Iceland Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's not a lot that most people know about the small European nation of Iceland. In this lesson, we're going to talk specifically about ethnicity in Iceland, and see what this means for the nation today.


You may have heard that famous quip that Iceland is really pretty green, while Greenland is actually covered in ice. Say it however you want, they're both cold. Beyond that, however, there's actually a lot that most people don't know about Iceland. For example, did you know that Icelanders drink more Coca-Cola per capita than any other nation? Iceland is also one of the few countries to offer guaranteed paid leave for both new mothers and fathers, and has one of the highest rates of gender equality in the world. This small European nation in the North Atlantic, home to just under 330,000 people, is full of surprises. In fact, even the temperatures aren't as dramatic as many people think; winters have an average low of around 27 degrees, while summers are in the mid-70s. In many ways, Iceland may be one of the best-kept secrets in Europe, and I'm sure the people who live there want to keep it that way.


Ethnicity in Iceland

So, who are these Icelandic people? Due partly to its remoteness, as well as its size, Iceland is a pretty ethnically homogenous nation. In fact, 94% of residents identify with a single, Icelandic ethnicity. Many ethnographers don't like to strictly label this as a distinct ethnic group, partly because it is very closely related to Norse populations of Northern Europe. In fact, most estimates claim that about 60% of Icelandic ancestry is Norse. Why is this? Well, the island of Iceland isn't exactly easy to get to, and so it remained uninhabited for a long time. You needed a really skilled sailing culture to make it there, and guess who that was? The Vikings first made it to Iceland in the year 874 CE under the leadership of Ingólfur Arnarsson, and for the next several decades they put some substantial effort into setting up Viking towns around the island, filled with Viking people, businesses, and even government. For a long time, historians believed that Iceland was completely uninhabited prior to the arrival of the Vikings, but now that is being questioned. Recent archeological excavations found ruins that may predate the Vikings, and some early Viking accounts actually describe finding Gaelic monks already on the island.

Image of a Viking ship bound for Iceland
Viking ship

Regardless of who got their first, the Vikings made Iceland their home, and it became an important port for Viking ships sailing around Northern Europe, and possibly even to North America. So, it makes sense that the Icelandic people have a large amount of Norse ancestry. But remember that the Norse are only about 60% of Icelandic ethnicity. The other 40% is mostly Celtic/Gaelic. For centuries, Iceland was the stopping point for Viking raiding ships heading from Norway to Scotland/Ireland. On the way back, many captured Scots and Irish were traded or sold to Vikings in Iceland, and those populations left a genetic impact on modern Icelanders.

An Icelandic Viking
Icelandic Viking

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