A groundbreaking study conducted by archaeologists from the University of Iceland has uncovered evidence that Vikings arrived in the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus, who is often credited with the discovery of the continent in 1492.
The study, recently published in the journal Antiquity, analyzed wood samples from five Norse sites in western Greenland, occupied between 1000 and 1400.
The researchers were able to identify the tree species that many of the samples originated from, revealing that some of the wood had been imported from both the Americas and Europe. In particular, they found that hemlock and Jack pine, which were not grown in northern Europe during the second millennium, must have been brought across the Atlantic.
This discovery supports some Viking sagas – stories passed down through Viking societies – which suggest that explorers imported timber from “Vínland,” a coastal area of North America believed to be along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Jack pine grows naturally around the Mackenzie River, Nova Scotia, and New England, while hemlock can be found near Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Nova Scotia.
“These findings highlight the fact that Norse Greenlanders had the means, knowledge and appropriate vessels to cross the Davis Strait to the east coast of North America, at least up until the fourteenth century,” wrote the researchers. “As such, journeys were being made from Greenland to North America throughout the entirety of the period of Norse settlement in Greenland, and resources were being acquired by the Norse from North America for far longer than previously thought.”
Many historical records suggest that Vikings living in Greenland between 985 and 1450 relied on imported materials, such as iron and wood, for large building projects, shipbuilding, and artifact production. Local tree species were not adequate for these purposes.
To determine the proportion of foreign wood used by Vikings and its origins, the researchers collected samples from wood assemblages in four medium-sized elite farms and a bishop’s manor, which were known to have been occupied in the first half of the second millennium through radiocarbon dating and the types of artifacts found there.
The experts used microscopes to examine the cellular structure of the wood and identify the tree species they came from. Their analysis revealed that 0.27 per cent of the samples came from imported species, either from North America or northern Europe.
Some of the European species, including oak, beech, and Scots pine, might have been old ship timber or arrived as ready-made artifacts. The analysis also found that a quarter of the samples were either imported or arrived in Greenland as driftwood, with species including larch, spruce, Scots pine, and fir. Driftwood, along with timber from local woodlands, was used as fuel and for other domestic purposes.
The results confirm that the Vikings had established numerous trading routes across the northwestern Atlantic Ocean and corroborate the sagas which claim that explorers, like Leif Erikson – who is thought to have been the first European to set foot on the continent – brought timber back from Vínland.
In 2021, a study of wooden artifacts from L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, reached the same conclusion. The area was first thought to be a Norse site in 1960, based on evidence of cutting and slicing on the wood by metal blades, which were not produced by the Indigenous population.
Researchers from the University of Groningen found that this wood dated back to the year 1021, a full 471 years before Columbus arrived in the Americas.
Aside from the groundbreaking discoveries regarding the Vikings’ presence in the Americas, their early transatlantic voyages, and their extensive trade networks, the Vikings also left a lasting impact in other areas. Some of their other achievements and contributions include:
Vikings were known for their advanced shipbuilding techniques, which allowed them to sail across vast distances and navigate diverse waterways. Their iconic longships were fast, agile, and had shallow drafts, enabling them to travel both on open seas and along river systems.
The Vikings were skilled navigators, relying on their knowledge of the stars, ocean currents, and other natural cues. They used tools like the sunstone, which helped them determine the position of the sun even on cloudy days, to help guide their voyages.
The Vikings established numerous settlements across Europe and the North Atlantic, reaching as far as Iceland, Greenland, and the aforementioned North American sites. These settlements often included farming communities, trading posts, and centers of political power.
The Vikings’ language, Old Norse, evolved into several modern Scandinavian languages, including Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. They also produced a rich body of literature, including the sagas, which are a mix of history, myth, and legend, as well as the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, which contain a wealth of Norse mythology.
Viking art, characterized by intricate designs and patterns, is still admired today. They were skilled craftsmen, working with materials like wood, metal, and textiles to create functional and decorative objects.
The Vikings used a writing system called runes, which they carved into stone, metal, and wood. Runes were used for various purposes, including communication, memorial inscriptions, and magical or religious symbolism.
The Viking Age, spanning from the late 8th to the early 11th century, significantly influenced European history. Vikings played a role in the formation of several European nations, including England, Scotland, and Russia, through their settlements, conquests, and interactions with local populations.
In conclusion, the Vikings’ legacy extends far beyond their early arrival in the Americas. They made significant advancements in shipbuilding, navigation, and other areas, established settlements across vast distances, and influenced the development of modern European nations.
Their rich cultural heritage, including their language, literature, art, and craftsmanship, continues to captivate people today.
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