In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, the poem goes, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But, says a new study, by the year ten twenty-one, European settlement in North America had already begun.
It’s well-known by now that Christopher Columbus was beaten to the Americas by a few centuries – the Vikings got to Newfoundland around the turn of the millennium and, of course, Native Americans have them both beat by at least 20,000 years. But beyond the general timestamp of “Norse,” details of when the first Europeans set foot on American soil have been sketchy, with archaeological artifacts providing too little evidence, and carbon dating providing too much. Most estimates have relied heavily on information gleaned from Icelandic sagas, but since these were only written down centuries after the fact and talk about things like glittery one-footed assassins, researchers have wisely taken them with a grain of salt.
But the new study, published today in the journal Nature, has pinpointed the Viking presence in North America to an exact year: 1021 CE. This date now stands as the earliest known crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – and, the researchers note, means we’re currently living exactly 1,000 years after human migration is first known to have encircled the entire planet.
“Vikings were present in Newfoundland in AD 1021,” confirms the study. “Our new date lays down a marker for European cognizance of the Americas, and … provides a definitive tie point for future research into the initial consequences of transatlantic activity, such as the transference of knowledge, and the potential exchange of genetic information, biota, and pathologies.”
But how did the researchers find such an exact date? This is one of those discoveries where the methodology is just as interesting as the result – it all comes down to a massive solar storm that occurred in 992 CE. The sky turned red, the aurora borealis was seen as far South as Germany, and a distinct radiocarbon signature turned up inside trees across the planet.
“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,” said Michael Dee, director of the research. If they could see this uplift in wooden artifacts from the Newfoundland archaeological site L’Anse aux Meadows, the authors explained, they would have a concrete reference point from which to date the Viking presence.
The team located this anomaly 29 rings in from the edge in three wooden artifacts, known to be Viking due to their location and evidence of being cut with metal – the local Indigenous population didn’t manufacture metal at the time. That means the trees used for the artifacts were cut down in 1021 CE, the study explains, since “once the ring that contains the [992 AD] anomaly has been detected, it simply becomes a matter of counting the number of rings to the waney [bark] edge.” 992 + 29 = 1021 – QED.
“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,” said first author Margot Kuitems.
Although the discovery establishes that the Vikings had made it to Newfoundland by 1021, evidence so far suggests that they did not settle in the new continent. Unlike later colonizers, European explorers at the time were often more interested in quick exploitation of new lands, and the settlements in “Vinland”, as the Vikings' knew North America, were most likely transient and short-lived.
Nevertheless, the finding is significant, the study confirms, as the date “offers a secure juncture for late Viking chronology.” But more than that, they say, it sets an important precedent – one that paves the way for further discovery.
“[Our] research demonstrates the potential of the AD 993 anomaly … for pinpointing the ages of past migrations and cultural interactions,” the study concludes. “Together with other cosmic-ray events, this distinctive feature will allow for the exact dating of many other archaeological and environmental contexts.”