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Europeans in the Americas 1000 years ago

20 October 2021
Reconstructed Viking-Age building adjacent to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows | image credit: Russ Heinl aerial photography
Reconstructed Viking-Age building adjacent to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows | image credit: Russ Heinl aerial photography

Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The Vikings got there centuries beforehand, although exactly when has remained unclear. Here, an international team of scientists show that Europeans were already active in the Americas in 1021 AD. Their findings where recently published in Nature.

The Vikings sailed great distances in their iconic longships. To the west, they established settlements in Iceland, Greenland and eventually a base at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. However, it has remained unclear when this first transatlantic activity took place. Here, scientists show that Europeans were present in the Americas in 1021 AD - precisely 1000 years ago this year. This date also marks the earliest known point by which the Atlantic had been crossed, and migration by humankind had finally encircled the entire planet.

A Solar Storm Solution

In this study, the chopping of wood by Vikings at L'Anse aux Meadows was dated to exactly the year 1021 AD. 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 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 (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" says Dr Margot Kuitems (University of Groningen), first author of the paper.

How Far, How Often?

The number of Viking expeditions to the Americas, and the duration of their stay over the Atlantic, remain unknown. 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 Sagas

1021 AD is the earliest year in which European presence in the Americas can be scientifically proven. Previous dates for the Viking presence in the Americas have relied heavily on the Icelandic Sagas. However, these began as oral histories and were only written down centuries after the events they describe. Whilst contradictory and at times fantastical, the Sagas also suggest encounters occurred, both violent and amiable, between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the region. However, little archaeological evidence has been uncovered to support such exchanges. Other medieval accounts also exist, which imply prominent figures on the European mainland were made aware the Vikings had made landfall across the Atlantic.

Summary

The Vikings were active in North America in the year 1021 AD. This now represents the earliest – and only – known year in which Europeans were present in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492 AD. It also represents a definitive point in time by which the Atlantic Ocean had been traversed and human migration had finally encircled the globe.

The article "Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021" has been published in Nature.


For more information, interviews with the authors (in English and Dutch), please contact Annemiek Huizinga, or check our website.

  • Email: a.j.huizinga rug.nl
  • Mobile phone: + 31 6 25 50 78 32
  • Website: https://www.rug.nl/research/esrig/echoes/
  • University: University of Groningen, The Netherlands.
  • Institute: Energy and Sustainability Research Institute Groningen (ESRIG)

More photos and press package available upon request.

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Last modified:11 January 2022 3.53 p.m.
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