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People are fascinated by history, especially when the subject features seafaring warriors who pillages, plundered, and burned their way through numerous other cultures. Recent movies, books, and television shows depict Vikings as impressive and powerful. Most depictions also show them to be primarily light-skinned people with blonde, red, or sometimes brown hair.

This idea of a pure, light-skinned race of powerful and fearsome warriors has often been used within white supremacy groups, some of whogim hold firm to the concept that Scandinavian people are the truest form of white humans, historically unsullied by different genetic influences.

There is evidence to suggest, however, that some Vikings had darker skin, and may have originated in Africa. The idea of black Vikings has taken hold, and while groups may have a difference of opinion on what Vikings may have looked like, it seems clear that they were not a genetically homogenous people.

ships sailing with black Vikings on board

Were there ever black Vikings?

While there is no historical evidence of a first generation African choosing to join the Vikings, it is well established that the Vikings encountered Africans. This is likely to have resulted in them having children with at least some Scandinavians, as suggested by writings that discuss shorter, dark-skinned Scandinavians with dark eyes, dark hair, and broad faces.

That is, while there are writings that detail tall, fair-skinned Scandinavians with light hair, alternative descriptions suggest that it is more than feasible for second and subsequent generations of Vikings to have had darker skin and hair than what we would typically expect from people from Northern Europe.

It’s important to keep in mind the assertion that being a Viking was more to do with embracing a way of life than it was about descending from the same ancestral line. The work “viking” is derived from the Scandinavian word for “pirate,” and pirates around the world are known to be more of a chosen tribe than a kinship group.

Being a Viking, or at least being a Scandinavian who engaged in conquest and domination, also appears to have been a part time job. Evidence points to the fact that many Vikings spent a significant portion of the year farming and creating family ties. They seem to have ventured out to pillage and plunder only from time to time, and did not live a year-round pirate existence.

It isn’t uncommon for ancient Scandinavian literature to include descriptions of the skin and hair color of individuals (including on whether Vikings had dreadlocks). Interestingly, there do not seem to be written accounts of tensions between Scandinavians of different skin colors.

Where did black Vikings come from?

One theory that could place Africans in Scandinavia holds that the origins of Scandinavian people came from the Nile Valley region, and included taller Bantu Africans as well as Twa Africans, who were known to be short in stature. It’s even been suggested that this supports the presence in Norse mythology of giants and elves, 

That is, as these Africans would have been significantly taller or shorter than others in the region, this theory posits that this influenced subsequent storytelling at the time, with some of these people making their way into Norse mythology as giants.

It’s important to note that there were many explorers from African cultures who chose to set out in search of game, valuable goods to trade, and fertile land. Reaching Scandinavia from the coastlines of North Africa was not impossible, and in fact, many sea voyages of the time went considerably longer distances. Even Vikings themselves were known to travel as far as Afghanistan and Canada.

Who was the first black Viking?

There is no historical account of the “first” Black Viking. But it is widely known that in the time of the Vikings, other cultures were also traveling and exploring. Historians believe that many dark-skinned people came to Scandinavia voluntarily, and assimilated into the culture willingly. Some of those people may have chosen the Viking lifestyle.

Others may have been brought to Scandinavia as slaves, then integrated into the culture over time, including signing on as Vikings. Being kidnaped and sold within the slave trade would have been an incredibly traumatic experience, so it is no wonder that some of the individuals who survived those trials and tribulations might have found it appealing to band with the stronger members of their new surroundings to regain some sense of power.

It’s never historically accurate to claim virtually anything as the “first,” and especially when it comes to something as fragile and poorly preserved as human life. Even when researchers find skeletal remains that clearly show signs of genetic diversity among the Vikings, there is no way of knowing if those remains were indeed any form of “first.”

shipwrecked viking ship

What skin color were Vikings?

While most Vikings are believed to have had fair, peach-toned skin and light hair, there may also have been Vikings with darker skin. It’s important to understand that when Vikings traveled to distant lands, they often brought back people from those cultures.

There’s no way to know for sure how many of these transplants arrived in Scandinavia by choice versus by force. Vikings were known to engage in capturing and trading slaves. While many of those enslaved people were of European descent and had white skin, there’s also evidence that some of them could have been of African descent.

