Stuff of legends

Viking discovery changes history and supports ancient lore

New research helps substantiate the Icelandic Sagas.

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Viking boat
Getty Images

Cosmic synergy, the concept of universal forces interacting and giving rise to a greater whole, is rare enough and fantastical enough to be the stuff of legends, not science.

But consider this: In 992 A.D., there was a cosmic ray event, a moment where high-energy particles entered the atmosphere and collided with atoms, causing an upsurge in atmospheric carbon. Tree-rings collected worldwide and housed today in archives share a distinct radiocarbon signal linked to the ensuing solar storm.

Meanwhile, Vikings used other cosmic forces — the Sun and stars — to navigate longships to new lands. They harvested the trees of L'Anse aux Meadows and built a life. Their adventures were chronicled and became legend. One thousand years later, scientists would extract wooden fragments from the earth and use new technology to detect those cosmic ray signals, revealing the earliest presence of Europeans in the Americas.

That is some synergy.

A reconstruction of a Viking settlement adjacent to the L’Anse aux Meadows site.

Glenn Nagel Photography

In a study released Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists describe this process and how it led to the finding that Vikings were present in Newfoundland in 1021 A.D. Their study of the radiocarbon concentrations caused by that cosmic ray event allowed them to “overcome the imprecision of previous age estimates,” they write. This new date also represents the first known point at which human migration reached a full circle around the globe.

Co-author Michael Dee, a professor of isotope chronology at the University of Groningen, tells Inverse coming to this conclusion was “a long hard road,” made easier by the support of his expert colleagues.

“Sometimes when I get a quiet second to myself, I am very proud of what we have achieved,” Dee says, “and the thought that this may be a fact that endures for a considerable period of time.”

How the discovery was made — L’Anse aux Meadows sits on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland island, which juts out from eastern Canada. It is the only confirmed Norse site in the Americas and is suspected of being a base camp established for further exploration.

The precise age of the site has never been scientifically established, though analysis of architectural remains and interpretation of Viking legends suggested a date close to the year 1000 A.D.

Microscopic image of one of the wood fragments extracted and analyzed.

Petra Doeve

This study is the first to scientifically prove the earliest evidence of Europeans in the Americas, through its analysis of wooden artifacts found at the L’Anse aux Medows site.

Using the cosmic radiation event as an absolute time marker, Dee and colleagues used a technique called high-precision accelerator mass spectrometry to determine the age of the wooden fragments. Once the 993 A.D. anomaly is detected (the signal is present the year after the cosmic ray event happened), “it simply becomes a matter of counting the number of rings to the waney edge” to “determine the exact felling year of the tree,” the team writes.

How the wood objects analyzed look today.

Dee et. al./Nature

Meanwhile, there are two other reasons why the team is confident Vikings handled these wooden objects and not the people belonging to the three Indigenous groups of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Inuit, the Innu, and the Mi’kmaq.

  1. They were obtained from the layers at L’Anse aux Medoxs archaeologically attributed to the Vikings. These layers also include definitively Viking artifacts, like nails, needles, pieces of brass, and whorls of a Norse design, Dee says.
  2. They all “contain clean-cut marks and slices that could have only been made by metal blades,” Dee says. At the time, the local Indigenous people of the region did not manufacture metal, but the Vikings did.

Sagas and science — This study also helps substantiate the Icelandic Sagas, epic Viking tales like The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders.

“It is approximately consistent with the dates people obtain by analyzing the Sagas,” Dee explains. “These stories were originally oral histories, written down centuries after the events they describe, but they tell all sorts of adventures by Viking people in the Americas, including their interactions with the local Indigenous peoples.”

A painting depicting Viking sailors voyaging to the Americas.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Seen as both fantastical, sometimes contradictory, and at times, factual, historians have used the Sagas to try to understand what happened when the Vikings came to the Americas. Dee says this new date “in some ways lends support to the veracity of these events.”

But it also spurs new questions. “Our date is perhaps 20-plus years later than most Saga experts would expect,” Dee says.

“Does this mean the Vikings were in the Americas for 20 years? Does it mean they were only there for one year, 20 years later than expected? Or does it mean they came and went for 20 years?”

All they can say scientifically, Dee explains, is that the Vikings were active in the Americas in 1021 A.D.

What comes next — The study team argues their work illustrates the value in using cosmic-ray events and their ensuing signal points as a way to date artifacts, environmental events, and cultural moments.

They also reason this study provides a “definitive point for future research into the initial consequences of the transatlantic activity.” Now that we know exactly when it all began, we can better understand the circumstances around the ensuing exchange of information, genetics, and pathologies.

There’s also more work to be done in understanding the Vikings. Dee says more discoveries are waiting at the L’Anse aux Meadows site — and beyond. “Because the Vikings made a lot of use of wood, their settlements all across the North Atlantic — and elsewhere — are prime candidates for this precise dating method,” he says.

Abstract: Transatlantic contact took place centuries before the crossing of Columbus. Physical evidence for early European presence in the Americas can be found in Newfoundland, Canada. However, it has thus far not been possible to determine when this activity took place. Here we provide evidence that the Vikings were present in Newfoundland in AD 1021. We overcome the imprecision of previous age estimates by making use of the cosmic-ray-induced upsurge in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations in AD 993 (ref. 6). Our new date lays down a marker for European cognizance of the Americas and represents the first known point at which humans encircled the globe. It also 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.

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