Roughly a thousand years ago, a young man in his early 20s met a violent end in England. 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, in Denmark, an older man who had survived a lifetime of battles died sometime in his 50s. At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest a connection between them over such a distance. But according to a recent study of their DNA, the two men were second-degree relatives: half-siblings, uncle and nephew, or grandfather and grandson.
Today, their skeletons lie side-by-side in the National Museum of Denmark, reunited after centuries, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
Geneticists sequenced the pair’s DNA as part of a much larger study, which sampled and sequenced ancient DNA from more than 400 human skeletons at sites across Europe and Greenland. That data revealed that Vikings were much more ethnically diverse than historians have often assumed, and it helped track the migrations that defined the Viking Age. Against the backdrop of those larger patterns, the ancient DNA from two skeletons, buried hundreds of kilometers apart under very different circumstances, told a much more personal story.
“This is a big discovery because now you can trace movements across space and time through a family,” Jeannette Varberg of the National Museum of Denmark said.
Given what is known about the Viking Age, it’s easy to imagine at least the broad strokes of this family’s story. The 50-year-old may have been a veteran of raids along the coast of continental Europe, or a returning veteran of raids on the British Isles; his bones showed evidence of old, long-healed wounds sustained in combat. But he lived to a relatively old age for his time and occupation (as they say, beware an old man in a profession where men usually die young).
The 20-year-old may have may have died during a raid on the English coast, or he may have been caught up in King Ethelred II’s 1002 CE purge of Danes living in England. He ended up in a mass grave in Oxford, England, with his skull shattered by the blows that killed him. It’s reasonable to speculate that the two men knew each other, or at least knew of each other, but there’s not enough evidence for archaeologists to say whether they lived at the same time, or which of them was born first.
“It’s very difficult to tell if they lived in the same age or they differ maybe by a generation, because you have no material in the grave that can give a precise dating,” Varberg said.
It’s plausible that the young man who died in England went to battle with thoughts of impressing a sibling, an uncle, or a grandfather back in Denmark; perhaps they fought side-by-side, or perhaps he was hoping to live up to his elder’s stories. Then again, it’s equally plausible that the veteran warrior who died in Denmark remembered the stories of a sibling or older relative who died in battle far to the west.
Either way, the pair of warriors are an excellent reminder of what ancient DNA—and archaeology, more generally—can tell us about the past, from sweeping large-scale patterns of human movements to the much more personal lives of individual people and families. And once in a great while, both kinds of stories emerge from the same study.