Tag Archives: Vikings

The Vikings (and their mice) were the first to reach these idyllic Portuguese islands

If you were living in the cold and rugged landscapes of medieval Scandinavia, exploring other places probably sounded like a good idea. Especially if it’s a place like the Azores — an archipelago of nine inviting islands in the middle Atlantic, some 1400 km (860 m) from Portugal’s coastline.

According to a new study, Viking explorers did just that: they reached the Azores centuries before Portuguese explorers. When the Portuguese came, they didn’t find any traces of the Vikings, but a new study detected “unambiguous” evidence that the Vikings were indeed the first on the islands.

Image credits: Martin Munk.

In 1427, a Portuguese navigator set foot on an uninhabited, idyllic island. With its lush cliffs, beautiful beaches, and deep blue waters, the island must have been a sight to behold. We’re not really sure what the explorer’s name was — he is only known from a reference on a chart drawn by a Catalan cartographer in 1439, and the map was marred by an inkwell accident in 1869 that partially smudged the explorer’s name.

Historians suspect that his name was either Diogo de Sunis or Diogo de Silves — but whatever it was, he must have thought he discovered a new part of a previously unknown land. Later Portuguese explorers confirmed his finding and revealed it to be a part of the Azores archipelago, nine volcanic islands.

Nowadays, the Azores islands are as dramatic as ever, but they’ve been settled by the Portuguese for centuries. However, some researchers suspected that this may not be the whole story. Particularly, that someone (Vikings) was on the island before the 15th century.

But since there was no archaeological evidence (that was found yet, at least) to support that idea, they had to look for evidence in other places.

In 2015, a study found some evidence in the unlikeliest of places: mice. The study noted intriguing genetic similarities between mice in the Azores and in Northern Europe. But as tantalizing as this evidence was, it was insufficient to draw any clear conclusions. Now, the needed evidence may have finally been discovered.

An old map of the Azores islands.

Around a decade ago, Pedro Raposeiro, an ecologist at the University of the Azores, Ponta Delgada wanted to explore the Azores’ climate by analyzing sediment cores from lakebeds across the archipelago. This is a common approach used by many climate scientists, and the layers of sediment from the cores can be dated pretty accurately.

But in addition to climate information, researchers also found signs of human disturbance: pollen from non-native crops that explorers would have brought along and spores from fungi that grow on livestock dung. This was not surprising — but what was surprising was that these traces extended all the way back to 700 years before the Portuguese settled on the Azores.

In one particular layer, that was dated to AD700-850, researchers found clear signs of human activity: an increase in charcoal particles, a dip in the pollen of native trees, and a compound (5-beta-stigmastanol) that is found in the feces of animals such as cows and sheep. This suggests that some of the island’s trees were being cut down and burned, presumably to make way for pastures.

Similar signs were found in a layer dated to 100 years later, as well as in layers dated to 1150 and 1300 respectively.

“The occupation of these islands began between 700 and 850 CE, 700 years earlier than suggested by documentary sources. These early occupations caused widespread ecological and landscape disturbance and raise doubts about the islands’ presumed pristine nature during Portuguese arrival,” the researchers write in the study.

The Azores.

The team adds that the Norse were likely the ones who first set foot on the Azores. They were among the few who had the technology to reach the islands (or perhaps the only ones), and by the 8th century, various areas in Europe noted that they were reached (and attacked) by Norse seafarers. While there’s no smoking gun pointing to the Vikings, they are the most likely culprits.

“These results are consistent with recent archaeological and genetic data suggesting that the Norse were most likely the earliest settlers on the islands.”

So what happened to them? When the Portuguese arrived in the Azores, they described the islands as “pristine” and said they found no trace of anyone, so the previous settlers had already left for some time, for reasons that are not entirely clear. That’s a story for another time.

The study was published in PNAS.

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.

A Milanese friar mentions North America in 1345 text, 150 years before Columbus

Despite pervasive myths, Cristopher Columbus was not the first European to discover and explore North America. We know from the Sagas of Icelanders, confirmed by archaeological evidence, that Vikings traveled from Scandinavia to Newfoundland via Greenland from around 999 AD. Some more informed Europeans, including perhaps Columbus himself, weren’t oblivious to this fact.

