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The Vikings Beat Christopher Columbus to Reaching America by 500 Years

Tree rings and astrophysics helped reveal the exact dates.

The Vikings Beat Christopher Columbus to Reaching America by 500 Years
L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. D. Gordon E. Robertson/Wikimedia Commons

In 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife Anne Stine Ingstad began excavating at a site called L'Anse aux Meadows on the north most point of Newfoundland, Canada.

L'Anse aux Meadows
L'Anse aux Meadows. Source: Google Maps

The Ingstads thought it could be "Vinland", a site described in the Icelandic Sagas as being across the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, a 1073 text by Adam of Bremen states: "He [the Danish king, Sven Estridsson] also told me of another island discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines grow there on their own accord, producing the most excellent wine. Moreover, that unsown crops abound there, we have ascertained not from fabulous conjecture but from the reliable reports of the Danes."

The Icelandic Sagas are stories, at least some of which are based on historical events that took place in Iceland during the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries. Two of the sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red, describe Norse Greenlanders' attempts to settle the land to the west of Greenland, which they called Vinland.

Icelandic Saga
Icelandic Saga. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before the Ingstads, it was thought that Vinland must be an area in northern Massachusetts because that was thought to be as far north as grapes grow naturally. Today, wild grapes are known to grow along the coast of New Brunswick, and around Quebec, Canada, both of which are far to the north of Massachusetts.

The Ingstads thought the word "Vinland" was a mistranslation, and that it instead referred to meadows and a peninsula, both of which the site at L’Anse aux Meadows had in spades. It was while the Ingstads were on the site in 1960 that a local fisherman showed them a group of earthen mounds. Excavation of the mounds over the next seven years showed them to contain eight timber-framed buildings which bore a close resemblance to buildings at Norse sites in both Greenland and Iceland. Additionally, artifacts found on the site were known to be used by the Norse.

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While the presence of Vikings at L'Anse aux Meadows was conclusive, the date of exactly when they were there was not. Then, on October 20, 2021, a new study published in the journal Nature described the use of a new dating technique to pinpoint the exact date on which the Vikings were at L’Anse aux Meadows, and it gave the date of 1021 A.D., exactly 1,000 years ago.

How the dating was done

Ordinary radiocarbon dating determines the age of organic materials by measuring the content of Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon that decays into Carbon-12 at a known rate. Because ratios of C-14 in the upper atmosphere are more or less constant, scientists can measure the ratio of carbon isotopes to estimate how far back in time an organic sample was alive. However, this method has an error range of 50-100 years, which is too imprecise to date L’Anse aux Meadows.

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What finally allowed scientists to date the site so exactly was a rare occurrence, a solar storm that deposited up to 20 times the normal level of Carbon 14. Every tree growing at the time of such a Sun storm would have taken up more than the usual amount of C-14, and preserved a record of it. These solar events are called Miyake events after their discoverer, Fusa Miyake, a cosmic ray physicist at Nagoya University in Japan.

Lead author of the new study in Nature, Michael Dee, an associate professor of isotope chronology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, told The New York Times that over the last 10,000 years, there have been only three or four Miyake events. One event was in A.D. 774 to 775, another in 992 to 993, and another one circa 660 BCE.

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To determine an exact date for the settlement, scientists analyzed wood samples from three different trees at L’Anse aux Meadows which still had their bark, and which showed marks of having been chopped down using a metal blade. The presence of metal blades indicated the wood was cut down by the Vikings, as the indigenous people living in the area at that time didn't produce metal blades.

When dendrochronologists — people who analyze tree rings — looked at the wood, one tree ring stood out, the one from 992 AD. The year before, the Sun had belched out a storm of cosmic rays which ionized the carbon atoms in our atmosphere, producing large amounts of Carbon 14. All the scientists had to do then was to count the number of rings between the 992 AD ring and the trees' bark to show the exact year the trees were cut down. They found 29 rings giving a date of 1021 AD.

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If the settlement dates from 1021 AD, this makes it the earliest known presence of Europeans in the Americas, beating Christopher Columbus by almost 500 years. It is also the earliest evidence that the Atlantic Ocean had been crossed. Dr. Dee told CNN that the Vikings likely ventured West from Iceland and Greenland in order to "... find new raw materials, most notably wood," and that by traveling between continents in search of materials, the Vikings were the first globalists.

1590 Skálholt Map
1590 Skálholt map. Source: Sigurd Stefánsso/Wikimedia Commons

The site at L'Anse aux Meadows also shows clear evidence that the Vikings explored areas south of Newfoundland, with food remains on the site showing the presence of butternuts, a species of walnut native to the eastern U.S. and southeast Canada, which don't grow naturally north of New Brunswick, Canada.

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In the collection of the Danish Royal Library is the Skálholt Map which was originally made in 1570. It shows the Latinized Norse names for numerous sites in North America. The latitudes shown on the map indicate that "Vinland" was at around 51 degrees north, and when compared with modern maps, this places Vinland's promontory in the same position as the northern promontory of Newfoundland.

The buildings at L'Anse aux Meadows

Viking house at L'Anse aux Meadows
Viking house at L'Anse aux Meadows. Source: Dylan Kereluk/Wikimedia Commons

In 1021, the L'Anse aux Meadows site would have been covered by forests that could be used for building both boats and houses, and used for smelting iron. The area would have been full of game, including caribou, fish, seal, whale, and walrus, and lots of animals that could be used for their fur, such as wolf, fox, bear, lynx, and marten.

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The eight buildings discovered under the mounds at L'Anse aux Meadows were constructed of sod over a wooden frame, and they have been identified as being either dwellings or workshops. One workshop contained a forge and iron slag, identifying it an iron smithy, while another contained wood debris, identifying it as a carpentry shop. A third building contained worn rivets, showing it to have been used as a boat repair shop.

The largest dwelling on the site measured 94 feet by 51 feet (28.8 m by 15.6 m) and contained several rooms. Together, all the dwelling buildings could have accommodated 30 to 160 people. Compare that to the total number of Norse settlers on Greenland, which at the time was around 2,500.

Curiously, no burials and no signs of agriculture or the keeping of animals have been found at L'Anse aux Meadows. This suggests that the Vikings may have inhabited the site only for a short time. Artifacts found include a stone oil lamp, a whetstone, and a bronze cloak pin. Additional artifacts that hint strongly of the presence of women on the site include a bone knitting needle, part of a spindle, and stone weights that were used in a loom.

In the U.S., we annually celebrate Columbus Day on October 11, but we may have to consider the creation of another holiday to honor those Vikings who crossed the vast Atlantic Ocean in their long ships in search of a better life.

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