How to Find out If You Have Viking Ancestry

DNACan we know if our ancestors were Vikings? The short answer is yes, we can. DNA testing may trace Viking background in our genetic makeup. However, Nordic ancestry cannot be proven or disproven in all cases. A few years ago, when I first got interested in genetic genealogy, I thought that there might be some sort of Norse gene that all Vikings transmitted to all their descendants as a heritage. So you are either positive or negative for it. However, it’s not that simple. This tutorial will explain it all about genes and genetic testing for those who’d like to find out if they have Viking roots.

First of all, different nations do not have different genes. To be sure, there are groups of people with specific genetic traits but the borders between these groups do not coincide with borders of what we now define as nations. Moreover, Vikings were not a nation. Vikings were people who a) took part in raids directed from Scandinavia and Scandinavian colonies; b) spoke Old Norse; c) shared Norse values and culture; d) all this between AD 793—1066.

Ethnically, Vikings were not only ancestors of people whom we now call Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes. For instance, Iceland, perhaps the most important Norse colony, has a strong Celtic element, and not only because Vikings often took wives with different ethnic background. Research shows that the genetic makeup of about a quarter of males in Iceland (inherited through the direct male line) may be defined as British/Irish (in terms of geography). It means that many Viking males might have been Celts.

Before we proceed any further, I have to expressly state that no nation is better than any other nation and no genetic traits are better than any other genetic traits, including those that may indicate the presence of Viking background. Matriarchal lineages are as unique as male forefathers. We are all equal in gods’ eyes.

Nordic Ancestry DNA Basic Theory and Terminology

So having Viking ancestry, among other things, means a person is a descendant of someone who was born in Scandinavia. However, with respect to our genes, there is no such thing as “stemming from Scandinavia”. We all stem from Africa. But some of us have ancestor lines that passed through Denmark, Norway or Sweden at some point in time. We’re interested in those who did so during the Viking Age (AD 793—1066). In order to understand what genetic markers may help us find out if one has Viking ancestry, we are to delve into some theory and terminology.

Genetic information is carried by DNA. DNA is the main component of chromosomes.

Males have one Y chromosome and one X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes.

Y chromosome contains information about all the changes that occurred to it in a given direct male line up to the very first human male. These changes are called mutations. In genetic genealogy two types of mutations are relevant: STR and SNP (pronounced snip).

STRs (short tandem repeats) occur rather often (in terms of generations). STR profiling uniquely identifies a person (except for identical twins). STRs define your haplotype.

SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) occur not so often as STRs. The set of SNP mutations define your haplogroup. Subsets within haplogroups are called subclades.

There are 20 major Y chromosome haplogroups designated by letters from A through T.

Viking Background Haplogroups

The most important haplogroup that may be a strong predictor of Viking genetic background is I1. But also R1a, R1b, G2, N, and a few others may well point to your Viking roots.

SNP that defines I1 haplogroup is M253.

It is critical to understand that not all Vikings were I1 and not all I1 were Vikings. I1 was a modification of I that emerged about 27,000 years ago. To be sure, no Vikings were anywhere to be seen at that time. How come it is now believed to predict your Nordic ancestry?

Modern Scandinavians essentially belong to I1, R1a and R1b. Haplogroup R1a is found in a lot of other places like Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and so on. R1b is also prominent in Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, western Wales, the Atlantic coast of France, the Basque country and Catalonia. I1 is so peculiar because it is thought to be concentrated for a very long time almost exclusively in Scandinavia. Chances are the present-day bearers of I1 outside Scandinavia got it from Norsemen that resettled from their homeland. The only place where I1 massively appeared before the Viking Age outside prdent-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark, was Finland.

The best place to hunt for Viking genetics is UK. Indeed, we know that several waves of Viking settlers colonised large portions of Britain during the Viking Age. Since British Isles are not the place where I1 appeared initially, modern people with I1 from localities with names of Norse origin in UK have good chances to be the posterity of the Viking Age Scandinavians who came to live in Danelaw. Many of them might have been Vikings (but some of them might well have been thralls, too).

You may ask how we can tell if modern I1 don’t have ancestors who came to Britain with earlier waves of migration? After all, Angles and Jutes who invaded Britain in the 5th century were also from Scandinavia. And how to tell both groups from I1 who peacefully lived in Finland for the last 5,000 years or so? The answer is: subclades.

