridge used various forensic science techniques to reconstruct the face of a working class, 13th-century British man now called Context 958, and drew conclusions about his life from their findings. Scientists are also now able to extract and analyze the DNA of our ancient human ancestors from ordinary sediment, providing fresh opportunities to explore early human evolution without need of bones or fossils.

Image Credit: Uppsala University
Image Credit: Uppsala University

These technological advances provide new insights into the rich history all humans share. “Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence,” Uppsala University Department of Archaeology and Ancient History Professor Neil Price told Phys.org. As the techniques used in this case are applied at sites around the world, exciting new insights are sure to teach us more about the past and ourselves.