For centuries, Norse lore told of how the Vikings made landfall in the Americas sometime around the turn of the first millennium, hundreds of years before Columbus reached the Bahamas. New findings released on Wednesday, October 20, put a timestamp on Viking presence in North America—exactly a thousand years ago at the northern tip of Newfoundland.
Epic sagas chronicled the expeditions of Leif Eriksson and other Transatlantic crossers who had accidentally arrived on the North American Atlantic coast. For a long time, there was no definitive confirmation of these legends. But in 1960, a Norwegian couple, both archaeologists, unearthed the foundations of eight large houses in a village called L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Their findings verified that the Vikings had settled in the Americas long before Columbus’s passage and shed light on their lifestyles for the short period of their stay.
Still, the breakthrough left scholars with more questions than answers. They scratched their heads over why these Vikings had ventured to make such a treacherous voyage, whether there were other Viking settlements, and why they left just decades after they arrived. Although they knew the village was inhabited sometime between the late eighth and 11th centuries by radiocarbon dating artifacts found at the site, they had no way to get a more precise approximation.
Now, thanks to the pioneering work of a team of scientists and archaeologists, we know that the Vikings were physically present at L’Anse aux Meadows one thousand years ago, in 1021 CE. According to a study published in Nature, they employed a relatively novel technique to date the settlement, which rested on counting the years that had passed since a cosmic radiation event in 993 CE. Such circumstances are extremely unusual — only five have been discovered in total — and lead to spikes in the production of carbon-14 in the atmosphere.
On each of three wood artifacts cut from different trees with a metal object by Vikings, researchers were able to locate a ring that had grown in the year of the solar storm. From that ring, they counted outward until they hit the outermost ring. For every piece of wood, the number they got was 28 — dating them to 1021.
“The fact that our results, on three different trees, converge on the same year is notable and unexpected,” the study’s authors noted. “This coincidence strongly suggests Norse activity at L’Anse aux Meadows in AD 1021,” they concluded.
“This is the first clear evidence of Europeans arriving in North America,” Sturt Manning, a professor of archaeology at Cornell University, told NBC News.
Norse sagas indicate that L’Anse aux Meadows was intended as a waystation for Viking explorers who visited Newfoundland. Up to six expeditions may have taken place, but the Vikings eventually deserted the settlement. Icelandic mythology suggests that internal disputes and clashes with Indigenous people in the region compelled the Norse to leave North America for good.
The study affirms that cosmic-ray events can be used for “pinpointing the ages of past migrations and cultural interactions” in “many other archaeological and environmental contexts,” the researchers wrote.
Co-author Michael Dee told Hyperallergic that, in particular, the method might resolve mysteries surrounding the exact dates for events that took place in ancient civilizations. In ancient Egypt, for instance, historical records follow internally consistent “floating chronologies,” which reference the reigns of pharaohs, but these time markers have not been conclusively matched to absolute dates. To take one example, we still don’t know exactly when the Egyptian pyramids were constructed.
“If we could fix the whole chronology of that period of Egyptian history, we could compare it with other civilizations they were contemporary with and start to really look at global history at any time,” Dee said. “This would kind of be my dream.”