opinion | The message that the Vikings who arrived in North America in 1021 left us in 2021 (2023)

In 1874, Rasmus B. Anderson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, publishedbookwith the extremely scathing title: "America not discovered by Columbus". In 2021, this thesis was supported by the exact date. Using state-of-the-art technology to date Newfoundland wood remains, scientists have determined, according to apaperpublished this fall that the Vikings arrived in North America at the latest in 1021. A thousand years is, conveniently, a big round number — one that invites us to ask ourselves, if only for a moment, what significance and significance we can extract from explorations. today Vikings in North America a long time ago. This is a particularly relevant question as we review last year's headlines to extract lessons and insights as we move into the next.

Even the briefest glance at the world of the Vikings reveals their intercontinental scale and reach.

In the 19th century, Anderson did not have access to the advanced scientific techniques that led to this year's discovery. Instead, he used his knowledge of Old Norse language and literature to prove that the Vikings set foot in the area known as North America in the early 11th century, 500 years before the arrival of Columbus. The main evidence in the book is drawn from two Icelandic sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red.Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, these stories describe a series of expeditions into previously unknown lands south and west of Greenland in the early 11th century.

In the 1960s, archaeological excavations in Newfoundland confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what Anderson had argued, namely that the Vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. Based on local tradition and previous work by hobbyist-enthusiasts, archaeologistsopen airAlreadyL'Anse aux Meadowsthe remains of eight structures thatreminiscent of viking ruinsof Iceland and Greenland. Then he went to digvarious objects—among them a bone needle, a whetstone, and a soapstone spindle—that proved the site belonged in Scandinavia. Although most evidence suggests that L'Anse aux Meadows was established in the late 10th or early 11th century, available dating techniques have remained imprecise.



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Fortunately, in October, an article in the journal Nature gave the date even more certain.The presence of the Vikings in North America.The study focused on three pieces of wood obtained from L'Anse aux Meadows. Each was cut with a metal tool, perhaps an axe, a technology not used by indigenous groups in the region in the 11th century. Researchers then turned their attention to dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, a field whose accuracy has greatly improved. in the last years. After identifying the unusualincident de Miyake w 993 i 994, in which spikes in the carbon-14 isotope in the atmosphere changed the appearance of tree rings from that period, the researchers looked for this distinct radiocarbon signature in the rings of their three specimens. Using this method, they calculated that the trees were felled 28 years after 993: exactly 1,000 years ago, in 1021.

In the 1,000 years since then, the history of Viking expeditions to North America has been shaped and reshaped to suit many different purposes. For Rasmus Anderson, the Vikings of the sagas had a lot to offer 19th century America. In fact, the Normans were almost proto-American. They were independent, freedom-loving explorers whose far-reaching exploits foreshadowed the immigration and westward expansion that would shape America, Anderson wrote. Of course, in the 21st century, we are or should be more sensitive than Anderson to the potentially tragic dimension of history. According to legend, the Vikings found in a place they called Vinland, an indigenous people whose descendants would be destroyed by contact with Europeans.

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However, in the first decades of the second millennium, most of that history was still in the future. Both the sagas and archaeological evidence highlight the relatively small scale and uncertain nature of Viking activity in North America. L'Anse aux Meadows could not bear more than this100 people. Most likely, the site functioned less as a permanent colony and more as a base camp for further exploration. The sagas describe successive expeditions to Vinland that failed to gain a foothold. According to the authors, this was due in part to the hostility of the indigenous people who occupied these lands and in part to internal disputes between the groups of scouts that carried out the expeditions.

These stories conveyed the message that Vinland, due to its abundant natural resources, was a dangerous place to visit. Despite these warnings, evidence from the chronicles and other sources clearly shows that, during the Middle Ages, members of the Norse colonies in Greenland, descendants of the original Viking settlers, continued to travel with some regularity to the north of what is now North America. They did this in search of wood and hunting walruses whose prey wereappreciated all over Europethen. It turns out that global supply chains are not unique to the 21st century.

Indeed, the Viking experience resembles our own in many ways worth exploring. From our point of view, in a world ordered by Covid-19, we must assess how everyday actions can have global implications. Even the briefest glance at the world of the Vikings reveals their intercontinental scale and reach. While some members of the Viking diaspora were busy harvesting timber in Newfoundland and Labrador, others tradedsilver coins beaten in islamic caliphsor serving ascoastguardto the Emperor in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). And long journeys weren't necessarily reserved for Vikings. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders,Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a member of one of the expeditions, gave birth to a son in Vinland, and then went on a pilgrimage to Rome.



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The Vikings helped cover the globe in other ways as well. People began to migrate from Africa80,000 years ago. Thanks to a study published in October, we can now say with certainty that, no later than 1021, these migrations circled the Earth. The Vikings' encounter with the indigenous peoples of North America was a kind of family reunion, a meeting of two branches of the human species, one migrating across Europe and the other migrating across Asia, separated for thousands of years. This, of course, was not appreciated at the beginning of the 11th century. The deep currents of human history went unnoticed then, as they certainly do now. If the felling of three trees in 1021 can shed light on the past that helps us understand the world in 2021, what small event, barely noticeable today, can shed light on world history in 3021?


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Joel D. Anderson

Joel D. Anderson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maine.


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