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Ancient DNA from Viking graves proves to be the fierce fighters drove male horses

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Vikings who settled in Iceland more than 1000 years ago valued their horses so much that the men were buried with their faithful steeds. And DNA analysis of these precious animals recently turned out that the horses consigned to the tomb with their male owners were the men, also.

For decades, archaeologists have studied the contents of hundreds of Viking graves in Iceland. Many of these tombs also contained the remains of horses that seemed to be healthy adults when they died.

Because the horses seemed well cared for in life — before they were killed and buried, and that is — they were regarded as important for the men, whose remains lay in the neighbourhood. Recently, scientists conducted the first ancient DNA analysis of the bones of 19 horses in the Viking dig, and found that almost all the animals were man, a tantalizing idea about gone Viking-culture. [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Culture]

Iceland is the home of 355 known Viking burials dating to the late ninth century to the beginning of the 11th century A. D., and the residents are mainly middle-aged men, researchers reported in a new study. Horses are common in these graves — more than 175 horses appear in 148 dig. The majority of the animals were clearly associated with the human skeletons, and they seemed to have been slaughtered “especially for the funeral,” the scientists reported.

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Prior to the interpretation of horses’ remains of other Viking sites suggested that the male horses played an important role for the Vikings. And the researchers suspect that the learning of the gender of the buried Icelandic horses would provide valuable insight into burial rituals.

Experts can distinguish between the residues of the male and female horses by looking at the shape of the animal from the pelvis and of the teeth, which is usually only in men, according to the study. But this type of analysis works only if the remains are in good condition, study co-author Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir, a phd student from the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo in Sweden, told Science in an e-mail.

“Since horses are so difficult to sex morphologically, unless a reasonably well-preserved, whole skeletons are found, we know very little about the different roles of male and female horses in the past,” Pálsdóttir said.

The scientists turned to the ancient DNA, or aDNA, to reveal the gender of the horses, that they were able to accomplish with small amounts of genetic material. They examined 22 horses from 17 sites, and of the 19 horses found in graves, 18 were men. This suggests that the male horses were preferred for ritual burial by the Viking nobles, whose graves they shared, Pálsdóttir said in the e-mail.

“The relationship between men and women and the age distribution of the killed horses suggests that there was a well-formed structure behind the rituals, in which the chosen horse came on as a symbolic representative,” she explained.

“The conscious choice of the men was perhaps connected with the characteristics of the stallions; masculinity and aggression could have been a strong symbolic factor”, Pálsdóttir added.

However, the remains of three horses, which were found outside the graves had not received the ceremonial treatment of the buried horses. All of these animals were found to be a woman, and she had probably already eaten, the authors of the study concluded.

In the further analysis of the samples, the scientists compare this with the evidence of horses from other Northern European countries that date back to the time of the Vikings, Pálsdóttir told Live Science. They hope to find the geographical origin of Viking horses and physical properties, such as the horses’ colors, she added.

The findings are published online in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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Original article on Live Science.

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