So you might have heard about their conquests, and seen the many (sometimes ridiculous) depictions of them in pop culture, but do you know where the Vikings came from originally?
The Norse seafarers known as Vikings originated from what we today call Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). Most Vikings likely came from modern-day Denmark, with ~500 000 people estimated to live there during the Viking Age, followed by about 175 000 in Norway and 100 000 in Sweden.
Furthermore, the Danish and Norwegian Vikings mainly went west (Britain, France, Ireland, Faroe Islands, Iceland), while the Swedish Vikings (called Vagyars or Rus) mainly went east (the Baltics, Russia, the Black Sea, Constantinople).
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at where the Scandinavian, or Norse as you would say at the time, people from the beginning of the Viking Age originated from.
Who Did the Vikings Descend From?
The people living in Scandinavia during the Viking Age originated from multiple places in multiple waves; Around 12 000 BCE hunter-gatherers came from central Europe, then farmers from Anatolia and Syria were added to the mix in 4 000 BCE, and finally steppe herders from the Black Sea around 2 800 BCE.
So the Scandinavian region was the target of multiple immigration waves over a period of tens of thousands of years before the Viking Age, let’s take a closer look at exactly who the Viking’s ancestors were, when they came, and where they came from:
The First Scandinavians
The first inhabitants of the Scandinavian peninsula came from the south (a people known as the Western Hunter-Gatherers), later joined by migrants from the east (known as Eastern Hunter-Gatherers)
The First Farmers
The first farmers—originating from Anatolia and Syria and commonly called Early European Farmers—start arriving to Scandinavia with powerful new knowledge and tools. They competed and fused with the original inhabitants in the battle for access to the hunting and fishing grounds, which were both still a big part of the farmer’s diet.
Steppe Herders From The East
Another wave of migrants came into Scandinavia from the Russian steppes, originating from the northern shores of the Black sea and commonly called the Western Steppe Herders.
The Battle Axe Culture
The so-called Battle Axe culture group emerged out of the Scandinavian Hunter-Gatherers and Western Steppe Herders, establishing itself and flourishing in what today is Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
The new culture is thought to have been a bit more individualistic (with single graves instead of in groups as earlier cultures), and was known for how their men were buried with their big boat-shaped battle axes in ways that resemble Norse/Viking culture more and more.
They likely brought Indo-European languages and culture to the Scandinavian region
The Nordic Bronze Age
The bronze age Scandinavians have been found to be extensive traders of amber and various metals. Through this trade the Nordic people developed an unusual expertise in metalworking.
Based on metal deposit findings from that period, the Nordic Bronze Age culture seems to have been the richest culture in Europe.
During this time shipbuilding and seafaring becomes a substantial part of Scandinavian culture.
The Nordic Bronze Age people are thought to be the ancestors of all Germanic people (including the Norse/Vikings).
The First Germanic People
The Nordic Bronze Age people eventually spread their influence south, and became what is known as the Germanic people of southern Scandinavia and northern Germany.
The Germanic and Scandinavian culture during this time was defined by three main characteristics that carried over into the Viking Age: 1) Everyday life was very violent. 2) A materialistic culture was formed via expansive trading routes. 3) There was a clear hierarchy in society as a whole.
It is estimated that around 15% of the total population in this region was killed in violent altercations during this time period, according to Harvard scientist Steven Pinker.
Climate Changes and Iron
Drastic climate changes had a brutal impact on the Scandinavian population during the early Iron Age, that was defined by warfare, hunger, and poverty in the region.
Trade and influence from the rest of Europe happens at a much lower rate during this time, with the majority of commerce happening within the Nordic region.
The discovery of iron—which was plentiful in Northern Europe—changes everything for the Iron Age Scandinavians. They are no longer dependant on importing bronze for weapons and tools, but can now start producing them en masse.
Seafaring and Conscription
Seafarers from the Scandinavian region start going on bolder and bolder naval expeditions around the European continent.
Trade with the continent grows, and the first conscriptions among villages in the Scandinavian kingdoms start, signaling the start of small groups of trained and organized warriors, that ultimately would become the Vikings who were to be feared across the continent.
The First Vikings
The Viking Age begins around 700 BCE and really gets going with the sacking of Linidisfarne on June 8th, 793.
The Norse start pillaging, raiding and settling across Europe at an increasing rate, and the seafaring Norsemen experience an age of rapid expansion and bold exploration.
How Many Vikings Were There?
It is estimated that there were about 783 000 Norse people when the Viking Age hit its peak, split up in the different Nordic regions per the table below:
|Modern-day Country||Estimated Population during Viking Age|
|Faroe Islands||3 000|
|Estimated Total||783 000|
As we can see, most of the Norse/Vikings lived within the borders of modern-day Denmark during the Viking Age, with a population of around half a million. Around the same time, there were around 150 000—200 000 people in Norway, and about 100 000 in Sweden.
Adding in the colonies of Iceland and Faroe Islands we land at an estimated total Norse population of around 783 000 people at the height of the Viking Age.
Why Did the Vikings Leave To Explore (and Raid)?
Historians talk about three main reasons why some Norse people left Scandinavia in search of adventure and riches:
- Climate change: An exceptionally cold period in the Nordics led to low yields and starvation
- Ship technology: The Norse made ships that could traverse the rough open seas
- Norse religion: Both honor and blissful afterlife awaited the bravest and fiercest Vikings
In the beginning the naval expeditions were mainly ones of curiosity, where young men would plant their crops in Scandinavia during spring, and then go out on bolder and bolder summer adventures while they were waiting for harvesting season in fall (when they’d return).
Eventually, some Norse would colonize land with no or very small populations present, such as Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Often just working the land wouldn’t be enough to get by, and in those cases the trained and organized Norse warriors were prone to go out plundering their surroundings, i.e. the British Isles and the likes.
Do Vikings Still Exist?
In a strictly historical sense, there are no Vikings alive today. The Norse descendants are alive though: the Nordic people of Northern Europe. There are also Viking reenactment communities trying to live the Norse way of life in our modern world (there were around 3—4 000 “Modern Vikings” in 2001).
In southern Sweden for example, there are a number of associations that try to bring the Viking age to life, some of them tied to a historical object such as Fotevikens Museum where you can walk around a reconstructed Viking village with 23 buildings and a reconstructed Viking longship based on the actual longship found the nearby Foteviken bay.
Were Vikings Germanic?
The Norse and therefore Vikings were considered North Germanic, and the Old Norse language is a North Germanic language. Furthermore, all Germanic people are thought to hail from the Nordic Bronze Age people who lived in Scandinavia around 3 700 years ago (2 400 years before the Viking Age began).
Where Did the Germanic Tribes Come From?
All Germanic people are thought to have originated from the shipbuilding and seafaring Nordic Bronze Age people who lived in Scandinavia around 3 700 years ago. The Nordic Bronze age culture was the richest in Europe at the time (based on metal deposit findings), and eventually spread south to northern Germany/Saxony.