Gender Reveal: Ancient Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Analysis Shows

Viking warriors
Women dressed as Vikings take part in the annual Viking festival of Catoira in northwestern Spain on August 3, 2014. The festival re-enacts past Viking raids in the area and is celebrated annually on the first Sunday of August. Recently, researchers in Sweden have found DNA proof that women in Viking society could obtain high-ranking warrior status. Miguel Vidal/Reuters

The grave of a Viking warrior has been revealed beyond reasonable doubt to belong to a woman, challenging our understanding of ancient societies.

The burial site of the warrior, first discovered in 1889 near the town on Brika, Sweden, was thought to belong to a man because of the goods found in the grave, including two horses, a sword, armor-piercing arrows, and a gaming board used to make strategic military decisions.

These grave goods are traditionally associated with the burial of men who had obtained high-ranking status within Viking society, but in the 1970s an osteological analysis of the skeleton's remains suggested the body could have been that of a woman.

As that study remained contested, a team of Swedish researchers carried out a DNA analysis to settle the argument once and for all, publishing the results in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The burial site, known as Bj 581, "was brought forward as an example of an elaborate high-status male warrior grave. This image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions," the researchers wrote.

The analysis found the individual possessed two X chromosomes and no Y chromosomes, indisputably confirming the skeleton's sex as female. A strontium analysis was also carried out to establish whether the warrior had traveled.

"The female warrior was mobile, a pattern that is implied in the historical sources, especially when it comes to the extended households of the elite," the researchers wrote. They describe the warrior as being part of a society that dominated eighth- to 10th-century Northern Europe, where women were able to be full members of male-dominated spheres.

The researchers presented the finding as "the first genetic proof that women were Viking warriors." Stockholm University's Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, who led the study, says, "The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real-life military leader that happens to have been a woman."

While other female burial sites have been found in the U.K., Norway and Denmark, the DNA analysis of Bj 581 offers incontestable proof of women's presence among high-ranking members of Viking societies.

"It isn't the first female warrior, but it is definitely the most incontestable one, so it is spectacular," Marianne Moen, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology specializing in gender in the Viking age at Norway's University of Oslo, tells Newsweek, in response to the Swedish research.

According to Moen, Viking women who got to the high-ranking status reached by the Bj 581 warrior may have had an existing high social status and learned to navigate the system to advance further.

"In the Viking age, you had women involved in trade and high-status positions but they are usually brushed aside and talked about as wives and mothers, connected and dependent on men. That's just because of what we expect, really. We have to try and rid ourselves of this idea of finding gender roles somehow inevitable and natural," Moen says.

The presence of women among the ranks of the ancient society's elites isn't a phenomenon unique to the Vikings. A female mummy discovered in Peru in 2005, known as Lady of Cao, showed that women could attain leadership status in the prehistoric Moche civilization, which historians had previously believed was patriarchal in structure. Since the discovery of the Lady of Cao, archaeologists have uncovered more Moche female mummies, which suggest women in the civilization enjoyed high political and religious standing.

According to Moen, while a predominance of Viking warriors were men, there are missed opportunities to identify female warrior graves because osteological analysis isn't carried out in every case.

Even then, weapons are traditionally associated with warrior status for men, whereas for women they are considered symbolic of their status. "When you find a woman [buried with] weapons, you have to think about what this means for this particular person, for society at large and for men, if women could have these roles as well," Moen says.

"We need to start thinking about [gender roles] as a bit more fluid and less strict and stop talking about men and women in different ways when they are buried in the same way," she says.