Vikings discovered America 470 years before Columbus

A re-enactment group on a replica Viking long boat. (Credits:
A re-enactment group on a replica Viking long boat. (Credits:

Vikings landed in America a thousand years ago – at least 471 years before Christopher Columbus, according to a new study.

Italian-born explorer Columbus was for many years credited with being the first European to land in America during his voyage of 1492.

However, evidence has slowly emerged that Vikings got there centuries earlier, although exactly when has remained unclear.

Now an international team of scientists has now shown that Europeans were already active in the Americas as early as 1021 AD.

Historians know that the Vikings undertook epic voyages in their iconic longships. To the west, they established settlements in Iceland, Greenland and eventually a base at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

However, it has remained unclear when this first transatlantic activity took place.

Now, scientists have shown show that Europeans were present in the Americas in 1021 AD – exactly 1,000 years ago.

The date also marks the earliest known point by which the Atlantic had been crossed, and human migration had finally encircled the entire planet.

In the new study, published in the journal Nature, the chopping of wood by Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows was dated to exactly the year 1021 AD.

The three pieces of wood studied, from three different trees, all came from contexts archaeologically attributable to the Vikings.

A microscope image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L'Anse aux Meadows. (Credits: Petra Doeve / SWNS)
A microscope image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L’Anse aux Meadows. (Credits: Petra Doeve / SWNS)

Each piece of wood also displayed ‘clear evidence’ of cutting and slicing by blades made of metal – a material not produced by the indigenous population.

The exact year was determinable because a massive solar storm occurred in 992 AD that produced a distinct radiocarbon signal in tree rings from the following year.

Research director Associate Professor Michael Dee, of the University of Groningen in Holland, said: ‘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.’

He explained that each of the three wooden objects exhibited this signal 29 growth rings before the bark edge.

Dr Kuitems preparing samples at the radiocarbon facility at the Centre of Isotope Research (Credits: Ronald Zijlstra fotografie /SWNS)
Dr Kuitems preparing samples at the radiocarbon facility at the Centre of Isotope Research (Credits: Ronald Zijlstra fotografie /SWNS)

Study first author Dr Margot Kuitems, also of the University of Groningen, said: ‘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 the year 1021 AD.’

The researchers say that the number of Viking expeditions to the Americas, and the duration of their stay over the Atlantic, remain unknown.

All current data suggest that the whole endeavour was ‘somewhat short lived’ – and the cultural and ecological legacy of the first European activity in the Americas is likely to have been small.

However, botanical evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows has confirmed that the Vikings did explore lands further south than Newfoundland.

Dr Kuitems said: ‘1021 AD is the earliest year in which European presence in the Americas can be scientifically proven.

‘Previous dates for the Viking presence in the Americas have relied heavily on the Icelandic Sagas. However, these began as oral histories and were only written down centuries after the events they describe.

The state-of-the-art mini radiocarbon dating system (MICADAS) (Credits: Ronald Zijlstra fotografie /SWNS)
The state-of-the-art mini radiocarbon dating system (MICADAS) (Credits: Ronald Zijlstra fotografie /SWNS)

‘Whilst contradictory and at times fantastical, the Sagas also suggest encounters occurred, both violent and amiable, between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the region. However, little archaeological evidence has been uncovered to support such exchanges.’

She added: ‘Other medieval accounts also exist, which imply prominent figures on the European mainland were made aware the Vikings had made landfall across the Atlantic.’

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