Painting depicting Vikings landing in North America. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In a new study, Paolo Chiesa of the department of literary studies at the University of Milan has documented the first written mention of America in the Mediterranean area. The researcher was stunned to come across a reference to a “terra que dicitur Marckalada,” found west from Greenland, in the work called Cronica universalis written by the Milanese friar Galvaneus Flamma in 1345.

“Galvaneus’s reference, probably derived by oral sources heard in Genoa, is the first mention of the American continent in the Mediterranean region, and gives evidence of the circulation (out of the Nordic area and 150 years before Columbus) of narratives about lands beyond Greenland,” Chiesa wrote in the study published in the Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Marckalada refers to Markland, the name Icelandic sources give to a part of the Atlantic coast of North America. The mention of Markland occurs in the third book, which discusses the third age of humankind from Abraham to David. At one point, the Middle Age author “inserts a long geographical excursus, mainly dealing with exotic areas: the Far East, Arctic lands, Oceanic islands, Africa,” Chiesa says.

In his texts, the Milanese friar employs a variety of sources, ranging from biblical to scholarly treatises, including the accounts of travelers the likes of Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone. Galvaneus ascribed his description of Markland to the oral testimony of sailors who traveled the seas of Denmark and Norway, which was most likely passed down to the friar by seafarers in Genoa. The port of Genoa was the nearest to Milan and was the city where the medieval scholar studied for his doctorate.

The full-text mentioning Markland, what we now know as North America, was translated from Latin to English and reads as follows:

“Further northwards there is the Ocean, a sea with many islands where a great quantity of peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons live. These islands are located so far north that the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. Sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland; further ahead there is an island named Grolandia, where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. The governor of this island is a bishop. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish. They dwell in subterranean houses and do not venture to speak loudly or to make any noise, for fear that wild animals hear and devour them. There live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore. There live white falcons capable of great flights, which are sent to the emperor of Katai. Further westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.

“From all these facts it is clear that there are settlements at the Arctic pole.”

Navigation routes Vikings took to reach Newfoundland.

The mentions of America are vague compared to those of Iceland and Greenland and even involves myth and hyperbole such as the land “where giants live”. This mention is likely owed to Galvaneus’ second-hand sources. For instance, Chiesa mentions in the study that the “huge stones” reference may recall the description of Helluland in the Eiríks saga rauða and in the Grœnlendinga Saga, which mention that Thorfinn Karlsefni “found many slabs of stones so huge that two men could stretch out on them sole to sole.” Giants are also common in Old Norse epic traditions.

Even the fact that the friar knew about Greenland in such stunning detail, a region that was very obscure to most 14th-century people living in south-central Europe, is very remarkable.

“Although the papal curia was aware of the existence of Greenland since the eleventh century, Galvaneus is the first to give some information about its features in the Italian area, and, more generally, in a Latin “scientific” and encyclopedic work, as his Cronica universalis claims to be,” the study mentions.

Columbus himself was a Genoese and these amazing descriptions may explain why the explorer was so daring in his plan to set off across the ocean when most of his contemporaries found the idea mad. Perhaps Columbus, like Galvaneus, was connected to sources that informed him that an entire continent may be found if he just sailed far enough west.

Remains found in 1,000-year-old lavish burial in Finland may be of nonbinary warrior

Artistic reconstruction of the Suontaka Vesitorninmäki burial. Credit: Veronika Paschenko.

In 1968, archaeologists found an unusual medieval grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, southern Finland, where they found the remains of a high-status warrior, alongside a sword, brooches, and woolen clothes typical of feminine fashion of the era. The burial contents indicated that the remains belonged to a female warrior, challenging strict gender roles rooted in modern, Western mindsets. But it turns out the burial is even more unusual. More recent DNA analysis suggests that the remains belong to a nonbinary person with a rare genetic condition.

“The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary,” researchers at the University of Turku in Finland wrote in a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

For decades, the grave dated at 1050-1300 A.D. has been used as a popular example of powerful women from early medieval societies, casting doubt over the notion that medieval Scandinavia was a purely macho environment. But the full story is perhaps even more intriguing.

For most archaeological finds, the gender of buried individuals has been determined based on grave goods and the development of osteology. However, this binary classification may be prone to error.

