Do the Normans really have Vikings ancestors?
A lot of places in Normandy have names of Viking origin including the local people. A genetic study conducted in the Cotentin region wanted to determine the biological portion of this Scandinavian heritage. Here are the first results.
ANCESTORS. “Men of the North”, such is the literal meaning of the word “Norman”. And the term used to describe the inhabitants of Normandy and their descendants. It was once used to talk about the Vikings, the Scandinavian people who landed on the French coast of the English Channel at the end of the first millennium AD.
Can the Normans today still boast of being the direct descendants of those dreaded Nordic warriors of the Middle Ages? “It could be or not”, The first results of the genetic study were announced Thursday, April 21, 2016. It was a collaboration between British and French researchers, known as the “Viking DNA Project” aims to determine if the Normans contain a “signature” left by the Vikings. Now, this signature is not always clear.
The Viking DNA Signature
Researchers are interested in Normandy because it is the only sustainable political foundation established by the Vikings on the mainland. Scientists have also focused their study on the population of the Cotentin peninsula because the density of places and people whose names are of Scandinavian origin is particularly strong. “We were interested in men with surnames with Scandinavian-sounding that could reflect this legacy: names such as Anquetil, Dutot, Equilbec, Gonfray, Ingouf, Lanfry, Osouf, Osmont, Quetel, Tougis, Tostain, Raoult and their many variations, explains Richard Jones of the University of Leicester. We have also retained only people whose four grandparents were born and lived within 50 km of their current home. This stable residence is often indicative of a longer history of the family in one area.” In the end, the researchers selected according to these criteria, 89 men. They were asked to complete a genealogical questionnaire and submit to a saliva test. The scientists then looked for a “Viking signature” on the Y chromosome (present only in males and passed from father to son) extracted from cells in saliva. Specifically, they were interested in genetic variations present on this chromosome.
“These changes can be grouped according to several criteria. This allows to classify an individual in a ‘haplogroup’ particular depending on the type of detected changes in their DNA,” said British historian.
Results? Of the 89 men who participated in the study, the vast majority (52) represented haplogroup R1b, the type of Y chromosome variations most common in Northern and Western Europe. Its origin, still unclear, is found on the side of shepherds from the plains north of the Black Sea who migrated to the West 4,000 years ago. There can’t, therefore, be a typical Viking signature. But without totally excluding it either: according to experts, this genetic variation could mean an indirect link with the Vikings. However, haplogroup I1, found in 11 of the Normans of the study, suggests more clearly a possible Viking ancestry (more direct this time).
These variations are indeed very present among the Scandinavians (over 45% of the population belongs to this genetic group in some areas). But a Germanic origin is also possible. In fact, “when we look at fingerprints’ underlying haplogroup I1, some Norman Y chromosomes show an affinity with the Germanic, while others show an affinity with the Scandinavians,” said Richard Jones. Still, “it’s very tempting to consider l1 as a mark left by the Vikings in Normandy because it is present in approximately the same proportions as those observed in other populations with known Viking history,” the searcher. Finally, 2 participants presented a haplogroup often regarded as typical Nordic: R1a. The other haplogroups found among the Normans are a priori unrelated to the Vikings. They are of other origins witnesses, particularly around the Mediterranean (including Sicily and southern Italy, the land that belonged to the Norman empire) and extending further eastward from the Middle East and Eastern Europe (going back perhaps to the Crusades).
These results are however not definitive, but they already reflect a high genetic diversity within the population of Cotentin. The researchers intend to refine their analysis of haplogroups in order to more clearly identify the geographic origins of each.
They also want to study another type of genetic material: mitochondrial DNA (inherited this time by the mother to her children), even more, complex to decipher. Finally, future methods of ancient DNA samples may enable to harvest DNA on Viking skulls: it will then be sufficient to compare this authentic DNA to that of the Normans to see if they are related, rather than attempting to trace the genetic trees following the traces of a possible Viking signature. “Knowledge of the genetic history of Normandy is still in its infancy!” Enthuses Richard Jones.
* Groupware matter between the University of Leicester (UK) and the Centre for Archaeological Research and Historical Ancient and Medieval UMR 6273 (CNRS / UCBN), University of Caen Lower Normandy (France).