Big Viking families nurtured murder

Killers more likely to belong to large extended clans, victims to small vulnerable ones

FAMILY STRIKE  Killings in Viking-era Iceland, such as the one depicted here, were largely carried out by individuals whose families greatly outnumbered those of their victims, researchers say. Disparities in family sizes may have long influenced who got killed by whom in small-scale societies. 

Andreas Bloch/Wikimedia Commons

Murder was a calculated family affair among Iceland’s early Viking settlers. And the bigger the family, the more bloodthirsty.     

Data from three family histories spanning six generations support the idea that disparities in family size have long influenced who killed whom in small-scale societies. These epic written stories, or sagas, record everything from births and marriages to deals and feuds.

Iceland’s Viking killers had on average nearly three times as many biological relatives and in-laws as their victims did, says a team led by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford. Prolific killers responsible for five or more murders had the greatest advantage in kin numbers, the scientists report online September 20 in Evolution and Human Behavior.

Particularly successful killers chose their victims carefully, knowing that their large families would deter revenge attacks by smaller families of the slain, the researchers contend. Those killings were motivated by land grabs, they suspect. One-time killers tended to have only slightly bigger families than those of their victims; insults or goading possibly prompted those murders.

OUT FOR BLOOD An analysis of three written family histories from Viking-era Iceland, including one focused on farmer and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, indicates that members of large families were most likely to kill individuals from small clans.Tiina357/Wikimedia Commons
Strikingly, around 18 percent of all men mentioned in the sagas were murdered. Similarly high homicide rates, mainly due to cycles of revenge killing between feuding families, have been reported for some modern hunter-gatherer and village-based societies ( SN Online: 9/27/12 ). Lethal raids by competing groups may go back 10,000 years or more ( SN: 2/20/16, p. 9 ).

Murder rates rise in the absence of central authorities that enforce social order, Dunbar proposes. “The real issue is not that there were so many murders among Icelandic Vikings, but that murders were carefully calculated based on knowing whether one had a sufficient family advantage to take the risk.”

That idea relates to mathematical formulas of fighting strength developed during World War I by British engineer Frederick Lanchester. One of Lanchester’s laws calculates that the fighting advantage of a larger group over a smaller group grows disproportionately as the disparity in the size of war parties increases. That rule also holds for family-size differences in small-scale societies, such as Icelandic Vikings, Dunbar’s group concludes.

Tests of the possibility that greater kin numbers encourage lethal attacks in preindustrial groups, such as the Vikings, are rare, says Oxford evolutionary biologist and political scientist Dominic Johnson, who did not participate in the new study. Johnson has reviewed evidence suggesting that humans, chimps and social hunters such as wolves have evolved ways to monitor group sizes and launch attacks when they can gang up on a few opponents.

Dunbar and his colleagues studied three Icelandic family sagas covering events from around 900 to 1100. Iceland’s first settlers arrived from Scandinavia and northern Europe in the late 800s (SN: 5/14/16, p. 13).

The sagas contained information about events, including feuds and murders, involving 1,020 individuals. For everyone mentioned, the researchers identified a network of biological and in-law relationships.

Under Norse law, a murder entitled a victim’s relatives to compensation, either via a revenge murder or blood money. Icelandic sagas describe the importance of avenging murdered relatives to save face and prevent further attacks, regardless of family size.

In the three sagas, a total of 66 individuals caused 153 deaths; two or more attackers sometimes participated in the same killing. No killers were biologically related to their victims (such as cousins or closer), but one victim was a sister-in-law of her killer.

About two-thirds or more of killers had more biological kin on both sides of their families, and more in-laws, than their victims did.

Six men accounted for about 45 percent of all murders, each killing between five and 19 people. Another 23 individuals killed two to four people. The rest killed once. Frequent killers had many more social relationships, through biological descent and marriage, than their victims did, suggesting that they targeted members of families in vulnerable situations, the researchers say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology