In 1874, Rasmus B. Anderson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, published a book with an exceedingly blunt title: “America Not Discovered by Columbus.” In 2021, that thesis was bolstered with a precise date. Using state-of-the-art technology to establish the age of wooden remains from Newfoundland, scientists determined, according to a paper published this fall, that Vikings arrived in North America no later than 1021. One thousand years is, conveniently, a large round number — one that invites us to ask, if only for a moment, what meaning and significance we might draw today from the Vikings’ explorations of North America long ago. It is a particularly relevant question as we review the headlines from this past year to draw lessons and insights as we head into the next.
Even the briefest of glances at the Vikings’ world reveals its intercontinental scale and scope.
In the 19th century, Anderson had no access to the advanced scientific techniques that led to this year’s breakthrough. Instead, he used his expertise in Old Norse language and literature to make the case that the Vikings set foot on what would be known as North America at the very beginning of the 11th century, 500 years before Columbus’ arrival. The book’s primary evidence was drawn from two Icelandic sagas: the “Saga of the Greenlanders” and the “Saga of Erik the Red.” Written down in the 13th and 14th centuries, these stories describe a series of expeditions to previously unknown lands south and west of Greenland in the early 11th century.
In the 1960s, archaeological excavations in Newfoundland confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what Anderson had argued, namely that the Vikings had traversed the Atlantic long before Columbus. Building on local lore and on the earlier work of amateur enthusiasts, archaeologists discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows the remains of eight structures that resembled Viking ruins from Iceland and Greenland. Subsequent digging turned up several objects — among them a bone needle, a whetstone and a soapstone spindle whorl — that proved that the site belonged to the Norse. While the bulk of the evidence suggested that L’Anse aux Meadows was settled in the late 10th or early 11th century, available dating techniques remained imprecise.
Thankfully, in October, an article in the journal Nature provided the most secure date yet for the Vikings’ presence in North America. The study zeroed in on three pieces of wood obtained from L’Anse aux Meadows. Each had been cut with a metal tool, perhaps an ax, a technology that was not used by the indigenous groups of the area in the 11th century. The scientists leading the study then turned their attention to dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, a field whose precision has advanced considerably in recent years. Following the identification of an unusual so-called Miyake event in 993 and 994, in which spikes of the isotope carbon-14 in the atmosphere changed how tree rings from that time appear, the scientists searched for this distinctive radiocarbon signature in the rings of their three specimens. Using this method, they calculated that the trees were felled 28 years after 993: exactly a millennium ago, in 1021.
In the 1,000 years since, the history of the Vikings’ voyages to North America has been fashioned and refashioned to suit many different agendas. For Rasmus Anderson, the Vikings of the sagas had much to offer 19th-century America. Indeed, the Norsemen were almost proto-Americans. They were independent, freedom-loving explorers whose far-flung exploits foreshadowed the immigration and westward expansion that were shaping America as Anderson was writing. Of course, in the 21st century we are, or should be, more sensitive than Anderson was to the potentially tragic dimensions of the story. According to the sagas, the Vikings encountered, in the place they called Vinland, native peoples whose descendants would be devastated thanks to their contact with Europeans.
In the first decades of the second millennium, though, most of that history was still in the future. Both the sagas and the archaeological evidence underline the relatively small-scale and tentative nature of Viking activity in North America. L’Anse aux Meadows supported no more than 100 people. In all likelihood, the site functioned less as a permanent colony and more as a camp that served as a base for further explorations. The sagas describe successive expeditions to Vinland that failed to establish a foothold. In the authors’ telling, this was partly due to the hostility of the indigenous people who occupied these lands and partly due to internal disputes among the scouting parties who undertook the voyages.
These stories communicated the message that Vinland, for all of its abundant natural resources, was a dangerous place to visit. In spite of these warnings, evidence from chronicles and other sources makes it clear that, throughout the Middle Ages, members of the Norse colonies in Greenland, descendants of the original Viking settlers, continued to travel with some regularity to the northern reaches of today’s North America. They did so in search of timber and to hunt the walruses whose tusks were prized throughout Europe at the time. Global supply chains, it turns out, are not unique to the 21st century.
Indeed, the Viking experience echoes our own in many ways worth examining. From our vantage point in a world reordered by Covid-19, we ought to appreciate how everyday actions can have globe-spanning implications. Even the briefest of glances at the Vikings’ world reveals its intercontinental scale and scope. While some members of the Viking diaspora were busy gathering lumber in Newfoundland and Labrador, others were trading for silver coins minted in the Islamic caliphates or serving as bodyguards for the emperor in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). And long-distance travel was not necessarily just for Viking men. According to the “Saga of the Greenlanders,” Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a member of one of the expeditions, gave birth to a son in Vinland and later went on a pilgrimage to Rome.
The Vikings helped span the globe in other senses, as well. Human beings began migrating out of Africa 80,000 years ago. Thanks to the study published in October, we can now say with confidence that, no later than 1021, these migrations encircled the Earth. The encounter between the Vikings and the indigenous peoples of North America was something of a family reunion, a meeting of two branches of the human species, one migrating via Europe and one migrating via Asia, that had been separated for thousands of years. No one, of course, appreciated this at the beginning of the 11th century. The deep currents of human history went largely unnoticed then, as they surely do now. If the felling of three trees in 1021 can shed light on a past that helps us make sense of the world in 2021, what little event, barely noticed today, might provide insight for world history in 3021?