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Vikings Were in America Before Columbus, Study Claims

Vikings North America
Vikings from Greenland were living in North America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, according to a recent study.. Credit: Helgi Halldórsson, CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikipedia

Vikings from Greenland were living in North America’s Newfoundland 1,000 years ago according to evidence from a recent study.

Newfoundland is located in Maritime Canada. Scientists have suspected for years that Vikings had settled in the area, but had not been able to assign a precise date to this encampment until now.

The authors of the research were able to trace the Vikings to trees they had cut down in order to build their shelter in Newfoundland. The trees indicate that the settlers were in the area as early as 1021 — 470 years before Christopher Columbus had arrived on the continent, and exactly one millennium ago.

“This is the first time the date has been scientifically established,” said archaeologist Margot Kuitems, a researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who also led the study.

“Previously the date was based only on sagas — oral histories that were only written down in the 13th century, at least 200 years after the events they described took place,” Kuitems said.

These Viking settlers originated in Iceland and Scandanavia and made their way to Greenland before setting foot and settling down in Newfoundland. The research shows that the Vikings were never comfortable in North America, however, and they left their village in Newfoundland after only 13 years to go back to Greenland.

“I am impressed by the results,” says Thomas McGovern, an archaeologist at Hunter College in New York City who was not a part of the project. “The site continues to provide data after all these years. I think the date is totally plausible and fits with Birgitta Wallace’s original idea of a fairly short, circa 1000 AD settlement event,” adds McGovern, who has been studying what took place at the Norse settlements in Greenland for roughly twenty years.

Precise date Vikings settled in North America

The team was able to find the precise date through a naturally radioactive form of carbon that was present in the wood at the site. Using radiocarbon dating has been a tried and true practice for archaeologists for years, but this study stands apart for using a process contingent on a “cosmic ray event” to find the date.

Scientists had already determined that a cosmic ray event had occurred in 993, shortly before the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland. The event was believed to have caused larger amounts of radioactive carbon-14 in the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere than normal.

Trees release carbon dioxide throughout their lives, and the researchers matched the radioactive carbon signature from the cosmic ray event with the growth rings found in the tree. They then traced the tree’s life from 993, the date of the event, until when the tree was cut down — the moment that the Vikings had used it to build their settlement.

The Norse sagas tell of a journey westward from Greenland, to a place they called “Vinland,” or the place where grapes grew. They also related their difficult relations with the natives they found there, who they termed “skraelings,” or people who screeched. They state in the sagas that the Skraelings were fierce warriors who harried the settlement for years until they were eventually forced to abandon it.


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