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Despite what you might have been told, Christopher Columbus and his expedition were not the first Europeans to reach the Americas.
Almost 500 years earlier, a small group of Norse settlers arrived on what is today the Island of Newfoundland.
Yet, their presence on the continent was short-lived and no one ever came after them.
Learn more about how Vinland, Vikings, and lactose intolerance might have shaped history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is Leif Erikson: A Captivating Guide to the Viking Explorer Who Beat Columbus to America and Established a Norse Settlement at Vinland
The Vikings were exceptional boat builders, seafarers, adventures, and explorers. They not only raided and attacked settlements across Europe and Britain, but they also sailed far and wide, discovering and colonizing new lands. Their impact on history is far-reaching and the mark that they made on the world, especially during the Viking Age, can still be seen today.
In this audiobook, you will learn about the world that shaped Leif Erikson and made him into an adventurous man who was not afraid to sail into the unknown to discover new lands. You will discover how he was able to cross the Atlantic on an open longboat and become the first known European to have set foot on the North American continent, almost half a millennium before Christopher Columbus.
You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
The idea that someone from Europe had reached the shore of North America before Columbus shouldn’t really be that surprising. If you just look at a globe, going all the way across the Atlantic Ocean is really doing it the hard way.
If you go north it is actually much easier. You can island hop and the total distance and time you have to spend in open water are much much less. This means you don’t have to have as large a boat and it means it could have been done much earlier in history.
The Vikings were a seafaring people. They managed to go up and down the western coast of Europe in their longboats raiding and settling.
Iceland was first settled between the years 870 to 930. It is possible that there were other Europeans in Iceland before that, but there was never a native population on the island before the arrival of Europeans.
The original Norse settlers came from what is today Norway. While the reasons for the initial migration to Iceland are unclear, within those first 60 years thousands of people settled on the island. The estimates vary but somewhere between 4,500 and 24,000 people migrated.
Life in Iceland wasn’t easy, but the people there could make a living with sheep, cattle, and fish.
Their descendants have been there ever since.
From Iceland, getting to Greenland was relatively easy. Greenland is much closer to Iceland than Norway. According to legend, it was discovered by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson in the early 10th century when he was blown off course trying to get to Norway.
In the late 10th century, Greenland was explored by Erik the Red.
He arrived on the southeastern coast of the island which he found uninhabited. The Inuit people who live in Greenland didn’t make it that far south for another two centuries.
Here there are a couple of things I should note to help explain why this was happening.
During this period when the Vikings were visiting Iceland and Greenland, the climate was very different. It was during a period called the Medieval Warming Period. Temperatures were higher and the ice cap had retreated a bit, making Greenland a better place to settle. The climate began to change in the 15th century in an event called the Little Ice Age.
So, things were a bit different than they are today.
The other thing has to do with the names of Iceland and Greenland. There has been a story floating around for years that Iceland and Greenland were named to purpose to have people avoid Iceland and go to Greenland.
This is actually only half true. Erik the Red did give the name to Greeland, but it wasn’t trying to dupe people. He really named it as a sales pitch to encourage more Norse people to migrate. Remember, at the time it actually was much greener than it is today, especially in the far south.
The name was Grønland.
Iceland was originally called Snæland or snowland, but it was called Iceland by one of the first settlers who found a harbor full of icebergs when he arrived.
So know that the Norse were in both Iceland and Greenland. From here the story gets a bit murkier.
The son of Erik the Red was Leif Erikson. According to the Icelandic Sagas, which are the collection of poems and stories from that period, Leif Erikson sailed west and found three different lands. One was called Helluland, or the land of the flat stones. The other was called Markland, or the lands of forests. The final was called Vinland, or the land of vines.
According to the sagas, Leif Erikson established a settlement in Vinland.
He spent two winters in Vinland before returning to Greeland and his father.
A few years later, Leif’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson led another expedition and stayed at the camp which Leif had established.
A few years after that a much more serious attempt at settlement was led by Thorfinn the Valiant. He brought between 160 to 250 men and women along with cattle to settle in Vinland.