The exquisite sword buried alongside the potentially non-binary person. Credit:  The Finnish Heritage Agency.

The Finnish researchers went through the original field documentation once more and conducted a microscopic study of animal hair and fiber remains from the soil retrieved from the grave. They also sequenced ancient DNA from the skeletal remains to unequivocally determine the sex of the buried individual by looking at the chromosomes.

Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have one X and one Y chromosome in their cells. However, the DNA from Suontaka doesn’t fall into either category.

According to the DNA tests, the person buried there had an extra X chromosome. This suggests that the person was anatomically male but had Klinefelter syndrome, a rare condition in which cells have XXY chromosomes.

People with Klinefelter, which affects about 1 in 660 males, have enlarged breasts, infertility, low testosterone, and a small penis.

“The individual could have been a respected member of a community because of their physical and psychological differences from the other members of that community; but it is also possible that the individual was accepted as a non-binary person because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons; for example, by belonging to a relatively wealthy and well-connected family,” the researchers wrote. 

As a caveat, the researchers note that the DNA sample they used was small and during the sequencing, they were only able to analyze a small number of nucleotides. To fill in the gaps, the researchers performed mathematical modeling to assess chromosomal DNA. As such, the Klinefelter syndrome diagnosis may be erroneous. Perhaps the individual was truly a warrior woman. Alternatively, the Finnish archaeologists speculate the individual may have been a male shaman, whose woman’s clothing may have been deemed socially acceptable given the Norse god Odin’s association with feminine magic.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting study showing that contemporary debates surrounding gender and identity were perhaps also prevalent during the early medieval era.

Scientists use DNA to expose the origins of Vikings

Between 750 AD and 1100 AD, a period in history known as the ‘Viking Age’, groups of Scandinavians exploited their superior seafaring skills to leave a long-lasting cultural, economic, and genetic legacy wherever they roamed — and they did so extensively. The Vikings’ expeditions ranged from North America to Asia’s central steppe.

Bearing all of these extensive and diverse connections in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that Vikings weren’t at all a homogenous, ‘pure breed’ of people. Instead, according to a new study, Vikings encompassed many genetically distinct groups of people, each with their own historical and cultural ties.

What’s a viking anyway?

When people hear of Vikings, many conjure the image of tall, muscular, bearded raiders hell-bent on wreaking havoc. However, this stereotypical image doesn’t do them justice. Vikings weren’t nearly as bloodthirsty as pop culture makes them out to be. For instance, they were engaged in buying and selling goods from places as distant as China and Afghanistan, weaving a network of trade and exploration from Russia to Turkey to Canada.

“They were people without boundaries,” says Wladyslaw Duczko, an archaeologist at the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland. “I think that’s why Vikings are so popular in America.”

That’s not all. All of these diverse and distinct connections left a deep impression on both Vikings and the foreign people they visited, which are still imprinted in DNA.

In a new study, geneticists at the University of Copenhagen sequenced the genomes of 442 people who lived between 2400 B.C. and 1600 A.D. The DNA came from human remains unearthed at archaeological sites across Greenland and Europe.

These genomes were compared to those belonging to modern people, revealing that the Vikings were truly a diverse bunch. Their ancestry includes hunter-gatherers, Anatolian farmers, and populations from the Eurasian steppe.

The study also revealed that the Vikings were separated into four distinct groups, each associated with a genetic hotspot region: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden’s Gotland and Ӧland islands.

Each Scandinavian group had its own trade routes, contacts, settlements, and designated raiding areas. For instance, Swedish Vikings mainly roamed east, whereas Norwegian Vikings sailed towards western Europe where they reached Ireland, the Isle of Man, Iceland, and Greenland. Danish Vikings mostly went to England.

Remarkably, the genomic analysis showed that these distinct Vikings groups didn’t mingle too much among themselves. Instead, they mixed much more with a broad range of people they had encountered in their far-flung expeditions.

“It’s pretty clear from the genetic analysis that Vikings are not a homogenous group of people,”  Eske Willerslev, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Copenhagen and director of its Center of Excellence in Genetics who led the Viking genome project, told National Geographic. “A lot of the Vikings are mixed individuals” with ancestry from both Southern Europe and Scandinavia, for example, or even a mix of Sami (Indigenous Scandinavian) and European ancestry.

