Population genomics of vikings – University of Copenhagen

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Population Genomics of Vikings

The Vikings were broadly known as North Germanic traders, farmers and explorers who emerged in Scandinavia in the 8th century. Their vast expansion during the following three centuries had a prominent role in the history of Europe shaping the demographic structure of the continent. There are numerous archaeological and historical data about Vikings, but these provide little information on the exact routes, the timing of their migrations, and the extent of admixture with neighboring indigenous populations.

PhD-fellow Ashot Margaryan with viking bones

PhD-fellow Ashot Margaryan with viking bones

Lack of data

In general, the Vikings are not genetically well characterized since most of the studies rely on the data of their living descendants from Scandinavia – Norwegians, Swedish, Danes and Icelanders. However, most modern populations do not reflect the true genetic structure of their ancestors as a result of subsequent admixture through migration, expansion and colonization events. In addition, the gene pool of modern populations consists of lineages of reproductively successful ancestors.

Therefore, it is crucial to gain access to well-preserved ancient human remains in order to provide an accurate genetic assessment of the vikings. With the advent of next generation DNA sequencing technology, it is now feasible to generate large amounts of genetic data from ancient samples. This can provide significant complementary information to archaeological, linguistic and historical data, which are commonly used to make inferences about the demographic history of human populations.

Whole genome profiling

In the framework of this project, we aim to genetically analyze fossils of vikings excavated in Denmark, and adjacent countries in the North Atlantic using next-generation sequencing methods. The ultimate goal is to engage in whole genome profiling or at least generate genome-wide information from a number of samples. This will be used to reconstruct the genetic history of vikings.

We will engage in the following questions:

(i) What is the pattern of genetic diversity of ancient vikings and how do they resemble the gene pools of present day Europeans?

(ii) Can we trace any admixture events in the areas where Vikings expanded?

(iii) What were the routes and their time spans of vikings’ migrations in the north Atlantic region?

(iv) Is there any difference between the paternal and maternal genetic histories of vikings?

(v) Can we trace the demographic trajectories in terms of temporal changes in population size during the Viking expansions and collapse?

In addition to the population genetic aspects, profiling whole genomes have the added benefit of being able to trace specific phenotypic traits such as hair color or eye color. We can also address questions related to the evolutionary history of some specific genes. As an example, we might be able to get new insights into the spread of the Δ32 mutation in CCR5 locus (responsible for HIV resistance) in northern Europe by the extensive migrations of vikings.

In the aDNA-laboratory

The samples will be extracted and prepared for high-throughput sequencing under strict ancient DNA guidelines at the dedicated aDNA facility in Centre for GeoGenetics. The samples will then be 'shot-gun' sequenced using powerful Illumina HiSeq platforms. These data will be compared with corresponding genetic profiles of modern populations of North Europe presumably considered as the descendants of vikings, as well as populations from other regions of Europe where the Vikings may have left genetic traces.

Viking expansion. (Map by Max Naylor. Wikimedia Commons).