The poem claims that Columbus first sailed the ocean blue in 1492. However, a recent study claims that by the year 1021, European settlement in North America had already started.

The fact that the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland at the turn of the millennium and that Native Americans had them beaten by at least 20,000 years means that Christopher Columbus was only a few centuries late to the Americas. Nevertheless, beyond the “Norse” timestamp, little is known about the precise moment the first Europeans stepped foot in North America. Carbon dating offers too much information, while archaeological artifacts offer insufficient proof. The majority of estimations have mainly depended on data derived from Icelandic sagas. Still, as they were only recorded centuries after the fact and discuss things like sparkling one-footed assassins, academics have rightly taken them with a grain of salt.

However, the new research released today in Nature has identified 1021 CE as the precise year of the Viking presence in North America. We are currently living exactly 1,000 years after the first time that human migration is known to have circled the entire planet. The researchers observe that this date now stands as the earliest known crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Viking artifacts have been found at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The Norse explorers would have lived in settlements like this, a reconstruction at the historical site. Credit: Glenn Nagel Photography


“Vikings were present in Newfoundland in AD 1021,” confirms the study. “Our new date lays down a marker for European cognizance of the Americas and 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.”

But how did the scientists come up with such a precise date? It all boils down to a significant solar storm that took place in 992 CE, and this is one of those discoveries where the technique is equally as fascinating as the finding. A specific radiocarbon signal was discovered inside trees worldwide, and the sky turned red. The aurora borealis could be observed as far south as Germany.

Microscope image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L’Anse aux Meadows. Image credit: Petra Doeve

“The distinct uplift in radiocarbon production that occurred between 992 and 993 AD has been detected in tree-ring archives from all over the world,” said Michael Dee, the research director. The authors indicated they would have a specific benchmark from which to date the Viking presence if they could detect this increase in wooden artifacts from the Newfoundland archaeological site L’Anse aux Meadows.

The scientists discovered this aberration 29 rings in from the edge in three wooden artifacts, which were identified as Viking in origin because of their location and metal cutting marks. Metal was not produced locally during the period. That means the trees used for the artifacts were cut down in 1021 CE, the study explains, since “once the ring that contains the [992 AD] anomaly has been detected, it simply becomes a matter of counting the number of rings to the waney [bark] edge.” 992 + 29 = 1021 – QED.

“Finding the signal from the solar storm 29 growth rings in from the bark allowed us to conclude that the cutting activity took place in 1021 AD,” said first author Margot Kuitems.

Even though the discovery proves that the Vikings reached Newfoundland by 1021, the evidence so far points to the fact that they did not establish a permanent settlement on the continent. The settlements in “Vinland,” as the Vikings knew North America, were probably temporary and short-lived because European explorers at the period, unlike later colonizers, were frequently more interested in quickly exploiting new areas.

Nevertheless, the study affirms that the discovery is important because the time “offers a secure juncture for late Viking chronology.” More importantly, they assert that it establishes a precedent that opens the door to further research.

“Research demonstrates the potential of the AD 993 anomaly for pinpointing the ages of past migrations and cultural interactions,” the study concludes. “Together with other cosmic-ray events, this distinctive feature will allow for the exact dating of many other archaeological and environmental contexts.”

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