DNA evidence of Birka bones support claim of female Vikings


A DNA test done on bones from a Viking excavation site has proven that female warriors existed in Viking culture. In the late 1880’s, in what is now southern Sweden, archaeologists excavated what was thought of as a perfect Viking warrior burial site. The “Birka Warrior” was excavated alongside swords, arrowheads and two sacrificed horses. It was said to be the ideal warrior grave, and was always assumed to be that of a male, simply because it was a warrior. Recent DNA analysis of the warrior’s bones revealed that the bones actually belonged to that of a woman. At the University of Stockholm in Sweden, bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellstrom began observing and analyzing the mandibles and the pelvic bones of the Birka warrior, and noticed that they resembled those of a woman. Due to the age of the excavation, critics believed that there could have been multiple errors and variables that could have denied if these were truly a female warrior’s bones. It is possible that the original bones had been lost, mixed up, mislabeled or even from another dig site. For these reasons, the find wasn’t highly regarded, nor did it make global headlines. In order to help prove Kjellstrom, Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson led a team in order to help the theory that the Birka remains were female. The team collected two samples of DNA from the remains. The first was a mitochondrial DNA, or DNA that is passed down from mother to child. These results would solidify whether or not these bones belonged to a single person or multiple people. The second DNA test extracted the bones nuclear DNA, which would specify the bones’ gender. The mitochondrial DNA came back showing that all the bones belonged to a single person. The nuclear DNA test found an absence of Y-chromosomes in the bones. This made the team certain that the bones belonged to a female. Hedenstierna-Jonson helped support Kjellstrom’s claims that the burial site belonged to not only a respected female warrior, but to a possible female leader. Guardian feature writer Paula Cocozza writes in her article ‘Does new DNA evidence prove that there were female viking warlords’ how this theory stems from tiny pieces that were found in the site. The pieces are “perhaps from hnefatafl which was a precursor to chess, suggest that the female warrior from site Bj581 was a battle strategist.” A possible explenation for this is that women could have been buried with objects that belonged to a relative. However, this is highly unlikely, as recent studies and advances in technology promote the belief that women did have a role in warfare. While it did surprise many professionals that this highly respected warrior was female, it was not the first time that female warriors have been found in remnants of Viking culture. Viking folklore talks about someone known as Inghen Ruaidh, or the Red Woman, after her distinct hair. The Red Woman was a famous warrior who led a Viking fleet to Ireland in the tenth century. Numerous thirteenth-century Viking sagas, known as the Volsung sagas, also mention shield maidens who would fight alongside the male warriors. Until recent discovery, many people believed that these women were only folklore. This was due to the time period in which these findings were first speculated, when gender roles were prominent in society. This discovery also questions whether or not other remains that have been designated male could actually be female. Durham University Lecturer of Archeaology Becky Gowland says, “Because it was buried with weapons [people assumed] it must be a man, I think that’s a mistake that archeaologists make quite often. When we do that, we’re just reproducing the past in our image.” Baylor University Archaeologist Davide Baylor states, “This is something that has generated a lot of interest, because of some of the texts of female warriors… and now we’re getting new technologies that can bring those texts and that archaeology into closer contact.”


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