The Norse presence in North America has been attested to by written accounts and archaeological evidence. Now, an international team of scientists have been able to precisely date their activity at a site in Newfoundland to the year 1021.
With their iconic longships, the Norse were able to establish settlements in Iceland, Greenland and eventually a base at L’Anse aux Meadows, along the western coast of Newfoundland. However, it has remained unclear when this first transatlantic activity took place. The new research, published in the journal Nature, focuses on wood chopped by Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows. The three pieces of wood studied, from three different trees, all came from contexts archaeologically attributable to the Vikings. Each one also displayed clear evidence of cutting and slicing by blades made of metal – a material not produced by the indigenous population. The exact year they were cut down – 1021 – was determinable because a massive solar storm occurred in 992 AD that produced a distinct radiocarbon signal in tree rings from the following year.
“The distinct uplift in radiocarbon production that occurred between 992 and 993 AD has been detected in tree-ring archives from all over the world,” says Associate Professor Michael Dee of the University of Groningen, director of the research. Each of the three wooden objects exhibited this signal 29 growth rings (years) before the bark edge. “Finding the signal from the solar storm 29 growth rings in from the bark allowed us to conclude that the cutting activity took place in the year 1021 AD” adds Margot Kuitems, first author of the paper.
The number of Viking expeditions to the Americas, and the duration of their stay over the Atlantic, remain unknown. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both written around the early 13th century, offer accounts of Norse activity in Vinland, which roughly corresponds to the northeastern section of North America. They also roughly date the first trips to this region to the year 1001 or perhaps a year earlier.
All current data suggest that the whole endeavour was somewhat short-lived, and the cultural and ecological legacy of this first European activity in the Americas is likely to have been small. Nonetheless, botanical evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows has confirmed that the Vikings did explore lands further south than Newfoundland.
The authors of the study note there are two important findings from this research. They write:
We provide evidence that the Norse were active on the North American continent in the year AD 1021. This date offers a secure juncture for late Viking chronology. More importantly, it acts as a new point-of-reference for European cognisance of the Americas, and the earliest known year by which human migration had encircled the planet. In addition, our research demonstrates the potential of the AD 993 anomaly in atmospheric 14C concentrations for pinpointing the ages of past migrations and cultural interactions. Together with other cosmic-ray events, this distinctive feature will allow for the exact dating of many other archaeological and environmental contexts.
The article, “Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021,” by Margot Kuitems, Birgitta L. Wallace, Charles Lindsay, Andrea Scifo, Petra Doeve, Kevin Jenkins, Susanne Lindauer, Pınar Erdil, Paul M. Ledger, Véronique Forbes, Caroline Vermeeren, Ronny Friedrich and Michael W. Dee, is published in Nature. Click here to read it.
Top Image: Norse long house recreation, L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada – photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson / Wikimedia Commons