We know that they traded with and had good relations with the natives who lived in the region. Two of the goods noted in the sagas that were traded were red cloth and milk.
The story here becomes rather vague. Relations between the Vikings and the native inhabitants fell apart. The Vikings left and never bothered to return.
For centuries after, there has been a great deal of debate about the Icelandic Sagas. Some people weren’t even sure if the voyage ever even happened. Some thought that it did happen but weren’t sure where Vinland was.
There were maps created, centuries after the fact, which showed Vinland west of Greenland. It would have been located somewhere around the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River to Cape Cod.
This was pretty much the state of things until 1960. No one was really sure if the Vikings had made it to North America, and if they did no one knew where they had been.
In 1960, the Norwegian husband and wife team of Anne and Helge Ingstad discovered the location of a Norse community on the island of Newfoundland. It was located at the northernmost tip of the island at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows.
Most people were looking further south because the name Vinland implies vines and grapes.
What they found at L’Anse aux Meadows was the remains of a small community. There were several dwellings including a forge and a carpentry workshop.
In addition to the foundations of the buildings, they also found Norse artifacts including a stone oil lamp, a sharpening stone, a bronze pin, a knitting needle, and part of a spindle. All of these were things not used by native people in the area.
Estimates of the number of people who lived at the site range from 30 to 160.
They’ve found the bones of many different animals at the site, and one of the more interesting finds was butternuts. Butternuts don’t grow in Newfoundland, which means that had to sail down to at least New Brunswick.
Carbon 14 dating of the wood found at the site dated it to around the year 1000, which is in line with the time of the Icelandic Sagas.
By all accounts, the Norse weren’t there very long. The site may have only been occupied for a few years before it was abandoned.
What happened to the settlement is speculation.
What we do know is that the settlement was rather small, and it could be that they just didn’t have a large enough population to survive. The Norse population in Greenland at the time was a couple of thousand people, and the population in Iceland might have been ten times larger than that.
The other problem was the supply lines. Vinland was a colony of Greenland which was a colony of Iceland which was a colony of Norway. Both Greenland and Iceland were relatively new settlements
The ultimate reason might have been relations with the native population.
One of the most popular theories, although there is very little evidence to support it, is that may have had to do with what items were traded with the local inhabitants.
The two items we know were traded, although there were certainly other things, were red cloth and milk.
We know that the aboriginal people in North America didn’t engage in animal husbandry. That meant they wouldn’t have created or consumed dairy products.
It is also a well-known fact that many Native Americans are lactose intolerant.
The theory goes that the Norse either traded something like butter or cheese or perhaps invited the natives to a meal where milk was served.
They then suffered stomach cramps and were sick and thought they were poisoned. They then attacked the Vikings who would have been vastly outnumbered, and then they left.
The entire story is built off the fact that they traded milk in the Iceland Saga.
L’Anse aux Meadows is the only known Norse site in the Americas outside of Greenland. It isn’t known if L’Anse aux Meadows is in fact the settlement spoken of in the sagas. It might be, but there might be another site out there still that hasn’t been found.
One theory holds that there was a settlement on Baffin Island to the north in the 11th or 12 century, but nothing has been found yet.
There have been other speculation that the Vikings might have gotten as far as Mexico or Central America. There is no hard evidence for this only stories and coincidences.
Likewise, there have been runestones found in North American with Norse-looking writing on it, some found as far inland as Minnesota, but most of those have been shown to be hoxes.
Coincidently, not far from L’Anse aux Meadows, just across the Cabot Strait in Labrador, is the archeological site of Red Bay. Red Bay was a Basque whaling village that was established very soon after Columbus arrived in the Americas.
Some think that the Basques might have arrived in Newfoundland before 1492 and just kept it a secret because it was such a good location for cod fishing.
But what we do know for certain is that there was at least some limited European contact with North America about 1000 years ago. A full 500 years before Columbus ever set foot on a sandy island in the Bahamas.
The associate producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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