“We even see people buried in Scotland with Viking swords and equipment that are genetically not Scandinavian at all,” he adds.

As for modern Scandinavians, few could properly call themselves ‘true’ Vikings. Just 15%-30% of modern-day Swedes share their ancestry with the people who lived in the same region 1,300 years ago.

All in all, the new study confirms what archaeologists and historians have long-suspected: Vikings comprise a diverse group that cannot be pinned to a specific ethnicity.

However, there are still many unanswered questions about the origins of Vikings. For instance, if many distinct genetic and ethnic groups of people called themselves Vikings, how did they band together, share the same culture? How did this process go about?

The findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Norse ruins remain at Anavik, in the Nuuk region of western Greenland. Credit: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark.

Climate change in the Arctic is destroying Viking artifacts

Norse ruins remain at Anavik, in the Nuuk region of western Greenland. Credit: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark.

Norse ruins remain at Anavik, in the Nuuk region of western Greenland. Credit: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark.

In Norse mythology, there are many myths that once known, are now lost. But the Norse, of course, left behind more than their tales. They also left behind their things and, in places like Anavik, on the western coast of Greenland, their dead.

And long before Vikings came to Greenland, the indigenous Inuit people left behind mummies, as well as hair with intact DNA.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, on an icy island called Spitsbergen, there’s a place called the Corpse Headlands, where there are graves filled with the bodies of 17th and 18th century whalers. When archeologists excavated the site in the 1970s, they found down-filled pillows, mittens, and pants sewn together from pieces of other pants.

The Arctic’s ice helps preserve these snippets of human history. But snippets of organic material rot when it’s hot, and new research is finding that as the world warms, remains like those at Anavik and Corpse Headlands will decompose before archaeologists are ever able to unearth them.

“The microbial degradation of the organic carbon is really temperature dependent,” said Jørgen Hollesen, a geographer at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

To get a clearer picture of the warming, Hollesen and his team installed weather stations at five sites in western Greenland, where they measured soil temperature and water content. Inland sites, they found, get less rain overall than coastal sites, and they also tend to be hotter. Such dryness and hotness, Hollesen said, create ripe conditions for decomposition because bacteria that decompose organic matter have more air to breathe.

Rapid Decomposition

The team then modeled, under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, just how much decomposition they might expect to see in the next century.

They found that instead of Arctic archaeological remains taking at least a century or more to fully decompose, up to 70% will likely vanish in the next 80 years. In Greenland alone, there are over 6,000 registered archaeological sites. This number includes both Norse and Inuit sites.

“We cannot afford the luxury of thinking that heritage sites preserved underground arepreserved,” said Vibeke Vandrup Martens, an archaeologist with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research who was not involved in the new Scientific Reports study.

Human remains, like this mummified infant unearthed at Qilakitsoq, are threatened by changes brought by a warming climate to the soil of Greenland. Credit: National Museum of Denmark.

Human remains, like this mummified infant unearthed at Qilakitsoq, are threatened by changes brought by a warming climate to the soil of Greenland. Credit: National Museum of Denmark.

Vandrup Martens studies remains on Svalbard that stand a good chance of decomposing at a rapid pace over the coming years, and she hopes this new research will help archaeologists like her when it comes to prioritizing which of those sites they need to work to preserve. “It’s a question of choosing, or just accepting having lost it,” she said.

It’s still not possible to say what kinds of remains, be they bones or clothes or wood, will decompose first. But finding that out is what Hollesen wants to do next by keeping an eye on what kinds of remains appear to be decomposing the fastest.

“We don’t know which ones contain something that could be fantastic,” he said. “You don’t know what you haven’t found yet.”

Article by Lucas Joel, Freelance Journalist. This post was originally posted on the EOS website.

Viking ship.

The greatest Viking invasion of Britain never left — it got buried there, new research finds

Archaeologists report that a UK mass grave discovered in the 1980s may have been the burial site of the greatest Viking army to ever invade the British Isles, over one millennium ago.

Viking ship.

Image credits Aline Dassel.

