Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Women’s equality in the Viking era: The tooth tells the truth

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Teeth displaying enamel hypoplasia lines. Photo by Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health & Medicine on Flickr. Via Wikimedia. CC BY 2.0

Women had “relatively free status” in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the Viking Era (700–1000 AD), based on the criteria of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.1,2 For instance, paternal aunts, nieces, and granddaughters had the right to inherit property. In the absence of male relatives, an unmarried woman without a son could inherit the position of head of the family from a dead father or brother. Women could divorce and remarry. After age twenty, unmarried women had legal majority, and were considered their own person before the law. No distinctions were made between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.3 Yet we cannot be sure that having such laws “on the books” meant that they were completely, or even partially honored. Support for the idea that these societies did not treat women as “second-class citizens” comes from archeological analysis.

Laura Buckwalter and Joerg Baten, historians of societies and economies at the University of Tuebingen, wrote that examining the teeth of men and women from the same society and historical period gives useful information.4 The dental anomaly known as linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH) leaves horizontal lines on the surfaces of teeth. These lines result when the deposition of enamel on a developing tooth (deciduous or permanent) is reduced or interrupted, usually by undernutrition or disease. Enamel is formed when its precursor organic matrix is mineralized.5 There are other causes of enamel hypoplasia besides undernutrition or disease, including some congenital disorders, high fever, prematurity, trauma, and hypoxia. LEH is also a risk factor for dental caries.6 Examining teeth from Viking times for the presence of LEH showed an equal amount of the disorder in men and women. This has been interpreted as evidence that food was provided to women and men in equal quantities and that women did not have more episodes of serious illnesses than men.

What motivated this equal treatment? One possibility is that in pastoral herding societies, the role of women in the care and herding of animals was as important as that of men. When societies turned to agriculture, however, physical strength (such as plowing) became more important, and men’s contribution more valued. Scandinavia also became Christianized by about 1000 AD, and the Church taught the relative values of men and women to these peoples.7

There is at least one recent confirmation of the reduced nutrition–increased hypoplasia concept. Researchers studied the teeth of eighty-four adolescents in a Mexican town, in which forty-two of the children had received nutritional supplements since birth. The control group, also forty-two children, did not receive supplements, and ate the usual diet for that community. The supplemented adolescents had half as much LEH as the control group, which received borderline-adequate nutrition.8

It is interesting to reflect that a social history may be clarified by examining thousand-year-old teeth.


  1. Laura Buckwalter and Joerg Baten. “Valkyries: Was gender equality high in the Scandinavian periphery since Viking times? Evidence from enamel hypoplasia and height ratios.” Economics and Human Biology, 34, 2019.
  2. Johnny Wood. “These 4 Nordic countries hold the secret of gender equality.” World Economic Forum, December 18, 2018. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/12/nordic-countries-women-equality-gender-pay-gap-2018/.
  3. “Women in Sweden.” Wikipedia.
  4. Buckwalter and Baten, “Valkyries.”
  5. Efthymia Nikita. Osteoarcheology: A Guide to the Microscopic Study of Human Skeletal Remains. Cambridge (MA): Academic Press, 2017.
  6. “Enamel Hypoplasia.” Wikipedia.
  7. Buckwalter and Baten, “Valkyries.”
  8. Alan Goodman et al. “Nutritional supplementation and the development of linear enamel hypoplasia in children from Tezonteopan, Mexico.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 53(3), 1991.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2024



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