Guest blog: the social psychological meaning of looking for ‘Viking DNA’
Guest blog from Marc Scully, a Social Psychologist at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and a long time collaborator with the project:
A promotional Tweet from Ancestry UK that popped up on my timeline read as follows: “Vikings were known for being ambitious explorers. Could Scandinavian DNA explain your taste for travel and adventure?”
The scientific response to this question, as was quickly pointed out, is “No, of course not. DNA doesn’t work that way.” Indeed, following up, the geneticist and science writer/broadcaster, Adam Rutherford, reiterated a point made in his book “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived”, that everyone with White European ancestry necessarily also has Viking ancestry. This is due to the statistical finding that, effectively all those living in Europe in the tenth century who left descendants, are the ancestors of all those with European ancestry today.
Despite this, and despite the fact that such a thing as ‘Viking DNA’ does not exist, the idea that one can ‘discover’ Viking ancestors through genetic testing has undoubted appeal. As a social psychologist who researches understandings of identity and authenticity, I am interested in exploring this appeal, at both an individual and a social level. Why are people so eager to be descended from Vikings, and what is the status of DNA in supposedly providing ‘proof’ of this descent?
These were some of the questions I attempted to answer while working on the Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain research programme between 2011 and 2015. This programme was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based at the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham. It was an interdisciplinary programme, representing a collaboration between medieval historians, archaeologists, linguists, onomasts, population geneticists, and social psychologists. Our focus was migration to Britain in the First Millennium AD, and the legacy of those migratory groups: groups known to us today as ‘Celts’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Vikings’. Within this programme, my role as a social psychologist was to investigate how these historically distant migrations still shape present-day local, regional and national identities.
Doing so meant getting to grips with the contemporary social meanings of DNA and ancestry. In this, I was fortunate to work alongside Prof Turi King, now well known for having carried out the DNA analysis on the Richard III project. Turi’s previous work had demonstrated a link between surnames and Y-chromosomes, which is particularly strong the rarer, and more locationally specific the surname. This link allows surnames to act as a form of time machine by which the genetic makeup of an area in the past can be mapped. Sampling the DNA of men with certain specific surnames in Northern England and comparing these results with Scandinavia thus allows an insight into the genetic legacy of the Vikings in that region, at least at a population level. However, at sampling sessions, Turi came to notice how many of those volunteering to donate DNA did so in the hope it would ‘prove’ their descent from the Vikings.
In order to explore this phenomenon further, I accompanied Turi on a data collection exercise around Northern England in January 2012. We surveyed 128 men attending genetic sampling sessions in York, Harrogate, Lancaster and Keswick. In accordance with the sampling strategy of Turi’s Surnames and the Y Chromosome project, all the participants had relatively rare surnames and strong familial links to the local area; the average age of participants was fifty-nine. Following the return of DNA results to participants, I then carried out follow-up interviews with eighteen participants from Yorkshire throughout 2013.
As might be expected, individuals had personally specific reasons for wishing to explore the possibility of having Viking ancestry through the medium of DNA. The results of the survey carried out at the initial sampling sessions underlined the extent to which an interest in potential Viking ancestry went hand-in-hand with genealogical research – 62% of participants described themselves as having researched their own family history, with a further 10% having had a close relative who had done so. For many of those attending the sessions, it was this family research that had highlighted the potential Viking link – numerous participants described DNA as the potential final piece of the puzzle that would allow them to extend their knowledge beyond the written record. For others, a sense of identification with the Vikings was longer-standing and predated their interest in family history. Some participants described a family narrative that had been passed down the generations, others described feeling a strong connection on visits to Scandinavia, still others drew on their physical appearance as being ‘typically Viking’.
Alongside these, a common theme was that Viking-ness was an identity rooted in place: many participants emphasised the Viking heritage of their locality, particularly where they had evidence of a long-established family presence. More broadly, in follow-up interviews, participants stressed the relationship between Viking-ness, Yorkshireness and ‘Northern-ness’: to have Viking roots was a means of articulating an Englishness that was specifically Northern, and distinct from Southern Englishness in drawing from Scandinavia rather than continental Europe. Thus, applied genetic history, as Marianne Sommer refers to it, becomes a resource that people can use to express contemporary regional rivalries.
Of course, there is a slight irony here in that participants expressed their sense of belonging to a locality, region and nation through descent from a migrant group. This is reflected in broader debates about the way genetic ancestry information is used in discussion around nation and migration, with some arguing that DNA reflects that the human condition is essentially migratory, and others expressing concerns at the potential for DNA to be misread as providing a genetic basis for who ‘authentically’ belongs to the nation and who does not. (See, for instance, this blogpost by the geographer Catherine Nash). In looking at how participants made sense of their own DNA results, we found that this distinction was not quite so clear-cut. Participants undoubtedly connected their results with a sense of belonging to a certain place, although the suggestion that this gave them a greater claim on their locality, or Yorkshire, or England, was only ever implicit, rather than explicit. At the same time, participants also drew on the idea of Britain being a nation of migrants to play down any wider significance to their results beyond the personal.
Another potential attraction of ‘Viking DNA’ could be to bolster a sense of masculinity, and provide a heroic, ‘warrior’ lineage. While our participants did occasionally invoke the attraction of a romantic association with seafaring and warrior life, their concern was more with having a coherent story of Viking origins that they could pass on to their children and grandchildren. However, it was notable that this story seemed to have more power when it was associated with a direct line of male ancestry – a patriarchal bias arguably encouraged by focusing on Y-chromosomes alongside surnames.
It should be stressed therefore that Viking ancestry is neither rare nor particularly unique: practically all people of European descent will have had a Viking ancestor, among numerous other strands to their ancestry. However, the stories we tell, and pass on, about Viking ancestry, seem to require some level of verifiable proof to lend them their distinctive narrative power. DNA, then, acts as a way of legitimating a story: of turning it into a usable past. DNA does not, as has sometimes been claimed, hold the key to your identity: having a taste for travel and adventure is not something you will find encoded in your ‘Viking DNA’. However, as identity is ultimately the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others, the capacity of DNA (accurately interpreted or otherwise) to shape these stories should not be underestimated.
Dr Marc Scully is a lecturer in Psychology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. This research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust under Programme Grant F/00 212/AM.
Scully, M. (2018). Constructing Masculinity through Genetic Legacies: Family Histories, Y-Chromosomes, and “Viking Identities”. Genealogy, 2(1), 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/genealogy2010008
Scully, M., Brown S.D. & King, T. (2016) Becoming a Viking: DNA Testing, genetic ancestry and placeholder identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39 (2) 162-180. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2016.1105991
Scully, M., King, T. & Brown S.D. (2013) Remediating Viking Origins: Genetic Code as Archival Memory of the Remote Past. Sociology, 47(5), 873-890. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0038038513493538
Guest blog: the social psychological meaning of looking for ‘Viking DNA’
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