Genetic study reveals the fate of Celtic slaves taken by Norse Vikings

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Genetic study reveals the fate of Celtic slaves taken by Norse Vikings photo copyright Wolfmann CC4

A genetic study in Iceland has revealed the fate of the Celtic slaves were taken from Ireland and Scotland by Vikings who colonised Iceland.

The slaves were mostly women and were taken around 1,100 years ago.

The study took place at the University of Iceland and deCODE Genetics in Reykjavík in 2018. The researchers analysed genomes from skeletal remains of 25 ancient Icelanders that have been found across the country.

Genetic study reveals the fate of Celtic slaves taken by Norse Vikings photo copyright Wolfmann CC4

They studied DNA from the teeth and discovered that they hade a near equal split of Norse and Gaelic ancestry.

In comparison, the Icelandic people of today have around 70% Norse ancestry, which shows in the 1,100 years since the settlers arrived there has been a significant shift in favour of Norse genes.

Research shows that the first people to settle in Iceland were mainly Norse men and Gaelic women, in the 9th and 10th centuries. The early settlers are almost indistinguishable from modern day Irish, Scots and Scandinavians.

However, they are significantly different from modern day Icelandic people which shows that over the millennium a distinct new population has developed.

There could be a number of reasons for this. Kári Stefánsson, is the chief executive of deCODE and co-author of the study.

He said: “Repeated famines and epidemics led to a substantial loss of sequence diversity from the Icelandic gene pool.

“This caused the Icelandic gene pool to drift away from its source populations in Scandinavia and the British-Irish Isles.”

It is also likely that those with Norse Viking blood were more likely to reproduce and for their children to flourish than the ancient Irish, who were slaves on the island.

Stefánsson said: “This is a fascinating example of how a population is shaped by its environment, in this case the harsh and marginal conditions of medieval Iceland.

“It is also another demonstration of how our small but well characterised population can continue to make important contributions to understanding the fundamental genetic and evolutionary processes that shape our species.”

The University of Iceland’s Dr Agnar Helgason, who also co-authored the report, said: “The mixing of populations and the colonization of new lands are recurring themes in the spread of humans across the globe during the last 70 thousand years.

“Our study of DNA from the teeth of Viking age Icelanders provides the first in-depth investigation of how a new population is formed through admixture.”


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Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcalling