Tag Archives: americas

Off-cuts of wood show Vikings were settled in America one thousand years ago

Several wooden items discovered at an archaeological site in Newfoundland, Canada, paint an exciting picture: Vikings were on these shores in AD 1021, one thousand years ago. This would be the earliest known human crossing of the Atlantic in history, preceding Columbus’ discovery of the Americas by over 450 years.

Aerial image of a reconstructed Viking-Age building adjacent to the L’Anse aux Meadows site. Image credits Glenn Nagel Photography.

It isn’t exactly news that the Vikings reached the Americas before European explorers officially ‘discovered’ it. To the best of our knowledge, these Scandinavian explorers settled at a site known as L’Anse aux Meadows in what is today the Newfoundland peninsula. We know this was happening as early as the first millennium BC, but we didn’t have a precise date as to when.

New research, however, comes to give us a reliable estimation of when the first Europeans reached and settled these shores.

One man’s trash…

“The artefacts are not ‘display pieces’ or ‘works of art’ in any sense. They are actually just off-cuts of wood. Pieces of wood that were discarded by the Vikings,” explained Prof. Dr. Michael Dee, Associate Professor of Isotope Chronology at the University of Groningen and corresponding author of the paper, for ZME Science in an email. “The wood ended up in a nearby bog and the conditions in that bog were very good for the preservation of organic material. That is how they have survived until today.”

These pieces of wood were identified as having belonged to Vikings based on their location within the settlement, and by evidence on their surface of being processed using metal tools. Indigenous people living in America at the time did not have knowledge of metalwork, making this a very reliable indication of the artifacts’ origins.

The authors analyzed these pieces of wood found at the L’Anse aux Meadows site using carbon-dating (or ‘radiocarbon dating’) techniques. While this type of analysis cannot reveal when the timber was processed, it can tell us when the original trees were first cut down. While organisms such as plants live, they take in carbon from their environment. When they die or are cut down, this process stops. By analyzing the ratio of carbon isotopes in a sample of organic tissue, and then comparing it to a lot of historical references, researchers can estimate with pretty good accuracy when the processes stopped. More on carbon dating here.

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

What allowed the team to reach such an accurate result in the case of these pieces of wood were “sudden increases [in the production of the 14C isotope] caused by cosmic radiation events”. This increase has been documented occurring “synchronously in dendrochronological records all around the world”, and is thus a very well-established and reliable event by which to date the pieces of wood. The particular marker they used here was a shift in the ratio of atmospheric carbon isotopes caused by a cosmic-ray event in AD 993.

I asked Dr. Dee what the most exciting moment of performing this research was for him, and he told me:

“Well it was pretty amazing to measure the isotope concentrations of lots and lots of tree-rings from, ultimately, three different pieces of wood from three different trees to discover they were all cut down in exactly the same year — and that year was exactly one millennium ago!”

According to the team, these results place the year AD 1021 as the new timeline for when Europe and the Americas first came into contact.

“We provide the earliest date for Europeans in the Americas. Indeed it is the only date for Europeans in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus — some 471 years later. This date also represents the first time in all of human history that the Atlantic Ocean was crossed — and humanity had travelled all the way around the globe. We think this in itself has particular significance.”

Beyond the value of these findings for historians, the paper also showcases how cosmic-ray events, despite being something completely removed from archaeology or the goings-on on planet Earth, can be used as reference points to date historical events.

The paper “Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021” has been published in the journal Nature.

Archeologists may have figured out why American rabbits were never domesticated

Although the Americas have many native rabbit species, they were never domesticated. Europe only has one native species of rabbits, and this one was domesticated. Archeologists at Iowa State University and the University of California Riverside say they might have found the explanation.

The bones of two rabbits found in the stomach of an eagle sacrificed at the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Image credits Nawa Sugiyama / UCR.

Rabbits — furry fuzzy little creatures that taste pretty good. And, although they taste pretty good everywhere, the original inhabitants of the Americas didn’t seem to ever truly domesticate them, whereas Europeans did. This disparity is made all the more intriguing as all European breeds of rabbit today were bred from a single species, originally limited to the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France during the last Ice Age. The Americas, in contrast, are home to many more native species of rabbit.

A new paper proposes that it comes down to how the animals interact. European rabbits are more social, they explain, whereas American cottontails are not. Together with the greater rabbit species diversity in the New World, this meant that early rabbit husbandry didn’t successfully domesticate the animals.

Not fun at parties

Andrew Somerville of Iowa State University and Nawa Sugiyama of UC Riverside have spent a lot of time trying to understand why some rabbits were readily domesticated, while others were not. Sugiyama primarily worked at Teotihuacan, one of the largest ancient cities in today’s Mexico. Here, he explains, rabbit remains comprise around 23% of all animal remains found from the Classic period — more than the remains of any other species used for meat at the site. The bones were concentrated more toward the city center, he adds, which suggests that the animals were being raised, not hunted.

Analysis of the remains further supports this view. Samples were taken from rabbits buried at the Sun and Moon Pyramids, and from specimens found in the stomachs of sacrificial carnivores. Isotope analysis revealed that these rabbits primarily ate corn and cactus, both to a much higher percentage than you’d expect in wild rabbits. It fits with the theory that these rabbits were raised by humans and, in turn, used to feed sacrificial animals.

“The rabbits were probably fed corn, but the carbon isotopes don’t distinguish between corn and cactus, so we can’t say for certain,” Sugiyama said.

One apartment compound excavated at the site had high amounts of phosphate on the floor, littered with animal bones. Almost half of the bones here came from rabbits that had been fed similar diets, mostly agricultural grains. The high level of phosphate on the floor suggests the animals were kept here, as phosphate is excreted through urine. A stone statue of a rabbit found in the central plaza of the complex made interpreting the finding that much easier.

But we know from historical records that rabbits in the Aztec empire were not domesticated — the Spanish conquistadors confirmed this. They recounted the Aztecs raising and trading the animals, but note that they were still wild. To understand why, Somerville compared the behavioral ecology of European rabbits and American cottontails with known criteria that make species suited to domestication efforts. A few among these include living in groups with resident males, having youths that require parental care and imprint easily, low reactivity to humans, tolerance for a wide range of environments, and being quite promiscuous.

Rabbits in America and Europe check all those marks, except social behavior for those in the Americas. Where European rabbits live in warrens housing up to 20 individuals, American cottontails are solitary and live entirely above ground. For the former, this made it easier for people to find the animals in the wild and mimic their natural living arrangement in captivity. Since they’re not natively social, cottontails tend to fight and kill one another in captivity.

The team proposes that the solitary nature of the cottontails is what prevented them from becoming domesticated in the real sense of the word. Greater species diversity also helped in this regard, as husbandry efforts were diluted among different species instead of pooled into a single one.

The paper “Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?” has been published in the journal Animal Frontiers.