A new study has tackled a burning question which has preoccupied generations of archaeologists: When did the Vikings first “discover” the Americas? Their analysis was based on a selection of wooden artifacts discovered in what the first European colonists called Terra Nova , which literally means “Newfoundland”, an island located in Canada. Using pioneering methods, they have concluded that the Vikings were present in Newfoundland as early as 1021 AD!
Reconstructed Viking-Age building adjacent to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. (Glenn Nagel Photography / Nature)
Evidence of Vikings in the Americas Unearthed in Newfoundland
In popular history, Newfoundland was widely considered to be Britain’s first overseas colony under the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I – the first forerunner to the much later British Imperial Empire. It was established as a colony in 1583, displacing the indigenous Beothuk people, who were then the inhabitants of Newfoundland.
The new study published in the online journal Nature analyzed a selection of wooden artifacts discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows (which literally means “the Bay with the Grasslands”), on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, where archaeological evidence of a Viking presence was discovered in the 1960s.
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This was a unprecedented discovery as it pushed back the date of Europe’s first trans-Atlantic voyage, and laid the glory of world exploration squarely at the feet of the Vikings. By 1978, L’Anse aux Meadows had been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Newfoundland site contains the only known evidence of Viking expansion in or near North America outside of the Norse settlements of Greenland.
The team of researchers used a novel technique in order to date the exact time of Norse occupation at L’Anse aux Meadows . Within the new study, the researchers led by Dr. Margot Kuitems of the Centre for Isotope Research, University of Groningen in the Netherlands, explained: “We overcome the imprecision of previous age estimates by making use of the cosmic-ray-induced upsurge in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations in 993 AD.”
The Viking-era wooden artifacts discovered at the Newfoundland site. (M. Kuitems / Nature)
Previous Scientific Limitations and the Bounties of Modern Science
Previously there have been a plethora of limitations to finding evidence of a Viking presence in the Americas. These estimates have been based on the stylistic analysis of limited architectural remains, as well as a few artifacts excavated at the famed site. This period has also been studied through the analysis of Icelandic sagas and oral histories. This line of research is particularly limited given that these sagas and oral histories were written down centuries later. Radiocarbon dating and analysis (14C) has also been carried out, but has proved to yield little useful information.
The authors attempted to explain this handicap when they wrote that “the unfavourable spread in the 14C dates is down to the limitations of this chronometric technique in the 1960s and 1970s when most of these dates were obtained. Such impediments included far greater measurement uncertainty and restrictive sample size requirements. Furthermore, many of these samples were subject to an unknown amount of inbuilt age.” The term “inbuilt age” indicates the difference in time between the contextual age of the sample and its biological age.
Microscopic images of sections of wood taken from Viking artifacts found in Newfoundland. (M. van Waijjen / Nature)
Applying a New Approach to Dating Newfoundland Viking Artifacts
To avoid the same mistakes committed by their predecessors, the team used an “advanced chronometric approach” to attempt to specify the exact time period. For this, AMS or Accelerator Mass Spectrometry was employed. AMS requires smaller sampler sizes, can arrive at a higher precision, and accelerates the ions to very high kinetic energies to allow for mass analysis. This AMS was juxtaposed with distinct features in the atmospheric C record, 127 in total, of which a majority was measured back at the Groningen lab.
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The samples themselves included 83 individual tree rings , from a total of four wooden items, made from two distinct and separate species – the balsam fir and the juniper. In scientific terms, the team analyzed the transversal and radial sections of the wood, as well as conducting standard ring counting. These tree samples were cut into small fragments after which they were chemically permeated and analyzed.
This method is interesting in that it is the most accurate and comprehensive used so far by experts attempting to date the Norse expansion into the Americas . The team concludes that the Vikings had reached the Americas by 1021 AD, a few centuries before Columbus bridged the trans-Atlantic divide. “Our new date lays down a marker for European cognisance of the Americas, and represents the first known point at which humans encircled the globe,” highlights the study aptly entitled “ Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021 .”
Top image: Reconstructed Viking-Age building adjacent to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows. Source: Glenn Nagel Photography / Nature)
By Sahir Pandey