Subclades That Point to Viking Genetics

Haplogroups have subgroups called subclades. Subclades are branches within haplogroups defined by consecutive new mutations. For a regularly updated complete I1 haplogroup tree with all subclades check this page. Mutations occur once in a certain number of generations. Comparing various genetic profiles, the emergence of some mutations could be located in time and space. This allows to associate certain subclades with Viking activities in various parts of Europe. Here are some subclades that may be pointing to Norse roots outside Scandinavia:

I-Y17395 — Scotland.
I-M227 — Baltic countries, Russia, Poland, France and southern England.
I-Y18103 — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Russia.
I-S10891 — Normandy and Britain.
I-Y4045 — England and Ireland.
I-Y3664 — Schleswig-Holstein, Normandy and Guernsey.
I-Y5621 — Normandy and Britain.
I-L813 — Britain.
R1a-Z284 — Scotland, England and Ireland.

Among others, Tom Hanks was found to belong to R1a-Z284.

How to Order DNA Test for Viking Ancestry

A good place to start would be learning your haplogroup. This can be done through testing for Y-DNA STR markers. STRs do not directly define haplogroups (SNPs do) but STRs can be used to predict your haplogroup with a high degree of certainty. The more markers are tested, the higher is test quality. Standard sets are 37, 67 and 111 markers. In certain genetic projects also sets of 12 and 25 markers may be tested. The more markers are tested, the higher the price. For the comparison chart, see this page. You may also be eligible for free testing. For the list of projects that offer free tests see this page. I did the testing for 111 markers with Family Tree DNA. My experience with them was very positive.

If you order tests from FTDNA, be sure to join their Viking & Invader YDNA project and make your results available to the project administrators. They may be of help as for understanding your results and choosing what to do next.

To learn your exact location on the haplogroup tree, you should test for SNPs, which is a lot more expensive. This will define your exact subclade. The results of SNP testing are extremely complex to interpret for non specialists, so many people were disappointed after ordering it as for what they actually got. Based on my own experience (I did Big Y testing with FTDNA, which is now marketed as Big Y-500), the most effective use of SNP testing results is uploading them to YFull. To do that, you will need BAM file. They also receive VCF files but you’ll get only limited functionality. The service costs $49. What they do is comparing your genetic profile (both STRs and SNPs) with lots of other people. Looking at how distant in time your common ancestors are and what places these people are from, chances are you will get a much clearer idea about your roots than you ever have had.

Feel free to ask questions and share your own experience about DNA testing for Viking ancestry in the Comments section below.

27 comments… add one
  • Kim

    As a woman who is estranged from my paternal line inc siblings, how can i find out? Im aware this website focuses on the male Y chromosome
    But isnt there a similar project for the female inhereted mitochondrial DNA? Aka mtDNA where i can find similar subgroups?
    Kinda a bit dismissive condescending n sexist to have told previous women to go tap a male relatives blood and/or that there isnt a similar project set up for matriatchal lineages and/or that it wasnt described that women too have a unique lineage that can be traced
    Im not usually one to jump on the ‘thats sexist’ bandwagon, but this page is professing to have knowledge about genetics n understanding how to trace ancestry through them n yet no mention of mitochondrial DNA or, any reason why its dismissed out of hand to trace viking lineage

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Kim,

      For mtDNA tree see:

      van Oven M, Kayser M. 2009. Updated comprehensive phylogenetic tree of global human mitochondrial DNA variation. Hum Mutat 30(2):E386-E394. http://www.phylotree.org.
      doi:10.1002/humu.20921

      Mutations in mtDNA occur at a much slower rate than in Y chromosome. That is why there are mtDNA haplogroups that may be associated with such or such geographical region within the big picture of human history, but recent migrations (that took place within the last two or three millennia) are much harder to trace. For example, my mtDNA haplogroup is U3c. It’s found all the way long from Iran to Scotland. However, it is not possible to determine where exactly my female ancestry is from (i. e. where my female ancestors lived at such or such time).

  • Amanda Hosler

    I am so glad I know where my ancestors hail from, because my grandmothers on both sides were obsessed with genealogy. England, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden. Some lines go back all the way to 1030 in England (thanks Christianity for church records and gravestones. ) others were are only able to find till 1600’s because its not a place surname- but a descriptive surname such as Sorrensen (Sorren’s son), Pedersdatter ( Peder’s daughter) any advice to finding Scandinavian Genealogical names?