It’s not every day that someone tries to invade England — and, judging by the archaeological findings at St Wystan’s Church in Repton, that’s probably better for everyone involved. New research on a mass grave first discovered in the area in the 1970s and 80s reveals that the Vikings, which tried to do so in the 8th century, never managed to get away alive.

Dating issues

When it was first discovered, excavations at St. Wystan’s Church unearthed several Viking graves and a charnel deposit of nearly 300 people underneath a shallow mound in the vicarage garden. The mound was believed to be a burial monument linked to the Great Army, built with material scavenged from local buildings. In particular, one Anglo-Saxon building, possibly a royal mausoleum, seems to have been cut down and partially ruined before being turned into a burial chamber.

One of the rooms in this chamber contained the commingled remains of at least 264 people, around 20 percent of whom were women. Among these bones, the archaeologists also found Viking weapons and artefacts including an axe, several knives, and five silver pennies dating to the period 872-875 A.D. Most (80%) of the remains were men, mostly aged 18 to 45, with several showing signs of violent injury, reinforcing the idea that this is the resting place of an army.

So right off the bat, researchers suspected the site to be related to the Viking Age and even believe it might be the burial site of their Great Army. Historical records say that the Viking Great Army wintered in Repton, Derbyshire, in 873 A.D., after driving the local king into exile — so the site would be consistent with these records both in regards to location, time, as well as the volume of remains.

Radiocarbon dating performed on the remains threw a wrench in the workings of that hypothesis — the results suggested that the graves contained bones collected over several centuries. However, new research now shows that the initial hypothesis was correct, and all the bones are consistent with a date in the late 9th century.

“Previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old,” says lead author Catrine Jarman.

“When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate.”

A double grave from the site — one of the only Viking weapon graves found in the country — was also dated, yielding a date range of 873-886 A.D. The grave contained the remains of two men, the older of which was inhumed with a Thor’s hammer pendant, a Viking sword, and several other artefacts. The team notes he had suffered multiple severe injuries around the time of death, including a deep cut to his left femur.

Interestingly, a boar’s tusk was placed between his legs before burial. One hypothesis is that the injury on his femur may have also severed his penis or testicles, and the tusk was meant to replace them in the after-life.

“The date of the Repton charnel bones is important because we know very little about the first Viking raiders that went on to become part of the considerable Scandinavian settlement of England,” Jarman adds. “Although these new radiocarbon dates don’t prove that these were Viking army members it now seems very likely.”

“It also shows how new techniques can be used to reassess and finally solve centuries old mysteries.”

The paper “The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel” has been published in the journal Antiquity.

Who really discovered America? (Spoiler: it’s not Columbus)

If not Columbus, then who?

There are several theories as to who “discovered” America, some more substantiated than others. We know for sure that Vikings were in America centuries before Columbus got there, and there is also (disputed) evidence that Polynesian explorers also visited the continent before the Spaniard. Technically, Nomadic Asian tribes first discovered America over 15,000 years ago.

But let’s take it step by step.

The Columbus Expedition

Christopher Columbus arrives in America, by L. Prang & Co., Boston.

In 1492, Columbus departed from the Spanish city of Palos de la Frontera with three ships. Ironically, Spanish citizens were forced to contribute to the expedition against their will, although that’s the smallest of Columbus’ sins.

Fast forward a few weeks, and a lookout sailoron one of the ships saw land. The captain of that ship (not Columbus) confirmed the sighting and alerted Columbus. Seizing the opportunity, Columbus later maintained that he himself had already seen a light hours beforehand — because the first man to see new land would earn a lifetime pension from the Spanish crown.

As we’re already starting to see, Columbus wasn’t really the nicest or most honest person.

What island they found will remain a question for the ages. What we do know is that Columbus and his crew called it San Salvador; the natives called it Guanahani. It was an island in the Bahamas, but we don’t really know which one.

They encountered peaceful natives, who welcomed them peacefully. Columbus noticed the natives were wearing gold bracelets and necklaces, so in true colonial fashion, he took six of them as slaves without hesitation. He wrote in his diary:

“They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”

Columbus was also pleased to note that they didn’t seem to have any weapons or army.

