27 January 2011

A new Norse saga: DNA detectives in the Viking North West

January, 25 2011

The Vikings are alive and well and living in the North West of England! That's the revelation in a new book on an epic research project into the genetic footprint of the Scandinavian invaders.

'Viking DNA: The Wirral and West Lancashire Project' is the culmination of several years of research by biochemists and geneticists, by Wirral-raised Professor Steve Harding from The University of Nottingham and Professor Mark Jobling and Dr Turi King from the University of Leicester. It shows the power of modern DNA methods to probe ancestry using the North West of England as an example.

The North West has long been known to have special links with the Vikings going back over a thousand years, through archaeological evidence, ancient manuscripts, local surnames and placenames such as 'Thingwall' from the Old Norse 'ping-vollr' meaning 'meeting place'. It's believed many of the Vikings, of mainly Norwegian origin, ended up in the region after being expelled from Ireland in AD902.

The new book tells the story of how 21st century genetic methods have been used in conjunction with historical and linguistic evidence to investigate the Viking ancestry of Wirral and neighbouring West Lancashire. Rigorous DNA analysis of samples of the local population, focusing on people who had surnames present in the regions prior to 1600, has scientifically proved that the Vikings settled heavily in the area and left a huge genetic legacy which survives and continues today.

The researchers' new 'Norse saga' unfolded as they carried out cheek swab DNA tests on around 100 men from the area who had local surnames dating back hundreds of years, some taken from a tax register from the time of King Henry VIII. Other lists of old names included people contributing to the stipends of priests, alehouse records and criminal records, for example the namesake of one of the authors is accused in 1348 of vandalising hedges (found not guilty!). Only men were chosen because they carry the Y-chromosome, DNA on which is passed down the paternal line from father to son with little or no change, unlike the other chromosomes.

The results found that up to 50 per cent of the DNA from the men of both Old Wirral and Old West Lancashire ancestry was indeed Viking in origin. The full scientific study appeared in the leading journal 'Molecular Biology and Evolution' but has now been put into context for a wider audience in this new, full colour-illustrated book which pulls together all the evidence, both scientific and historical.

Geneticist Professor Mark Jobling said: "We rely on the interest and generosity of DNA donors for all of our studies, and as researchers we're committed to the public understanding of science. So great to give something back in the form of this book, and to help people get to grips with the science of genetics at the same time."

Professor Steve Harding said: "The results were very exciting because they tie in with the other evidence from the area. The book explains the background and the DNA method in a way that everyone can understand, and should be of interest to people interested in Vikings and ancestry anywhere. It is also a great example of community involvement in science. Indeed one youngster from Irby on Wirral was so impressed with the results for her father that she wrote a school project called 'My Viking Dad and his Viking Dog'".

Famous TV historian Michael Wood pays tribute to the book in his Foreword: "As the best history always should, the tale involves identity, local feeling, the life lived; it suggests how in a mysterious way even the deep past still lives on in us. It also shows how gripping and informative local history can be, but how it also can vividly illuminate the big picture. It is a model applicable to every community in the UK: a perfect example of what one hopes will become the new history. Not one delivered from on high but developed at grass roots in conjunction with the people themselves, using their archaeology history and landscape, their family histories documents and memories and even their DNA."

The Wirral and West Lancashire Viking DNA survey is now being extended to North Lancashire, Cumbria and over the Pennines to North Yorkshire to see how far the Norse settlers from the Irish Sea penetrated into medieval northern England. The researchers are also collaborating with experts in Scandinavia focusing again on people who can show their ancestry goes back many generations in particular parts of Scandinavia. In this way they will be able to get a much better idea of what the genetic profile of Scandinavia was like in the Viking age.

'Viking DNA: The Wirral and West Lancashire Project' (ISBN 978-1907284946) has been published by Nottingham University Press in association with Countyvise and is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers. 166 pages, fully illustrated in colour. There is a local launch planned for 16th February in Nottingham.

