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1000 years of Europeans in America

Mannheim researchers, as part of an international team, date the earliest activity of Europeans in the Americas for the first time.

Vikings were already active in North America in 1021 AD. This is shown by a study carried out by an international team of researchers with the participation of the Curt Engelhorn Centre for Archaeometry in Mannheim. This is the earliest and first precisely known date on which Europeans are known to have been in America before the arrival of Columbus in 1492 AD.

Pic. 1: Piece of wood Black Duck Brook, Photo: M. Kuitems

The Vikings sailed great distances in their iconic longships. In the west, they founded settlements in Iceland, Greenland and finally in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. However, it has remained unclear when these first transatlantic activities took place. Now scientists led by the University of Groningen have shown that Europeans were in the Americas as early as 1021 AD. This date now marks the earliest known time when the Atlantic Ocean was crossed and human migration eventually spanned the entire planet.

Previous attempts to date the presence of the Vikings in America have relied heavily on Icelandic sagas. These stories, which were initially passed down orally, were only written down centuries after the events they recount and therefore cannot be used to determine an exact age. Although the sagas are contradictory and sometimes fantastical, they also suggest that there were both violent and friendly encounters between the Europeans.

For a scientifically based age determination, the scientists used pieces of wood from three trees from archaeological contexts in Canada that can be attributed to the Vikings. All three pieces of wood showed clear traces of cuts with metal blades – a material that was not produced by the indigenous population.

A magazine with 14C samples at the sample lock of the AMS accelerator, Photo: CEZA, R. Mager

The exact year could be determined because a massive solar storm occurred in 992 AD, which produced a clear signal in the radiocarbon (14C) of the tree rings of the following year. The significant increase in radiocarbon production between 992 and 993 AD can be detected in tree-ring archives around the world and can therefore be used for high-precision dating. Each of the three wooden objects showed this signal 29 growth rings (years) before the outer tree bark and allows the conclusion that the felling of the trees took place in 1021 AD. Exactly 1000 years before today.