Vikings were in North America 1,000 years ago

Tree-ring data helped scientists date a historic site in Canada’s province of Newfoundland

A reconstructed Viking Age hut with an overgrown roof in Newfoundland

This reconstructed hut stands near an archaeological site in Newfoundland on Canada’s northeastcoast. The presence of Vikings at this site has been precisely dated to the year 1021.

Glenn Nagel Photography

Explorers from Europe made their home in North America longer ago than we had realized. Vikings settled in Canada exactly 1,000 years ago, a new study finds. Details preserved in wood were key to the discovery.

Researchers had evidence that Norse Vikings built the structures and lived there roughly 1,000 years ago. But until now, they hadn’t been able to find an exact date for the settlement.

Newfoundland is part of Canada’s easternmost province. A team of scientists examined wooden objects at a site on site on its northern coast. By counting tree rings preserved in the wood, they discovered that the objects were made from trees cut down in the year 1021. That gives the oldest precise date for Europeans in the Americas.

Indeed, it’s the only one from before Christopher Columbus and his ships came to North America in 1492. Margot Kuitems and Michael Dee are geological scientists who led the study. They work at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Their team shared its findings October 20 in Nature.

The site where archeologists found the wooden objects is known as L’Anse aux Meadows. That’s French for “meadow cove.” Discovered in1960, it is now a historic site protected as part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Newfoundland site hosts the remains of three houses and other structures. All were made from local trees.

Signature spike

The new study focused on four wooden objects found at L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s not clear how the objects were used, but each had been cut with metal tools. On three of the finds, Kuitems, Dee and their team identified an annual growth rings in the wood that showed a signature spike in radiocarbon levels. Other researchers have dated that spike to the year 993. That’s when a surge of cosmic rays from solar activity bombarded Earth and increased the planet’s atmospheric levels of radioactive carbon.

The scientists used the signature spike to help them count the growth rings in each of the wooden objects. Each year that a tree lives, it adds a ring of woody tissue around the outer layer of its trunk. Counting those rings would tell the researchers when the tree was cut down and used to make the object. They started at the year 993 ring and worked their way out to the edge. All the objects yielded the same year — 1021.

Despite its precision, that date doesn’t answer the question of when Vikings first set foot in the Americas. Some scientists believe L’Anse aux Meadows might have been part of a larger area in eastern Canada called Vinland. That region is described in 13th century Icelandic texts as having been settled by Vikings.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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