Archaeology professor Mark Collard, the Canada Research Chair in Human Evolutionary Studies, likes to ponder how evolutionary theory can be applied to archaeological findings.

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Did the Vikings raid for romance?

November 16, 2016
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By Diane Luckow

A new SFU-led study suggests the Vikings’ aggressive raids into other countries were an evolutionary response to increased competition for wives.

More traditional theories have ranged from climate change to new ship-building techniques to simple wanderlust and greed.

The study was carried out by SFU postdoctoral fellow Ben Raffield, SFU archaeology professor Mark Collard, and Neil Price, a colleague from Uppsala University in Sweden. Their study was published online in October in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

The researchers’ captivating theory arose out of a conversation in a pub between Price and Collard, who is the Canada Research Chair in Human Evolutionary Studies. They had been discussing recent evolutionary theories about religion, and noted that in societies practicing polygyny (having multiple wives), a dearth of available young women can lead young men to engage in risky behaviours as a means of competing for partners.

And since raiding is obviously a risky behaviour, they decided to see whether the archaeological and early historical records would support the idea that the early Viking raids were at least partly a consequence of polygyny.

The researchers focused on the Operational Sex Ratio—the ratio of males to females ready to mate at any given time. They proposed that the combination of polygyny and concubinage, and an increase in social inequality in Scandinavia during the Late Iron Age, created a male-based Operational Sex Ratio. In other words, an excess of unmarried men motivated to engage in risky behaviours that could increase their wealth and status, and therefore their probability of entering the marriage market.

“We discovered that the evolutionary hypothesis fits very well with the available data about raiding and marital practices in Viking Age Scandinavia,” says Collard.

In the course of their research, the team also discovered they were effectively reviving an explanation for Viking raiding suggested just over a thousand years ago. In a book written during the Viking Age, a scholar called Dudo of St. Quentin had argued that the raids were caused by an excess of unmarried young men.

The team’s hypothesis has been criticized by some colleagues because it applies evolutionary theory to human behaviour. But this reaction is based on a misunderstanding, according to Collard.

“In evolutionary theory,” says Collard, “we’re not talking about genetically determined behaviour. We’re looking at a set of conditions that people respond to—in this case, cultural traditions of concubinage and polygyny—and how those two conditions impacted the availability of partners for young men.”

He says natural selection has endowed humans with behaviour that is more flexible than that of most other species, allowing us to develop adaptive responses to an extraordinarily wide range of conditions.

Collard notes that while evolutionary theory is widely accepted and applied to the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age, when most people were hunter/gatherers, the theory has not been widely applied to the past 12,000 years.

“I’m hoping this paper will help show that archaeologists and historians can use evolutionary theory quite productively to generate interesting explanations about more recent time periods.”