Scientists Confirm Viking Settlement in Canada 1,000 Years Ago

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Many of us grew up hearing the tale of Columbus and his discovery of the “New World.” Never mind there were already people living there, it was new to Europeans at least. But was it? For decades, archaeologists have been poring over an ancient Viking settlement in Canada, but a firm accounting of its age has remained elusive until now. As reported by Gizmodo, researchers used cosmic rays analysis to date the site to exactly 1,000 years ago, hundreds of years before that Italian guy set foot in the Americas in 1492. 

We now know that Vikings landed in Newfoundland at some point in the early 11th century. They founded a settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows (see above). The site is relatively small, and there are no buried Viking remains. That suggests that L’Anse aux Meadows was only used for a short time, possibly as Vikings explored the American coast in search of resources to bring back to Greenland. Still, they lived at L’Anse aux Meadows long enough to leave evidence for us. The evidence that finally cracked the case was what most would consider trash: wood chips. 

Researchers used three wood chips to divine a date for L’Anse aux Meadows. All three came from different trees, and are probably the result of building activities at the site. Microscopic examination of the chips showed they were hewn by metal tools, which indigenous people in the region would not have had. 

With the wood fragments in hand, the team from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands had to accurately date them. Carbon dating is a common tool for determining age, but it can produce a wide date range. For very old things, that’s not a problem. When used to try to date a human settlement that may only be a few hundred years old, it’s a different matter. Luckily, there was a peculiar change in atmospheric carbon in the late 10th century. A massive solar storm in 993 CE left a distinct radiocarbon signature in tree rings around the globe. 

A fragment of wood from the site used to arrive at a date.

The team was able to find the 993 ring using radiocarbon analysis, and then it was a simple matter of counting the rings outward to find out when the trees were chopped down. The result was 1021 CE — exactly 1,000 years ago. All three pieces of wood confirm that date, too. There’s no longer any doubt about it. Vikings were the first American explorers from Europe, though they did not build any permanent colonies. 

Researchers estimate there were about 100 people living at L’Anse aux Meadows at its peak. What became of them is unknown, but the presence of plant species from the southern US suggests they really got around. Scientists hope that future evidence could point the way to more former Viking sites in the Americas.

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