Date of Viking Visit to North America Pinpointed to 1021 AD

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2021

Using samples of chopped-down wood left behind by Viking explorers at their settlement in Newfoundland and known chemical markers of powerful solar storms in 993 AD, a group of scientists has determined the exact timing of the first-known visit of Europeans to North America: 1021 AD. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 471 years before Columbus.

A team of scientists looked at wood found at the L’Anse aux Meadows Viking site. In three cases the trees had been physically cut down, and moreover, they were clearly cut with metal tools — Vikings had metal implements at the time, but indigenous people did not. The wood was all from different trees (one was fir, and another juniper, for example). The key parts here are that the wood was all from trees that had been alive for many decades, and all had their waney edge intact as well.

The scientists extracted 127 samples from the wood, and 83 rings were examined. They used two methods to secure dates. The first was to compare the amount of carbon-14 in each ring with known atmospheric amounts from the time. This gives a rough date for the waney edge of the wood. They also then looked for an anomalous spike in carbon-14 in an inner ring, knowing this would have come from the 993 A.D. event, and then simply counted the rings outward from there to get the date of the waney edge.

In all three samples the waney edge was dated to the same year: 1021 A.D. This would be incredibly unlikely to occur at random.

Outstanding science. It’s incredible how much of a time machine these analysis tools are. There’s so much we don’t know about people who lived 1000 years ago, but it’s astounding that we know anything at all, particularly precise dates like this.

Update: From this Ars Technica piece, some more information on the precision of the dating:

Based on the development stages of certain cells in the waney layer, Dee, Kuitems, and their colleagues say that one of the trees was cut down in the spring, while another was cut down in the summer or fall. The third tree’s final season couldn’t be identified because the cells had been damaged by a conservation treatment, but the results suggest that the Norse cut down these trees within a few months of each other in 1021.

That lends additional support to the other evidence that the Norse only stayed in Newfoundland for a few years.

“One would imagine the dates would have been different if the occupation period of the site was very long,” Dee told Ars. “However, the fact all three of our samples produced the same date does not, of course, mean the site was only occupied for one year. It may indeed have been occupied longer. But I think it is true to say our results support a short occupation.”