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Vikings in Canada

March 9, 2015

I’ve talked here before about explorers who reached the Americas before the accepted date of 1492, or who reached parts of the two continents before, again, the established dates. However, I’ve discussed this in the context of Gavin Menzies and fringe theories, which might have lead you to think that we can’t prove that anyone reached the New World between the time of the original settlers and Christopher Columbus.

This is not true.

Because you know who had ocean-worthy ships besides the Chinese? And who were regularly travelling long distances for glory, treasure, trade contracts, and stories to tell the kids?

The Vikings.

How do we know they reached the Americas?

  1. The Norse wrote things down. A saga says three expeditions sailed southwest of Greenland after the initial sighting of land: Lief the Lucky in 1000 and 1001, his brother Thorvald in 1004, and Thorfinn Karlsefni in 1009. Thorvald died after his settlement was attacked by Skraelings, and Thorfinn’s farming and trading colony, though it did decently, was also attacked by the locals. There are records of logging shipments into the 1300s, even though the “Vinland” colonies failed. (The Norse were mostly interested in furs and wood, because they’d fetch good prices in Greenland, which had little of either.) There’s also a history book written in the 1070s that mentions Vinland, and a 1347 mention of a ship of New World timber reaching Iceland instead of Greenland.
  2. L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Remains of Viking sod houses and workshops were found there in the 1960s, along with various artifacts that confirmed a Norse presence at the site. It’s likely this settlement was a base camp for explorations further south, since butternuts were found there though they don’t grown naturally in the area.

    800px-L'Anse_aux_Meadows,_recreated_long_house

    Reconstructed Viking Longhouse at L’Anse aux Meadows

  3. There are various runestones scattered through the US, though at least a couple are probably fake. Someone also found a Norse coin at a dig site in Maine, though that’s disputed.
  4. Yarn and whetstones were discovered on Baffin Island, which prompted a revisiting of museum collections, which turned up all sorts of Viking artifacts found from Baffin Island to northern Labrador. Whether they were left by the Norse or by Dorset people who’d traded with the Norse, it’s still a sign of a Viking presence. The artifacts in turn prompted an excavation of a stone-and-sod structure on Baffin Island.
  5. Modern Icelanders carry First Nations DNA. This is slightly weaker evidence, since the DNA could’ve entered the gene pool in the 1700s, but still.

Points 2 and 4 are about the only evidence we need, of course. The archaeological finds are extensive enough, and different enough from the local cultures, to be conclusive. The Vikings beat Columbus to the Americas by 500 years.

What gets me about this is that, well, if the Norse knew about the land west of Greenland, and they were telling people they were in contact with about it, how is the story we’re used to hearing that nobody in Europe in 1491 had any idea there was land there? Did it get forgotten between the 1370s and the 1490s? Was it discounted? Were the Spanish and Italians just not in the loop? Or is this an omission that occurred sometime after Columbus’s “discovery”, because the Columbus story was just too good? Is it is like everyone assumes that there couldn’t be sustained contact between the Norse and Inuit despite them inhabiting the same island and both using boats?

Also, what did the Scandinavians think of the whole Columbus-New World thing, and how would the world be different if the Vinland colonies had succeeded? That would be a really great story, I think.

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