“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”

What happened later is well-known history. For the locals, it was genocide. For the Europeans of the time, it was a quick way to get incredibly rich and conquer new territories — which they did to the best of their ability.

Even conservative estimates suggest that in less than a decade, the population of the Island of Hispaniola plunged from 500,000 to less than 100,000, either from sickness or conflict with colonists. Columbus became rich beyond his wildest dreams: he was given 10% of all the removable assets of the newly discovered lands, including gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones, and the trade therein was to be a crown monopoly under his control.

Columbus paved the way for all of this… is this really the person we want to celebrate for discovering America? After all, other explorers visited America centuries before him.

American Vikings

Viking ships found America one thousand years ago. Image credits: Carolin W.

Sure, Columbus made America known to the Europeans who ultimately conquered it, but he didn’t discover it by any means.

Leif Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, was a Norse explorer from Iceland — a Viking. Erik the Red founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Discovery and expansion ran through their blood, as Leif went on to travel much farther: to America.

Leif and his crew traveled from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD, where he converted to Christianity. Not long after that, he sailed the Atlantic. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which is (debatably) in Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. For many years, this was thought to be only a mythological story — more myth than reality — but archaeological evidence has shown, beyond a doubt, that Vikings reached Canada.

The first Viking archaeological site in the New World is L’Anse aux Meadows, a thousand-year-old way station discovered in 1960 on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The feature was a clear indication that Vikings had visited North America centuries before Columbus — at least partially, the myth was proven to be true. Archaeologists actually used clues from the sagas to guide their research.

Leif Erikson plaque in Cambridge, MA. The Vikings called America Vineland because it was rich in grapes which made delicious wine.

When archaeologists discovered another site, the second Viking settlement in America, things became much clearer. Not only have Vikings visited the American continent, but they actually colonized some parts of it — or at least attempted to do so.

“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt,” says Douglas Bolender, an archaeologist specializing in Norse settlements. “L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site. Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”

There is also other indirect evidence suggesting that Vikings went to America. Icelandic sagas claim that in 1004, Leif’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson was said to have sailed with a crew of 30 men, spending the following winter at Leif’s camp. In the spring, Thorvald attacked the local population and was ultimately killed by an arrow, but his crew appears to have remained in place. Just five years later, in 1009, Thorfinn the Valiant supplied three ships with livestock and 160 men and women — a proper colony. Accounts differ as to what happened to this colony, but the sagas mention a peace agreement between the indigenous peoples and the Norsemen.

So, we have solid evidence that Vikings — Leif and his extended family — visited America and remained then for at least 10 years. There is some evidence that they tried to establish an outpost, but the natives didn’t seem to appreciate their presence. Feeling threatened and outnumbered, the Vikings presumably left, though they likely returned from time to time to trade.

Another interesting piece of evidence was recently found by researchers analyzing Viking tombs: teeth filing. Researchers believe that the Vikings learned the practice from some other culture, but teeth filing was not done by any European culture. The only culture to employ such a practice was in America.

Polynesian yams and shakier claims

Another population who probably visited America way before Columbus are the Polynesians. The main clue for this behavior is the inconspicuous sweet potato (yam).

Image credits: 5aday.gov

The oldest carbonized sweet potato evidence in the Pacific hails back to about 1,000 A.D.—500 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas. But it wasn’t a convincing enough proof, so it remained as a hunch more than anything else.

However, French scientists found better samples from a herbarium collected by early European explorers. Through genetic analysis, they were able to show that Polynesians took the sweet potatoes from America and spread them across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where they are now ubiquitous. There are also studies which link Brazilian DNA to that of Polynesians, though another recent study put the findings under question. It seems very likely that Polynesians did reach America and established some kind of trade route. If this happened, it was before Columbus’ time, but it’s not clear if it was before the Vikings.

Another intriguing analysis on Peruvian mummies found that at least one such mummy had been embalmed using resin from a tree that only grew only in Oceania and New Guinea. Both the mummy and the tree were dated to 1200 AD.

There is also a “China first” theory, but that’s highly speculative. While a massive Chinese fleet explored Africa, reaching present-day Kenya, there’s no real evidence to support that idea. Several explorers also claimed to have discovered the continent a few years before Columbus, but there’s almost no way to prove such claims.

