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Vikings came to North America 1,000 years ago, way before Columbus, say researchers

It's become clear that Vikings from Greenland are the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas, in a village in Canada.

Vikings came to North America 1,000 years ago, way before Columbus, say researchers
Image source: YouTube screenshot/Discovery UK

New research reveals that Christopher Columbus is not the first European to arrive in North America as was previously concerned. It's been found that Vikings from Greenland built a village at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in Canada exactly 1,000 years ago in 1021. Scientists have established that Vikings, often a name given to the Norse by the English they raided, had built a village at Newfoundland around the turn of the millennium but now for the first time they have put a date on the occupation of the Vikings. The research was published on Wednesday, reported NBC News.


The study came to finding based on excavations at the archaeological site, L’Anse aux Meadows. According to the research published, there is evidence that Vikings felled trees and built a village at least 470 years before Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas in 1492. At least 100 people felled trees to use the wood to build a village and to repair their ships, with new evidence pointing to at least three trees being cut down by Vikings in 1021. “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 and the study’s lead author. “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,” she said.



While Vikings' arrival at Newfoundland is mentioned in two Icelandic sagas, this is the first time, scientific evidence puts a date on their presence. The Icelandic sagas indicate L’Anse aux Meadows was a temporary home for explorers who arrived in up to six expeditions. Scientists zeroed in on the exact date through 'cosmic ray event,' probably caused by massive solar flares. They noted a spike in a naturally radioactive form of carbon detected in ancient pieces of wood from the site: some cast-off sticks, part of a tree trunk, and what looks to be a piece of a plank. Archaeologists usually rely on radiocarbon dating to find the approximate date for organic materials such as wood, bones, and charcoal but through 'cosmic ray event,' they are able to determine the exact date. The three pieces of wood show distinctive radiocarbon traces of a cosmic ray event in A.D. 993, which caused greater than usual levels of radioactive carbon-14 in the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere.


As trees “breathe” carbon dioxide, researchers used that radioactive carbon signature to determine which of the annual growth rings seen in cross-sections of the wood was from 993, said Kuitems. They then used a microscope to count the later growth rings until the bark of the wood, which helped determine the exact year the tree had stopped growing, or in this case, felled by the Norse.



Researchers have also established that Indigenous people occupied L’Anse aux Meadows both before and after the Norse, and relied on distinctive marks on pieces of wood to determine they were the result of tools used by Vikings. The wood was cut using metal tools, which the indigenous people did not have at the time. Evidence shows that they didn't stay too long in Newfoundland, with their stay estimated to be in the range of three to 13 years before they abandoned the village and returned to Greenland. The first Norse settlers in Greenland were from Iceland and Scandinavia, and the Vikings' arrival in Newfoundland marks the first time that humanity circled the entire globe. As per the study, one of the buildings at the L'Anse aux Meadows may have been a church as many Norse were Christian even if not exclusively. 

The cosmic ray event technique is a recent development and is expected to be used in establishing firm dates at other sites as well. There is much excitement about it in the archaeological community. “It’s a clever application,” said Sturt Manning, a professor of archaeology at Cornell University. “This is the first clear evidence of Europeans arriving in North America.”

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