When it comes to references about “Black” Vikings, there’s a lack of clarity. For example, it’s assumed that some writings which focused on “Black” Vikings are referring to hair color instead of skin color. Numerous written accounts refer to individuals such as Halfdan the Black, who was the father of the first King of Norway, and the grandfather of two brothers, one called “the White” and the other “the Black.”

Most historians believe that the majority of Vikings would have had fair skin and hair. However, that does not mean that there weren’t significant numbers of mixed-race or even African Vikings that fought and lived alongside their fairer warriors.

Sailors have long been accredited with the sharing of genetic material. This occurred throughout the world, and played a huge role in creating genetic diversity in various areas. So while there very well be African genes in Scandinavian people, it can also be assumed there are Scandinavian genes present in people who remain living in African nations.

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What race were Vikings?

Thanks to advancements in DNA technology, we are now able to learn far more about the Vikings than we can glean from historical texts and artwork. An international group of researchers recently looked at DNA from more than 442 individuals known to live during the Viking era. They found that many Vikings have significant non-Scandinavian ancestry.

This study was done on remains that were found across Europe and in Greenland, which means they covered areas where Vikings were known to originate as well as those where they were known to travel and settle. These remains were then compared to existing genetic sequences from thousands of modern individuals as well as some from other ancient individuals. Based on this, the findings were that the Vikings and their ancestors would have intermingled often with people from Asia and Southern Europe.

Researchers have also found the graves of individuals intentionally buried with Viking artifacts (like pieces from Viking chess), but who had none of the genetic markers of Scandinavian descent. This further underscores the idea that being a Viking was not necessarily tied to ancestry or kinship, but may have been largely a choice.

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Did Vikings go to Africa?

Historical evidence suggests that Vikings traveled to Africa, particularly Northern Africa, in the mid-9th century. There are accounts of raids along the African coast, including Morocco and Mauritania. Medieval Muslim writers speak of Viking raids that led to pillaging and the enslavement of locals both for the purpose of collecting ransoms or to keep as slaves.

In particular, Vikings were known to participate in slave markets, and were not above selling other humans for profit. It can be assumed that some of those slaves were eventually brought back to Scandinavia, and may have become integrated into Viking culture.

Viking ships arriving in Africa from where Black Vikings may have arrived

Who were the Black Danes?

Some art depicts 8th century Vikings and Danes as black, with sledge carvings having been found of Nordic seafarers that appear to be of African descent. Historians also believe there were more Black people in Denmark than in other Scandinavian countries because of Denmark being located closer to the areas of Europe where Black people were already living. 

This geographical aspect made it easier for these people to reach Denmark, whether voluntarily or through the slave trade.

There are also accounts of Vikings rounding up “blue men” (fir grom) and “black men” (blåmann) in Spain and other areas. Once the Atlantic slave trade began to thrive, it’s clear that Denmark engaged in actively sending tens of thousands of Africans to the Caribbean.

As new archeological evidence is discovered and genetic sequencing becomes even more precise, we may one day know more about the exact genetic identity of the Vikings. It seems, however, that sufficient evidence exists today to presume that there were a limited number of Vikings who derived from African bloodlines.

Final thoughts on the history of black Vikings

It’s evident based on historical records, including by non-Scandinavian sources, that the idea of all Vikings being fair-skinned and fair-haired isn’t accurate. On a superficial level, while many cite the name of Halfdan the Black as being indicative of Vikings having this skin color, this is actually referring to the color of his hair.

More to the point though, other sources make it clear that there were Black people in Scandinavia at this time. While far from the majority – and many almost certainly not there by choice – it’s inevitable that this would have led to there being at least some Black Vikings.

As we all know, most TV shows and movies these days continue to show Vikings as the tall Scandinavian stereotype that you probably assume exists to this day. And while the majority of Vikings were likely to have been genetically Scandinavian, it’s also historically accurate that trade, migration and slavery had a clear impact on the genetic make up of the region at that time. Accordingly, the idea of the tall, white, blonde Viking being the only image from that time simply doesn’t hold up on the facts, as modern genetic research has confirmed.