More details on the full Wirral genetic survey and the book are available at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/-sczsteve

24 January 2011

The Medieval Greenland Vikings Can Teach Us About Climate Change

If you have ever been here before you have already read this article. I felt the content especially germane to the current world weather situation. This planet is in a state of flux, weatherwise, in case you haven't noticed. I will let my article from 2009 speak for itself. Look around, it is happening.
The Northern Hemisphere of this planet is in a normal warming cycle. It began to manifest itself as the preceding cycle, the Mini-Ice Age (1300-1800), wound down about the mid-19th century. Nothing in global climate happens overnight. Each cycle is of about 500-years duration. With that assumption, we can say that the midpoint of this warming cycle that we are enjoying will be about 2100. In other words, we can expect the climate to gradually trend toward warmer and dryer for the next 92-years. Then it might get worse, historically speaking that is. At the same time, there will be periodic cycles of colder, wetter weather in parts of the globe that have never experienced such in living memory.

The advent of the Medieval Warm Period (800-1300) gave rise to the Viking Age (793-1150).

The warmer weather increased production of everything the Vikings ate. Populations among the Viking tribes burgeoned dramatically. This eventually led to thoughts of expansion and conquest; the norm throughout human history. The ice-locked fjords began to clear earlier in the season than normal. The length of the raiding and trading season continued to increase over the 500-year period of the Medieval Warm Period. The Vikings exploded out over the north and western Atlantic Ocean, settling Iceland, Greenland, and areas of northeastern North America. The five hundred years of comparatively benign weather during the Medieval Warm Period fostered the Viking Age. Earth's next weather cycle, the Mini-Ice Age (1300-1800), played a major roll in ending it, especially for isolated--from the homeland--Norse Greenland. The Greenland Norse lifestyle could not be maintained in the face of Climate Change and a changing environment--starvation loomed. Of all the single-cause explanations for the death of Norse Greenland, Climate Change has been the most durable. (Thomas McGovern, Vikings, The North Atlantic Saga, The Demise of Norse Greenland, 2000-Smithsonian Institution, 330-331.)

Now, if the present global Climate Change cycle - Global Warming - is our responsibility, you know carbon offsets, CO2, and whatnot, if we caused this calamity, how do you explain the Medieval Warm Period (800-1300)? It was warmer in the Northern Hemisphere then than it is now. Perhaps the Vikings, the Greenland Norse people whom I write about caused it with their peat fires, flatulent livestock, and whatnot. Sounds ridiculous, huh? It is ridiculous. They had nothing more to do with their natural planetary climate cycle then, than we do with ours today. Remember, all of this climate stuff has happened before. It has been happening for 18,000-years that we know about.

The sun and the oceans working in concert control the weather on this planet. Without this synergy, much of the inhabited areas of the northern and southern hemispheres would be uninhabitable.

Simplistically speaking, the sun transmits most of its solar radiation to the earth along the equatorial belt, heating the oceans of the world and setting up out flowing currents that emanate north and south from the equator. At the same time, cold water from the Polar Regions sinks to the ocean floor establishing a flow pattern in the direction of the equator as they under ride the warm water flowing on the surface. Therefore, under ideal conditions a massive exchange of hot water from the equator and cold water from the poles occurs, giving us hominids the benign weather conditions that we enjoy over much of this planet.

All of this circulation occurs automatically because of the forces at play, hydrodynamics in other words. With Climate Change, the dynamics change. British scientists have reported that the warm water currents flowing toward northwestern Europe have declined by 30% since the 1950's. There also appears to be a 50% reduction in the amount of cold water flowing from the poles. Computer models of this dynamic predict that the North Atlantic current will cease to exist in 50-100 years. National Geographic News, James Owen, November 30, 2005.

