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An archaeological team from Queen’s University Belfast has discovered that the Vikings saved Ireland during a steep population decline lasting nearly 300 years in first of it’s kind research.
When we think about Vikings, we think about them invading a land and reducing the population significantly in order to conquer it. It turns out, however, that the Vikings rescued Ireland from a population crisis by combining the local population with their own and raising the population count in the process.
For years, it has been believed that the population of Ireland has only increased over the centuries until the potato famine of the 1840s resulted in a mass migration to the United States and elsewhere.
But it turns out that there had been population decline in Ireland centuries earlier.
Dr. Rowan McLaughlin and PhD student Emma Hannah combed through census records, looked at DNA studies, studied archaeological sites and used radiocarbon dating and Kernel Density Estimation techniques to figure out that the Irish population had been in serious decline starting in the year 700 AD.
“Using archaeological data, this paper investigates past population trends in Ireland as a response to recent genomic studies that have identified admixture signals in the genomes of Irish people caused by historically-recorded migration events,” the two authors wrote in a report published by the Journal of Archaeological Science. “Among these was Norse settlement in the 9th-10th Centuries CE, which has a greater than expected signal in the contemporary population of the island.”
For nearly the next three centuries, the population continued to dwindle. But in 795 AD, ships originating from Scandinavia appeared on the horizon and the Vikings began raiding coastal communities in search of treasure.
“Millions of people lived in Ireland during prehistory and the earliest Christian times,” McLaughlin said in a statement. “Around the year 700, this population in Ireland mysteriously entered a decline, perhaps because of war, famine, plague or political unrest. However, there was no single cause or one-off event, as the decline was a gradual process.”
And then in 821 AD, the Viking raids intensified in frequency, and settlements soon formed in the 10th century, sparking a period of population growth in Ireland that continued until the Famine.
We argue that the Viking migrations occurred following a 300-year period of population decrease in Ireland. This new, data-driven synthesis of the archaeological record contrasts with previous accounts of early medieval Ireland as a period of ever-growing expansion and progression. However, this new interpretation is also aligned to evidence for economic and environmental change, including recent discoveries concerning the soil nitrogen cycle and agricultural intensification.
“The Vikings settled in Ireland in the 10th century, during the phase of decline and despite being few in number, they were more successful than the ‘natives’ in expanding their population,” McLaughlin explained. “Today, genetic evidence suggests many Irish people have some Viking blood. This large database has opened up a completely new perspective on the past that we simply could not obtain any other way.”
Indeed, the Vikings founded the settlements of Waterford, Cork, Dublin, Wexford and Limerick along with several other coastal towns and provided a boost in economic trade. Settled amongst the natives, Vikings would intermarry and start families that would rescue Ireland from the population decline it had been struggling with for centuries.
Emma Hannah says that archaeologists should analyze data from multiple sites across different disciplines to draw conclusions instead of focusing one just one site or one set of data.
“Often in archaeology we are focused on interpreting the evidence from a single site, but analysing quantities of data in this way allows us to think about the long term,” Hannah observed. “Now we know these broad trends, we can better understand the details of everyday life.”
She’s right, and recent archaeological and genetic discoveries make it clear that Viking society is much more complex than we once thought. For instance, a study in one ancient Viking community revealed that at least half of the population had been immigrants. A recent discovery has also revealed that some Viking women were warriors.
Yet another study suggests that the Vikings smoked cannabis, which they also apparently cultivated on farms.
As Hannah notes, farming in Ireland was a key part of Viking life, but it was not as important as once believed.
“It was quite surprising because the popular narrative is that there was increase in intensity of farming activity during the time but when we looked at the readings it showed a slowdown in agriculture and farming activity,” she said.
It appears that the Vikings were more focused on urban life, which is associated with certain activities.
“I’ll look at craftwork activity, like iron working, fine metal working and textile production,” Hannah said. “There’s this perception that somewhere around 900, when the Viking towns were established and were really successful, that craftworking at rural, everyday sites kind of migrated towards these urban towns.
I’m trying to determine how much that is the case and trying to see how craft production as a whole relates to Viking urbanism.”
And there you have it. The Vikings are responsible for a population boom in Ireland that put an end to a steep decline that could have continued much longer had they not settled there. It’s just another one of those interesting little discoveries that adds richness to human history and personal family history, which many Irishmen and women who share Viking genes can attest.
To learn more about the lives of Vikings in Ireland, here’s a short documentary:
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