  • Peter Lindberg

    First, yes I know it is misspelled! I did not want to be (swede 2 million or whatever!) For those of you who have not researched a lot; I will try to help! There is a lot of good information on this site, most will not read past the first 5 or6 lines. Viking is a verb not a noun! The Norse would go A viking! In their day this was like going to Walmart and skipping the checkout! The Normans who ruled western France and eventually England were Norseman! (Vikings) Russia is a long word for the RUSS! Swedish folk who named the Volga river and ran the country for 150 years! (side note the Russian historians like to say that they asked us to help) Swedes then went down to Constantinople, or was it Istanbul? OOps that is another song. This is where Harold thought he was in charge. History says he was a caption but not the leader! The area was known for upheaval and mistrust! If you had enough money you could buy the guards of your opponent, And now you were now in charge! Enter the Swedes! Called the Varangian guard! When they signed a contract it was for a year and a day! Honor said you will not violate this! (most marriage contracts were similar) The guard did their job and did not waver, until it was time to re-negotiate a new contract! This is where history gets fuzzy! Harold led a band of warriors and plundered the Mediterranean and returned to Sweden and Norway as A rich man!! We all know about Stamford bridge and the result of an arrow in Herold’s eye! OH WAIT? The Normans were Norseman, Full circle! My Grandfathers naturalization papers say he disavowed any allegiance to the King of Sweden and Norway! I have allegiance to my country, I am a vet, BUT isn’t it fun to learn history this is not facts and dates, these were people just like us! Learn and enjoy!

    • Viking Rune

      Peter, to be sure, history is not just facts and dates. I am grateful that this blog has enthusiastic readers like you.

  • Mia Petzäll

    I have done a ground test the first DNA test at Myheritage. What I can see in that test is that I’m 65.4% Scandinavian, 23.6% English, 7.5% North and West European and 3.5% Finnish. What I would like is to develop my DNA test and see which Haplogroup I belong to. Where is the best place and which place has the most favorable price for it.
    Best Regards Mia Petzäll

    • Peter Lindberg

      ask your grandparents what they know what were they told? If you have no direct connection to the old country then where did they live in their youth?

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Mia. Only males have Y chromosome. In order to know which Y subclade your ancestors belonged to, you need to have a male relative tested (father, brother or cousin stemming from the same ancestors line).

  • Mark Veale

    I am of I-S10891 subclade. Our ancestral surname was D’Bhial. The name was changed to Veale during the religious and cultural persecution by the English government during the 17th century. My ancestors were part of the Norman raids into Ireland and Britain. What I would like to find out is how far back did the Viking raids into Normandy bring about our family lineage.

    • Viking Rune

      Mark, the Duchy of Normandy was founded in 911 after the Battle of Chartres.

  • Greg P

    Hi I have I-M253 as a Y-Haplogroup. It appears to be quite Scandinavian. Keen to hear from anyone that knows more than Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haplogroup_I-M253

    • Viking Rune

      Greg, to delve deeper into this, it would be great to know what your subclade is.

  • Raechel Barentson

    Hello… I was told all through my childhood that my ancestors were Vikings. I was told that my last name “Barentson” was because a child was born at sea and they gave the Son his name son of Barent. The sea is of course the Barent Sea. I have some background research and traced my heritage to Norway and Denmark. I would like to know if the stories I have been told are true. What should I do? Thank you!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Raechel. A good start would be testing one of your male relatives. Depending on the result, further steps would be planned.

  • Konstantin

    Hello! As a result of the Big-Y test, I was assigned a haplogroup Y-18103. Tell me, please, where you can see (learn) information about haplogroup Y-18103!?. Thank you!

    • Viking Rune
      • Konstantin

        Thank you! I wanted to complete the information on the subclade Y18103. It includes representatives of Germany. One of my closest genetic relatives identifies myself as a German from Prussia.

  • John Urbino-Morrison

    Hi i have done the Big Y and and Y111.My haplogroup is Y22972.I know i have Celtic from my Dad and Germanic from my Mom.This is my Heritage European 99%
    West and Central Europe 49%
    Scandinavia 27%
    British Isles 19%
    Southeast Europe 4%
    How can i add a Viking connection to my DNA?

    • Viking Rune

      Big Y is only about your direct male line. The other results seem to be from Family Finder, which is based on autosomal DNA. I don’t think one can add anything to one’s DNA, since it is inherited from parents and we cannot edit it.

  • Lori Kettle

    I am 2nd generation Canadian. My paternal family name is KETTLE…I believe we are of Norwegian decent; when the Vikings assimilated into Britain.

    • Viking Rune

      Sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Peter Lindberg

      Kettle is Icelandic from either Denmark or Norway. I have this from a friend who traces his people back 300 years and works as a translator from a few Norse languages to English.

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