The same article points to the fact that the melting Arctic and Antarctic ice is diluting the salt water of the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans. The dynamic of circulation dependent on sinking cold water flowing south from the North Pole, or north from the South Pole, to bring the warm water of the equatorial seas north and south, is stalling as a result. This fact will make the northern and southern hemisphere much colder within the next 50-100 years.

Now there are six billion of us, give or take. The fastest growing populations have the least: they are deficit societies. People in Africa--all of the continent--the Indian sub-continent, much of continental Asia, Asia Minor, much of South and Central America, all of Mexico, every island in the Caribbean--well, you get the picture. Like rats or lemmings, we are positioning ourselves for disaster on a scale that defies comprehension. Can we feed the world, save the disenfranchised? NO! In the final analysis why would we? Our survival would be compromised. Shortages are like a snowball rolling down a hill, they are cumulative. Food shortages will translate to less food to send to feed the populations of all the undeveloped countries that we already support, because they cannot feed themselves; we will keep what we have for ourselves; and nature will take its course with them-they will begin to starve.

Entrepreneurs and scientists are playing the well-meaning, misinformed, easily manipulated, masses of earthlings like the proverbial banjo. Why, you might ask? Because the politics of human-caused global warming offer enormous profit potential.

16 January 2011

Rare 4,600 year old Ontario burial lifts lid on prehistoric Canada

The Independent
June 24, 2010

A 4,600 year old burial has been discovered in a remote corner of northern Canada and could hold the key to how ancient Canadians lived. The remarkable find has been made at the mouth of the Bug River, near Big Trout Lake, Ontario. Today the region is home to the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug First Nation, an indigenous tribe numbering around 1,200.

The discovery was made by First Nation fishermen as water levels fell at the lake, exposing the burial. The site is currently being handled by an archaeological team from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay. The discovery is particularly rare as Canadian ethics laws largely forbid excavations.

The skeleton discovered is that of a man aged in his late-30s or 40s. Around five-and-a-half feet tall, the man had a "very, very robust muscular build," according to team leader Prof Scott Hamilton. The man would have held high status in his day thanks to a seemingly formal burial. "There's a flat slab of granite that's associated directly with the bones," adds Prof Hamilton. "It looks very much like a purposeful grave. We'll be taking a closer look at the stone as part of our analysis to see if we can find any evidence of function."

Another aspect due further study is a red ochre found on the man's bones and nearby sediment. It is thought the colour was added to his body before burial, a practice seen throughout the world, including prehistoric North America.

The man lived at around the same time the Great Pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt, and great cities such as Babylon were popping up across the Near East. Yet life at Big Trout Lake, where temperatures can plummet to -30°C, was very different. "These folks are adapted to the kinds of resources one finds in the boreal forest," says Hamilton. "These resources are highly seasonal in their availability and the season of comparative plenty is often spring, summer and perhaps early fall."

Isotope testing has so far shown that the man enjoyed a fish-based diet, with a side of hunted land mammals such as caribou (reindeer). The Spartan lifestyle, and migratory nature of food, meant Ontario's prehistoric tribes travelled huge distances in small numbers. "The winter seasons are generally a time of some scarcity and hardship as spatially concentrated food disappears," says Hamilton.

"That means sub-Arctic people, in order to survive year in, year out through generations, have to have a seasonal cycle that's highly mobile," adds Hamilton. "They can place themselves on the landscape where they can predict resources will be available and follow the seasonal cycles of availability."

It may seem an ancient lifestyle, but Canada's tribes have followed this ancient practice for millennia. "The past is very recent in the far north," says Hamilton. Even the appearance of Europeans in the 17th century did nothing to alter the indigenous way of life, and Hamilton says prehistoric traditions are still alive today: "(The First Nation) may be gathering and harvesting resources with European technology but they're (still using a) fairly significant amount of traditional technology canoes, snowshoes, footwear, clothing."

"What we see is this really interesting mix, an admixture, of traditional technology and the incorporation of new technology to practice a traditional life." First Nation Chief Donny Morris insists the man will be reburied after tests are completed, in the traditions of his forebears. Yet it seems we'll learn a lot more from him yet.

