Vikings inhabited North America exactly 1,000 years ago, a new study finds.
Counting tree rings reveals that wooden objects previously found at an archaeological site on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula were made from trees felled in the year 1021. That’s the oldest precise date for Europeans in the Americas and the only one from before Christopher Columbus’ voyages in 1492, geoscientists Margot Kuitems and Michael Dee and colleagues report October 20 in Nature.
Researchers have assumed that Norse Vikings built and lived at the site, called L’Anse aux Meadows, roughly 1,000 years ago. But earlier attempts to more precisely date the settlement, which included three dwellings and other structures made of timber and turf and is now a UNESCO historic site, were inconclusive. Evidence of a possible second Viking settlement in Newfoundland from around 1,000 years ago remains preliminary (SN: 4/1/16).
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The new study focused on four wooden objects found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which was first excavated in the 1960s. It’s not clear how the objects were used, but each had been cut with metal tools. On three of the finds, Kuitems and Dee, both of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and their team identified an annual tree growth ring that displayed a signature spike in radiocarbon levels. Other researchers have dated that spike to the year 993, when a surge of cosmic rays from solar activity bombarded Earth and increased the planet’s atmospheric levels of radioactive carbon.
Counting growth rings out to the edge of each wooden object starting at the year 993 ring yielded the same age — 1021.
Despite its precision, that date leaves unanswered when Vikings first set foot in the Americas. L’Anse aux Meadows might have been part of Vinland, a region in what’s now eastern Canada that is described in 13th century Icelandic texts as having been settled by Vikings.