Vikings in America exactly 1000 years ago

Vikings in America exactly 1000 years ago

Reconstruction of a 1000 year old Viking building at the archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. (Image: Glenn Nagel)

It is well known that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach the New World long before Columbus. But when exactly they were active in North America, now for the first time shows an astonishingly precise dating. The wood for the construction of their short-lived base in Newfoundland was therefore cut in 1021 AD. This emerges from radiocarbon dating, which can be precisely assigned to the annual rings based on the traces of a cosmic event.

1492 went down in history as the year of the discovery of America: Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas and with it the New World. But actually this was not the first time that Europeans set foot on American soil: Centuries earlier, the Vikings had already reached North America with their legendary long boats via stopovers in Iceland and Greenland. Medieval lore testifies to this, which was ultimately supported by the remains of a small base in Newfoundland in western Canada. When exactly the Northmen erected the buildings in L’Anse aux Meadows, however, it has so far only been possible to narrow it down vaguely to around the year 1000, as finds have not yet been precisely dated.

Cosmic event as a fixed point

In the case of three finds from L’Anse aux Meadows, the researchers led by Michael Dee from the University of Groningen have now succeeded. These are pieces of wood that could be assigned to the Vikings on the basis of the context and the processing characteristics. They have clear cut marks that were created by metal blades. Since this material was unknown to the native people of Newfoundland, it is clearly wood that has been treated by the Europeans. According to the results of the investigation, the three pieces came from three different trees and even from two different species.

The researchers subjected these pieces of wood to radiocarbon dating, during which the individual annual rings were analyzed. This type of age determination is based on the detection of radioactive carbon – 14C atoms – which have been stored in organic materials. In the case of the three pieces of wood, the researchers were able to use the special feature that a radiation storm in 992 caused an increase in radioactive carbon in the atmosphere. “This significant increase in radiocarbon between 992 and 993 was found in tree ring archives around the world,” explains Dee.

Fell in 1021

The analyzes of the three pieces of wood from L’Anse aux Meadows now showed: Each had this carbon signal 29 annual rings in front of the bark edge of the respective wood material. Thus, the researchers only had to add for the dating: “The finding made it possible to conclude that the trees had been felled in 1021,” says first author Margot Kuitems from the University of Groningen. This year – curiously exactly 1000 years ago – now marks the earliest known point in time at which Europeans can be found across the Atlantic.

However, this first step on American soil did not lead to the far-reaching consequences as in the case of Columbus’ second discovery. The exact number of the Vikings’ expeditions to America and the length of their stay remains unclear. But the archaeological findings in L’Anse aux Meadows show that the base was soon abandoned and so far no further effects of the Viking discoveries on the region are known.

The sometimes fantastic Icelandic sagas, which probably refer to the presence of the Vikings in America, suggest encounters between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the region. “The year 1021 is now a definitive point of contact for future research on the possible first consequences of transatlantic activities, such as the transfer of knowledge, genetic exchange or the transmission of diseases,” the scientists write.

Source: University of Groningen, specialist article: Nature, doi: 10.1038 / s41586-021-03972-8

Recent Articles

Related Stories