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Known as the oldest town in Sweden, Sigtuna was a Viking community, but researchers have discovered through DNA testing that half of the population were actually immigrants.
Lying just west of the more modern town of the same name, tradition holds that Sigtuna is the home of Odin, meaning the town played a major role in Norse mythology. Founded in 980 by a Nordic king, Sigtuna is mentioned throughout history and has the highest concentration of Viking rune stones anywhere in the world.
One might think that a town literally founded by a Viking king would largely be populated by Vikings. But, that’s not accurate.
It’s incredibly difficult to learn many details about Viking populations because they once held pagan beliefs and most bodies were cremated except for the elite few who were buried inside a Viking ship in a mound, several of which have been found recently in Norway and Sweden.
But after they converted to Christianity during the late Viking age around the 11th century, burials in cemeteries became more common, allowing archaeologists and geneticists a fascinating opportunity to extract DNA for study. And what they found paints quite a picture of Viking society.
“The impact of human mobility on the northern European urban populations during the Viking and Early Middle Ages and its repercussions in Scandinavia itself are still largely unexplored,” the team wrote in a report published by Current Biology.
“Our study of the demographics in the final phase of the Viking era is the first comprehensive multidisciplinary investigation that includes genetics, isotopes, archaeology, and osteology on a larger scale. This early Christian dataset is particularly important as the earlier common pagan burial tradition during the Iron Age was cremation, hindering large-scale DNA analyses. We present genome-wide sequence data from 23 individuals from the 10th to 12th century Swedish town of Sigtuna.”
DNA was taken from 23 sets of remains, 14 males and 11 females, and it turns out that roughly half of them were immigrants hailing from other parts of Europe such as Germany, Britain, and Ukraine.
“The data revealed high genetic diversity among the early urban residents,” the team reported. “The observed variation exceeds the genetic diversity in distinct modern-day and Iron Age groups of central and northern Europe. Strontium isotope data suggest mixed local and non-local origin of the townspeople.”
“Our results uncover the social system underlying the urbanization process of the Viking World of which mobility was an intricate part and was comparable between males and females. The inhabitants of Sigtuna were heterogeneous in their genetic affinities, probably reflecting both close and distant connections through an established network, confirming that early urbanization processes in northern Europe were driven by migration.”
And just as immigrants migrate to other countries today in search of opportunity, so did these migrants during the Viking age.
“The long-distance migrants probably moved to Sigtuna from other centers in connection to their profession or goals. They most likely represent the whole network of the Viking world. We do not find a specific Scandinavian ‘Viking’ population distinct from the rest of Europe; rather, the population was integrated in the northern European gene pool at the time.”
According to Stockholm University Archaeological Research Laboratory researchers Maja Krzewinska, who co-authored the study, most people don’t think about migration into Viking communities. We think of Vikings as conquerors who invaded and pillaged other lands to expand their territory. In short, we think of Vikings as the migrants. But migration went both ways.
“We´re used to thinking of the Vikings as a travelling kind, and can easily picture the school books with maps and arrows pointing out from Scandinavia, as far as Turkey and America, but not so much in the other direction,” Krzewwinska said in a press release by Stockholm University.
The researchers also found evidence of different cultures in Sigtuna.
“The archaeological record from Sigtuna never ceases to fascinate as it shows such a wide variety of cultural expressions,” Stockholm University osteologist Anna Kjellstrom said. “And here we see who grew up there and who moved to Sigtuna.”
And in another surprising find, some of the immigrants were second generation, which apparently isn’t something that scientists have found before.
“I especially like that we find 2nd generation immigrants among the buried, that kind of migratory information has never been encountered before as far as I know,” ATLAS-project leader Anders Götherström said.
The Vikings seemed to have no problem welcoming immigrants with open arms, and there was no such thing as an illegal immigrant in those times. The migrants became valued members of the community and were buried alongside Viking members of the population. It’s a lesson of tolerance we could stand to emulate in our modern world.
More on the oldest town in Sweden from Keep Expanding below:
More on the bonds of loyalty and hospitality that held Viking society together from the History Channel:
Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube/History Channel