• Tastes Of History

Norse America

In our post ‘Dispelling Some Myths: Romans in the Americas’ we attempted to disprove a ‘theory’ that the ancient Romans had contact with South America which stems from the misidentification of a ‘pineapple’ in an early 1st-century AD Roman mosaic. Put simply, the Romans had no idea that the Americas existed and nor did they have the seafaring technology to safely navigate the Atlantic Ocean. We concluded that any suggestion of links between pineapples, Romans and the Americas is simply wishful thinking. But who were the first Europeans to reach the Americas?

Viking explorers From raiders to traders to explorers, the people popularly called the Vikings [1] did not stop at settling in Britain. Exploring westwards, the Norwegians established settlements in the Orkneys, mainland Scotland, and the Western Isles. Between AD 800 and AD 1300, for example, they established one of their first settlements at Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands. Some sailed even further West to Iceland, which was an uninhabited island at the beginning of the Viking age. We even have a good idea when they arrived as scientists have dated a layer of volcanic sediment on the island to AD 872. Below this layer there is no evidence of human activity so it stands to reason that the first settlers must have arrived sometime in the late 9th-century after AD 872. But here’s an odd thought. Iceland would not exist as a nation today if its settlers had not included women, some of whom were born in the British Isles rather than in Scandinavia.


Aud the Deep-Minded While most of the settlers recorded in the Mediæval Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) are men, thirteen women are named as having made the journey in an open ship to claim land in Iceland. The most famous of these is Aud the Deep-Minded, who is celebrated in the Laxdæla saga for her achievements in moving her whole household from Scotland to Iceland, via Orkney and the Faroes.

Move over Christopher Columbus Perhaps encouraged by the more adventurous longship captains, and the prospect on enriching themselves, some Vikings sailed even further West to an even colder, icier place which, in a truly inspired marketing ploy, they called ‘Greenland’. Regardless, the settlement in Greenland provided a springboard to further exploration westward. Beginning in the late 10th-century AD Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the north-eastern fringes of North America. Evidence for the Norse colonization is corroborated by the remains of Norse buildings found at L'Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada in 1960 - some 4,500 miles from Norway. In October 2021 the BBC reported that, using an atmospheric radiocarbon signal produced by a dated solar storm as a reference, scientists had revealed the ‘exact felling year of [a] tree’ cut for the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows to AD 1021.

While the Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years the only confirmed Norse site in present-day Canada, L'Anse aux Meadows, was small and did not last as long. It is unclear why the short-term settlements did not become permanent, though it was likely in part because of hostile relations with the indigenous peoples [2], referred to as the ‘Skræling’ by the Norse. Nevertheless, it appears that sporadic foraging voyages and trade with the locals may have lasted for as long as 400 years.

 

Endnotes:


1. To call these people 'Vikings' is slightly misleading as the name does not really describe the distinct tribes, groups or communities of the Early Mediæval Period. It is also not a name that contemporary accounts or chroniclers used. You can find out more here.

2. In North America, the indigenous populations are known as Native Americans in the USA and the First Nation in Canada. Somehow the latter term seems preferable as it acknowledges who first inhabited the land and that those people had a developed notion of nationhood.


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