Microscopic analysis of wood suggests that Norse people in Greenland were using timber that came from North America over 700 years ago. The research is further evidence that Viking sailors were making contact with the east coast of North America long before Christopher Columbus “discovered the New World" in 1492 CE.
Archaeologist Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir from the University of Iceland examined the wood from five Norse sites across western Greenland that were occupied between 1000 and 1400 CE. Looking at the cellular structure of the wood, Guðmundsdóttir noted how some of the timber came from trees that aren’t native to Greenland or even Northern Europe, such as Jack pine that’s found east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada.
“These findings highlight the fact that Norse Greenlanders had the means, knowledge, and appropriate vessels to cross the Davis Strait to the east coast of North America, at least up until the 14th century. As such, journeys were being made from Greenland to North America throughout the entirety of the period of Norse settlement in Greenland, and resources were being acquired by the Norse from North America for far longer than previously thought,” the study concludes.
With its Arctic climate and sparse landscape, Greenland was not exactly abundant in resources needed for a thriving medieval culture. According to a 13th-century Norwegian text called Konungsskuggsjá, “everything that is needed to improve the land must be purchased abroad, both iron and all the timber used in building houses.”
Historical records have long suggested that medieval Norse Greenlandic society (985–1450 CE) imported timber from the Americas, but this is some of the first scientific evidence to back up the claim. This latest study on timber suggests that these epic journeys were perhaps made with the desire to hunt for resources.
This is not the first evidence that Vikings traveled to or had contact with the Americas before Columbus though. Norwegian sagas, like Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða, for example, describe journeys between Greenland to the North American east coast as early as 1000 CE.
As for hard evidence of Norse settlements in North America, archeologists in the 1960s excavated a Viking village on the island of Newfoundland that dates to approximately 1,000 years ago. Known as the L'Anse aux Meadows, it's widely considered to be the earliest evidence of European presence in North America. Sorry, Columbus.
The study is published in the journal Antiquity.