08 January 2011

Notes About Swedish Viking Burial Practices and a Contemporary Film on Vikings

Two letters I submitted to the editor of the excellent Scandinavian Press magazine in rebuttal to other reader's letters in a prior edition of the magazine might be of interest because they speak to Swedish Viking burial practices and a rant about a particular contemporary film on the Vikings.
Dear Editor,

The following is in response to two Letters to the Editor in your excellent edition of the Summer 2010 edition of Scandinavian Press.

It’s the Viking Team, Ellen Boryen: while realizing that your letter is a paraphrased summation of Dr. Hale’s presentation, there are a couple points I feel compelled to make on your conclusions. I will assume that your reference to the Swedish Vikings burning their ships as the reason we have no examples of those ships, to be a reference to the 10th century writings of Ibn Fadlan, specifically his portrayal of the funeral pyre of a Rus chieftain. The Rus are thought to be Swedish Norsemen. Rus may also be the term used by the Swedish Vikings to describe the locals of present day Eastern Europe. Either contention is argumentative in some circles. Like almost everything regarding these people, we do not know for certain. Actually, several Swedish ships and boats have been found, one 20 meter example as recently as last year at the bottom of Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. To say that ‘Swedish Vikings burned their ships in burial rituals’ may not be the whole story. As you write, there are many examples of ships that have been recovered throughout Scandinavia. Every large museum that I have visited has examples of these magnificent ships. The 98’ Sea Stallion, Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DE, is a computer scale copy of one of them and at this writing the largest extant. From Sea Stallion’s voyages we now know that the square rigged Viking ship was fast and capable in all seas. You are correct in saying that the medieval Viking ships lacked a traditional keel, however; the huge steerboard, mounted on the right aft side of the ship, performed that function admirably and pivoted up and out the way to beach the ship, or row it up a shallow river. The Vikings never felt the need of a keel and as a result no ship that we are aware of constructed by them ever had a keel. The function of a traditional keel is to balance the thrust of the sail when sailing close hauled to the wind, otherwise the ship or boat would be pushed away, to leeward, from the desired course by the wind’s force, making little or no progress along the desired track. You correctly point out that the shallow, keel less hull design allowed them to sail or row over many of the rivers they encountered—that was not accidental. Their ships were also hauled overland, something that would be impossible with a keeled ship.


The Subject of the Vikings, John Houle: The Vikings, 1958, MGM, is actually a classic film and the best contemporary rendering of the Viking era that we have. Certainly artistic license was taken with the script, it was a movie, you know, for entertainment. I would say to John, the author of the negative rant on the film, “do some research the next time your dander is up.” The movie locations were authentic: Brittany, Fort La Latte, Côtes d'Armor, France, Germany, Hardangerfjord, Norway, and Lim Fjord, Croatia, to name a few. You missed the entire reason for the axe throwing scene involving the ‘beautiful Scandinavian girl.’ It wasn’t a savage game; it was a test of fidelity, or the lack thereof. The medieval Vikings were a savage people, living in a savage time. To make contemporary comparisons is ludicrous. The nationalities of the actors are of no consequence--although the Norwegian people were well represented--they are portraying the elements of the script. To those of us who have enjoyed the film, they became Vikings for a time. And John, the Vikings were not cowering in the ship during a storm, rather they were fogbound, and unable to see their surroundings, or the way ahead. It was a terrifying event for them. Have you ever been at sea, blind in the fog, or ‘cowering’ during a storm, John? Well, I have. The crash of the surf against an unseen rocky shore gives pause to anyone. The film makers were not portraying ‘we Scandinavians’ in a bad way, they were not portraying us as a people at all. Rather, they were trying to depict an era--they did an admirable job--about which we know little or nothing.

So John, sometimes it is best if we keep our lack of knowledge on a particular subject private rather than formalize it with a public letter.