The first explorers of America might have come from this area.

The first true Americans

So, we’ve established that while Columbus made America known to Europe’s colonial powers, he definitely wasn’t the first one. Polynesian sailors probably also visited South America. But if we really want to get true here, every time these explorers reached the continent, natives were already there. Because America was first discovered by humans over 15,000 years ago.

After all, when Columbus got there, and when the Vikings got there, there was always someone there to greet them.

The first explorers came from the frozen wastelands of Siberia. Image via Prezi.

Exactly when this happened is also a heated debate, but recent studies place the earliest migration rate between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. Technically, you could say they were the first ones to discover America.

Vikings might have actually used sunstones to navigate

Icelandic legends tell of Vikings using sunstones to navigate the ocean when clouds hid the sun and stars. Now, a new study suggests that Vikings might have actually used these minerals to navigate, making the legends a reality.

Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Modern sunstone is a type of crystal that exhibits a spangled appearance when viewed from different angles. In the new study, the researchers conducted numerous experiments to test the possibility that Vikings used the unique properties of these crystals to navigate their way across the ocean and found that they can be beneficial navigational aids when the skies are blanketed with clouds.

Viking history has been well documented, with researchers uncovering the details of their raids across Europe from the late 790s until 1066. However, further research has revealed their travels to the Middle East and North America, leading scientists to wonder exactly how they made their way across such vast stretches of ocean, especially during periods of time when they could not use the stars or sun for guidance.

Sunstones have been speculated as Viking navigational aids for some time. In addition to their presence in legends, a recent examination of a 2002 Viking shipwreck yielded a sunstone near other navigational instruments, fueling speculation that the mythology could be true.

In the current study, the team suggests a three step process for sunstone navigation: holding a sunstone to the sky to determine the direction of light from the sky, using this information to determine the direction of sunlight, and using a shadow stick to determine which direction is north. Previous research from the same team confirmed the accuracy of the first two steps, leaving the current study to examine the third step.

The researchers gathered 10 volunteers and asked them to determine the position of the sun in a virtual planetarium, where dots represented the results of using a sunstone. Over the course of 2,400 trials, 48 percent resulted in accurate readings within one degree. Furthermore, the team discovered that the sunstone was most accurate when the digital sun was closest to the horizon, meaning that the method is ideal for use at dawn and dusk when the sun is lowest in the sky.

Journal Reference: North error estimation based on solar elevation errors in the third step of sky-polarimetric Viking navigation. 27 July 2016. 10.1098/rspa.2016.0171

The first skull excavated from the site, with a mortal wound caused by a spear or an arrow. Photo: Curator Ejvind Hertz, Skanderborg Museum

Whole 2000 year-old army of skeletons uncovered in Denmark. They tell of a macabre end

The first skull excavated from the site, with a mortal wound caused by a spear or an arrow. Photo: Curator Ejvind Hertz, Skanderborg Museum

The first skull excavated from the site, with a mortal wound caused by a spear or an arrow. Photo: Curator Ejvind Hertz, Skanderborg Museum

In an archeological dig in the Danish bog Alken Enge wetlands lies the remains of an army long dead. There scientists recently uncovered hundreds of skeletons, some presenting clear evidence of a violent death, along with a slew of shields, armors, spears or axes. Researchers are still trying to determine the soldiers’ identities, places of origin, and the reason for which they were met with such a dramatic finale.

A lot of blogs and news outlets that have reported the findings seem to all blindly title the whole event as an “army sent for sacrifice”. With all due respect, this sounds preposterous. Now, the bodies were identified as being 2,000 years old, coincidentally or not around the time of Christ. Needless to say, these were dark times, especially in the wild north of Europe, where pagan rituals were abundant. The main hypothesis is that the skeletons belonged to a tribe which lost a battle, and the winning side gathered the prisoners, sacrificed them and then threw them in what used to be lake – today’s bog and wetlands.

“It’s clear that this must have been a quite far-reaching and dramatic event that must have had profound effect on the society of the time,” explains Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst, professor of archaeology at Aarhus University, in a statement.

