BY SARAH CALDWELL
For a long time a story has been floating around my family that somewhere in our lineage is Viking ancestry—and not just because my family members happen to be rather tall. Yes, my father and brothers would look very intimidating dressed in armour, at well above six feet each, but no they don’t file their teeth as Vikings were reported to do (1). My father does on occasion wear a plastic Viking helmet to family events such as birthdays and Christmas but that is recognised in our circle as fun, rather than warrior-like behaviour.
Common surnames in our family tree initiated the question of our Viking ancestry. Many of these names apparently came about as Scandinavian nicknames were integrated with English and Irish surnames during the Viking age (2). So apparently nicknames do matter after all, which is unfortunate considering my brothers’ nickname for me as a child was ‘Smarah’, an amalgamation of Smelly and Sarah and I don’t know if I’m keen for that to have any further longevity thank you very much. The Viking age is typically judged to begin in 793 and end in 1066, but includes and is followed by the settlement of Vikings into the territories they invaded and integration into their population (3,4). Sure enough, my family’s migration patterns across England and Ireland seem to correlate with these settlement patterns of the Vikings.
A more unusual indicator of our potential Viking ancestry is, however, a strange fusion of cervical vertebrae (or ‘neck joints’) that we share in our family—and, apparently, with the Vikings. At a chiropractor’s appointment many years ago, I was told that the locking neck pain I experienced regularly was partially due to this issue and, therefore, my probable Viking heritage. As it happens, my father had x-rays for a similar complaint not long after and they revealed the same thing. That this fault in our cervical vertebrae should have travelled the biological and geographic distance through time from the eighth-century North Atlantic to us, in twenty-first-century Australia (the grandchildren haven’t been x-rayed yet) seemed extraordinary and just a little bit fun. It certainly distracted me long enough for the chiropractor to suddenly crack my neck bones.
I set out to see what our family’s skeletal legacy could really prove about our relationship to a people that lived thousands of years before us and had very likely never seen a koala. Not coming from a scientific background I suspected I would find more questions than answers, but I was motivated by the wish to uncover the perfect clue to the truth of the matter. I started with a touch of research into human osteology, the study of human bones, and bioarchaeology, the study of human bones in archaeology. Within the impressively named tome The Human Bone Manual I discovered this description of the tissue between the cervical vertebrae:
In life, the intervertebral disks are made up of concentric rings of specialized fibro-cartilage and lie between adjacent vertebrae. Each disk is composed of a circumferential band of fibrous tissue and fibrocartilage known as the annulus bibrosus. At the centre of the disk is a soft substance known as the nucleus puposus. These tissues are surrounded by a fibrous capsule, which binds together adjacent vertebral bodies and encapsulates the disks. These soft tissue components are critical for movement in the vertebral column… (5)
It is the intervertebral disks that are missing between three of my seven cervical vertebrae. They are integral to movement. So that’s a shame. This information has at least explained my neck pain, but more happily it has taught me some truly wonderful terminology. And surely this lack of essential movement ability had to count towards proving my family’s theory of being descended from Vikings?
It was time to seek the help of a number of articulate scientific writers. I found that the relation between skeletal characteristics of modern humans and those of humans in the past has been a field of study since the 1800s (6). From what I could gather it is all based on the idea of biological distance, or biodistance. Biodistance measures the links between populations over time, traced mainly via skeletal and dental indicators known as metric and non-metric traits (7). Metric traits are defined by linear measurements that make up the size and shape of skeletal features, often used to trace the variation in skull or cranium shapes across human populations, where as non-metric traits are ‘discrete’ anatomical characteristics or ‘entities’ defined by the degree of their expression or even their absence.(8) I began to feel like a sponge—a sponge of learning. So many more terms to use in conversation!
Thanks to Shelley Saunders and Dori Rainey, in their article Non-metric trait variation in the skeleton: Abnormalities, anomalies and atavisms I went on to discover that, just possibly, it is the non-metric traits, the ‘anatomical variants or oddities’, which seem to apply to the vertebral fusion in my family (9). Oddities, yes—that sounded right. Apparently, in what is called the ‘hyperostotic’ category, non-metric trait expression can include the development of excess bone and accelerated rates of fusion or closure affecting soft-tissue structures such as cartilage and ligaments (10). I quietly congratulated myself for maybe finding the crucial clue.
I began to daydream. If my family’s link with the Vikings was true, should I don a period-appropriate helmet (apparently a simple metal affair rather than horned) and try and reclaim England? Should I move to Denmark and begin worshipping ancient Scandinavian gods?
Then it all began to unravel. Saunders and Rainey went on to conclude that a range of factors, including a person’s environment, can influence non-metric traits in human skeletons—and while proving their genetic origin is possible, it has been hotly debated in the global field of population study (11). They do give me one glimmer of hope, saying that ‘a trait will be expressed if there is a genetic predisposition for it, and if the environment is favourable’ (12).
Yet I must now admit my findings in relation to my family’s personal mythology around skeletal ancestry are more than inconclusive. In a last-ditch effort I seek advice from an eminent Australian Viking scholar who very gently and politely tells me that he is not aware of any peer-reviewed Viking skeleton studies that make any links to the contemporary era. My hopes for a definitive source for the chiropractor’s exciting explanation, apparently genetically possible as it may be, are finally dashed. And sadly the chiropractic practice from which the original seed of wish fulfilment was planted has long ago closed down. Of course I doubt the two things are related.
At least this process has given me one resolve: to follow Indiana Jones’s example and become an archaeologist, although without the whole fighting Nazis thing. Or rather, I’ll become a bioarchaeologist, which sounds even more exciting.
Sarah Caldwell is an arts professional and an arts and film education writer.
- Stefan Lovgren, 2006, ‘Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows’, National Geographic News, 3 February 2006.
- K H Rogers, 1995, More Vikings and Surnames, The Local History Press, Nottingham, pp. 30-32
- Stefan Brink & Neil Price (eds), 2008, The Viking World, Routledge, London & New York, p. 5
- John Haywood, 2000, Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age, Thames and Hudson, London, p. 64
- Tim D White & Pieter A Folkens, 2005, The Human Bone Manual, Elsevier Academic Press, San Diego and London, p. 160
- M Anne Katzenburg & Shelley R Saunders (eds), 2008, Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, p. 533
- Clark Spencer Larsen, 1997, Bioarchaeology: Interpreting behaviour from the human skeleton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 302
- Larsen, p. 303
- Shelley Saunders & Dori Rainey, ‘Non-metric trait variation in the skeleton: Abnormalities, anomalies and atavisms’. In Katzenburg & Saunders (eds), 2008, ibid., p. 533.
- Saunders & Rainey, p. 536
- Saunders & Rainey, p. 546
- Saunders & Rainey, p. 554