Danevirke Source Wikipedia/Joachum Müllerchen

When did the Danes arrive in Denmark? And where did they come from?

New methods reveal the ongoing genetic mixing and mingling of the Southern Scandinavians in the first millennium

…And there are beyond these, the Ostrogoths, the people from Ringerike – the Rani – and the most gentle Finns, milder than all the inhabitants of Scandinavia. Like them are the people from Vingulmark. The Swedes are of the same stock and excel the rest in height. However, the Danes, who trace their origin to the same stock, drove from their homes the Heruli, who lay claim to preeminence among all the nations of Scandinavia for their tallness.
Jordanes: The Origin and the Deeds of the Goths, Ch. III

As is well known, Denmark is a small country consisting of the Cimbrian peninsula – Jutland – and more than 400 islands, of which only 70 are inhabited. Although the landscape of the past was heavily forested, wet, and in large stretches quite impassable, it undoubtedly also opened up to people who arrived by sea. With Europe’s longest coastline in relation to its area, the Danes remain an amphibious people.

As such, they more or less warmly welcomed people through history as they pulled their boats up on the beach. The only landlocked passage was a bottleneck through the otherwise unpassable wetlands to the south, which the rivers Ejder, Tvene and Stör run through flowing into Northern Frisia and the marshes to the West. This opening, located between Hollingstedt and the firth of Schleswig called the Schlei or the Sly Firth, measured no more than 30 km. There, across this passageway, the first Danevirke was built in the 5th century when the Western Roman Empire lost its grip on most of Europe during the Migration Period. Already then, apparently, it was a matter of keeping people from the South away.

New and exciting research into the aDNA of Europeans shows that the Danes did not succeed in keeping this influx at bay. These new genetic studies shed light on who actually lived in Denmark in the first Millennium but also how, with whom and when they mingled with their neighbours. In other words: Studies of the aDNA of 1151 ancient individuals performed using a new mathematical model – Twigstats – tell us much more about who the ancestors of the Danes (and other Europeans) were.

In short, the technique involves the mapping of so-called haplotypes – i.e., inherited gene variations and their mutations. By employing a new mathematical and statistical set of computations, scientists are able to unravel the individual ancestors of people buried in the first millennium. Also, they are able to discern approximately at what point in history his or her ancestors had been mixed with each other. In this way, one can gain insight not only into the direction of the “migrations” that took place but also their extent and – based on the date of the burials – when. Interestingly, these studies provide new insights into what happened – not only in the Viking Age – but all the way back to the Migration Period.

Ancestry in the Viking Age. Source: High-resolution genomic ancestry reveals mobility in early medieval Europe 2024. CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Ancestry in the Viking Age. Source: High-resolution genomic ancestry reveals mobility in early medieval Europe. CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

And what, then, are the major results? Well, until around AD 300, the Danes belonged to a relatively homogeneous group, which included people from most of the Scandinavian peninsula and Denmark. Also, the study shows how Scandinavians up until c. 300 migrated south. In these first centuries, these people from the north provided genetic impulses via Northern Poland and to the Black Sea in the form of the Goths. Just as the people who later joined together called themselves the Lombards, and went on to conquer Northern Italy. Both groups of people presented a clear Scandinavian genetic element.

Later in the Germanic Iron Age – after around 500 and towards the Viking Age – the Danes, however, became recipients of genetic impulses from the south. From this time onwards, they were increasingly mixed with people from Austria, France, and Germany who migrated northward. This mixing clearly moved from the south up through Jutland and eastward. While about 50% of the Danes in the Viking Age sported more or less continental “genes,” it applied to only 25% of the corresponding Swedes. Furthermore, a comparison of the local populations in Viking Age Jutland, Langeland, Funen, and Zealand shows that the people of Langeland were the most mixed, followed by the Jutlanders. The isles of Funen and Zealand, on the other hand, remained less mixed. It is – perhaps – in this perspective that we should remember the history of the Danes as recounted by Jordanes (quoted above).

