A monument to the Vikings who lived briefly in what is modern Newfoundland. New research says they lived there in 1021 – exactly 1,000 years ago. Wikimedia commons.
It’s a neat, random trick of history that the number is so perfectly round. But 2021 — a year in which the news has been dominated by a global pandemic and the increasingly dire prospects of climate change — also brought us news that an event that is possibly key in precipitating it all happened exactly 1,000 years ago.
The prestigious scientific journal Nature in October published a paper by an international team of scientists indicating that Vikings were present in modern-day Canada in 1021. The scientists argue with a high degree of certainty that Vikings used the short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northeastern shore of modern Newfoundland as a base of operations in 1021.
“Precise dating of Norse activity in the Americas,” reads the title of one section of the report. “Cosmic radiation events as absolute time markers,” says another.
Traditional archeological techniques and the Norse Sagas place settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows sometime around the end of the first millennium.
But the scientists who wrote the Nature article said they used advanced carbon 14 techniques to identify cosmic radiation events in AD 775 and AD 993 and then counted the subsequent tree rings on wood the Vikings used at the site. From those, they determined that the wood was cut in 1021, meaning people with roots in Scandinavia and Greenland were in North America exactly 1,000 years ago.
Fun as it can be to learn how much can be inferred from the interplay between our leafy neighbors and outer space, it’s more profound to consider the consequences of that knowledge.
Sure, the Vikings couldn’t make a go of it in North America, and their contact with indigenous peoples (“skraelings,” the Norse called them) was limited. But it very possibly planted the notion in Europeans’ minds that what we now call the Americas were here, and reachable.
The new research “acts as a new point-of-reference for European cognizance of the Americas, and the earliest known year by which human migration had encircled the planet,” the scientists wrote.
Now a lot more work needs to be done to better understand the thinking over the following 471 years that prompted European explorers to look west.
When he sailed in 1492, Christopher Columbus seemed to be unaware of the Americas. He was looking for the “Indies” — China, India and Japan — after reading about the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, the eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote in 2009.
Whatever Columbus knew when he set off, his voyage touched off a great global convulsion, the consequences of which we’re very much living with today, as Charles C. Mann explains brilliantly in his 2011 book “1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.”
Many subsequent events were breathtakingly brutal. Hernan Cortez conquered Aztec Mexico and his successors forced enslaved Indians to extract North and South American silver in hellish conditions. But that silver became a medium of exchange in a new global economy with Mexico City at its center.
Some silver made its way to China in exchange for silk, some of which made its way back to Spain. And as part of the process, American potatoes made their way to Europe and American sweet potatoes were introduced in Asia, profoundly altering diets and agriculture on each continent and allowing for vastly larger populations.
What followed was an ever-more integrated world, with goods, diseases and ideas circling the globe with greater and greater ease. Commerce in the three key commodities of an industrialized society — steel, rubber and fossil fuels — allowed for even denser populations and spewed the pollutants that are so profoundly altering the planet today.
All of that was the product of what Mann calls the “Columbian Exchange” and it was sparked by a single journey 529 years ago.
But how much do we know about what sparked that journey? And do we know that the earlier encirclement — the Vikings’ brief tenure in Newfoundland — had no influence on it?
By fixing a date that just happens to be exactly a millennium in the past, the scientists studying L’Anse aux Meadows are challenging scientists and historians to find out.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.