A fractured skull lies among the remains of hundreds of warriors in a Danish bog. Credit: Ejvind Hertz, Skanderborg Museum;

A fractured skull lies among the remains of hundreds of warriors in a Danish bog. Credit: Ejvind Hertz, Skanderborg Museum;

In the death pit, Holst and his team have found fractured skulls, hacked-off thigh bones and a colorful assortment of ancient weapons. Remember, although they call it the Iron Age, iron and especially crafted iron, was an extremely valuable commodity. If, indeed, they were sacrificed, why leave the bodies with the weapons and armor attached? Was this a sign of respect for a well fought, brave battle? These are the viking forefathers we’re talking about, so this possibility doesn’t seem that far-fetched.  Personally, not buying it.

 A very well-preserved iron axe with shaft. Photo: Rikke Larsson Photo/Media Depatment Moesgaard Museum;

A very well-preserved iron axe with shaft. Photo: Rikke Larsson Photo/Media Depatment Moesgaard Museum;

Still, much more needs to be discovered.  The mass grave is so immense that the researchers gave up on trying to excavate it all, focusing instead on smaller digs that will allow them to recreate a picture of the larger landscape and the horrific events that transpired some 2,000 years ago.

“We’ve done small test digs at different places in a 40-hectare (100-acre) wetlands area, and new finds keep emerging,” Ejvind Hertz of Skanderborg Museum, who is directing the dig, said.

If by chance or not, you’re in Denmark at the moment, know that the site is open for visitors.  Tours run on Thursdays.


A Viking sunstone compass from a calcite crystal, used in the experimental setup by Rennes researchers. The two beams of light can be seen on the reflective surface inside. (c) Guy Ropars, University of Rennes

Sunstone viking “magical compass” proved by science

A Viking sunstone compass from a calcite crystal, used in the experimental setup by Rennes researchers. The two beams of light can be seen on the reflective surface inside. (c) Guy Ropars, University of Rennes

A Viking sunstone compass from a calcite crystal, used in the experimental setup by Rennes researchers. The two beams of light can be seen on the reflective surface inside. (c) Guy Ropars, University of Rennes

A very intriguing theory says that the Vikings used to navigate through traitorous Arctic waters, and possibly even through the Atlatic towards North America, by using a coveted mineral called the “sunstone“. These glowing, fabled stones used to guide the northsmen by revealing the position of the sun even when it was obscured by cloud or had sunk beneath the horizon. Now, scientists using an experimental setup with a similar crystal with the one found in a shipwreck have shown that such stones could indeed have helped the Vikings navigate from Norway to North America.

“The Vikings could have discovered this, simply by choosing a transparent crystal and looking through it through a small hole in a screen,” study researcher Guy Ropars said. “The understanding of the complete mechanism and the knowledge of the polarization of light is not necessary.”

It’s believed the Vikings used a common calcite crystal, called Icelandic spar. This stone has the special property that allows light to get polarized and broken into two – “ordinary” and “extraordinary” beams – when sunlight enters the crystal. Vikings might have calibrated calcite crystal sunstones by scanning them across a clear sky and noting the sun’s position when the crystal brightened. They could then repeat the trick to locate the sun when it was no longer visible by guiding themselves after the same reference point, subsequently marked.

RELATED: Viking boat burial found for the first time – archaeologists are thrilled 

A team of researchers, led by Guy Ropars, at the University of Rennes in France, put the calcite crystal to the test. For their set-up, the scientists used icelandic spar found aboard a sunken Elizabethan military vessel, which was discovered in the 1970s by a fisherman off Alderney in the Channel Islands.

The sun compass

The Rennes researchers made a prototype sunstone compass themselves, after they covered the crystal with an opaque sheet that had a hole in the centre. The calcite worked particularly well (even with the naked eye), even when the sun was beyond the horizon and after the stars came out. Further tests showed that they could pinpoint the sun’s position with an accuracy of one degree in either directio

“Such sunstones could have helped the Vikings in their navigation from Norway to America, as the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe,” Guy said. A crystal measuring 3cm on each side would have been large enough to work, he added.

Onboard the Elizabethan vessel conventional magnetic compasses would’ve probably been  prone to significant error, as even a single canon was enough  to disrupt the magnetic field. The research confirms that the sunstone is more than a simply myth, and moroever that Vikings had the necessary navigation technology for a trip cross the Atlantic.