Jordanes reported around 550 how the Danes came from the East (i.e., from Sweden) and settled on Zealand. From there, they moved westward to put the Heruli to flight. Regardless of who the Heruli “were” – and much suggests that they may have just been an elite warrior people from the south – it is told of them by Procopius that they ravaged the areas around the Black Sea, the Balkans, and then moved further north. As part of this migratory movement, they may have taken part in the migration up through Northern Germany and into Jutland, as the new research suggests. Perhaps, the Danes from Zealand, Scania and the East Coast of present-day Sweden really did take up the fight keeping their home base from being invaded “genetically”. In a recent archaeological rereading of Beowulf by Gräslund, we might read the echo of these events.

In other words: there are indications that Danevirke was built and later maintained for the purpose of counteracting warlike incursions from the south from the 5th century and onwards.

In this context, it is interesting that after the first foundation of Danevirke in the 5th century, the first phase of Danevirke appears to have been neglected until approximately 650, and ending with a solid expansion in the years 737-40. Historians have not been able to link this restoration and rebuilding to known historical events. However, it is around the same time, that the Viking Emporium, Ribe, truly changes from being a trading place to a proper trading town. This hiatus in the history of the fortification fits well with the hypothesis that Scandinavia was particularly hit with a climatic downturn after AD 536 lasting until at least 650-700. The same period, by the way, when the linguistic withdrawing of the Norse languages took place between 600 and 700, when Old Norse, for example, lost consonants such as “j” – compare German, where it is called “Jahr,” and English “Year,” whereas the Scandinavians say “år”. Perhaps, it is conceivable that the period of genetic mix and match did not take place until after 700 when the new language barriers were in place.

In any case: In the period between AD 300 and 700, the Scandinavian peoples seem to have been partially divided into two. To the north, there continued to live relatively more separate Scandinavians while people to the south – i.e., in Denmark including Scania, Halland, and Blekinge with extensions far into the Oslo Firth – at this point began to show a different and more mixed genetic profile. It appears – to answer the question in the  headline – the Danes were always there. They just got a bit mixed-up on the way.

If we then move further up in time, we find that the English influence in Denmark, on the other hand, remained relatively modest. In the Viking Age, we definitely had ongoing closer contact with Saxons, Frisians, and people from the North German coast, than the people further eastward. England and Northern France were regions designated to serve as the Western European end stations for migrating Danish Vikings.


High-resolution genomic ancestry reveals mobility in early medieval Europe
By Leo Speidel, Marina Silva, Thomas Booth, Ben Raffield, Kyriaki Anastasiadou, Christopher Barrington, Anders Götherström, Peter Heather, and Pontus Skoglund


Ancient DNA has unlocked new genetic histories and shed light on archaeological and historical questions, but many known and unknown historical events have remained below detection thresholds
because subtle ancestry changes are challenging to reconstruct.

Methods based on sharing of haplotypes and rare variants can improve power, but are not explicitly temporal and have not been adopted in unbiased ancestry models. Here, we develop Twigstats, a new approach of time-stratified ancestry analysis that can improve statistical power by an order of magnitude by focusing on coalescences in recent times, while remaining unbiased by population-specific drift.

We apply this framework to 1,151 available ancient genomes, focussing on northern and central Europe in the historical period, and show that it allows modelling of individual-level ancestry using preceding genomes and provides previously unavailable resolution to detect broader ancestry transformations.

In the first half of the first millennium ~1-500 CE (Common Era), we observe an expansion of Scandinavian-related ancestry across western, central, and southern Europe. However, in the second
half of the millennium ~500-1000 CE, ancestry patterns suggest the regional disappearance or substantial admixture of these ancestries in multiple regions.

Within Scandinavia itself, we document a major ancestry influx by ~800 CE, when a large proportion of Viking Age individuals carried ancestry from groups related to continental Europe. This primarily affected southern Scandinavia, and was differentially represented in the western and eastern directions of the wider Viking world. We infer detailed ancestry portraits integrated with historical, archaeological, and stable isotope evidence, documenting mobility at an individual level. Overall, our results are consistent with substantial mobility in Europe in the early historical period, and suggest that time-stratified ancestry analysis can provide
a new lens for genetic history.


Danevirke. Source: Wikipedia



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