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I was just writing the other day about the 1339 monk who wrote about the discovery of America. Now, analysis of wood from timber-framed buildings in the L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland shows a Norse-built settlement over 1,000 years ago – 471 years before Columbus.

As the Guardian and Science News report, the Icelandic sagas – oral histories written down hundreds of years later – tell of a leader named Leif Erikson. The recent finding corroborates two Icelandic sagas – the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red – that recorded attempts to establish a settlement in Vinland. Also known as Leif the Lucky, he was the son of Erik the Red, who was the founder of the first Norse settlements in Greenland. According to the Saga of the Icelanders, Leif established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which is usually interpreted as being coastal North America, though speculation remains over whether this is actually the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement.

However, while it is known that the Norse landed in Canada, it’s been unclear exactly when they set up camp to become the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic, thus marking the moment when the globe was first known to have been encircled by humans.

Viking landing | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Solar Storms and Tree Rings

The new study focused on four wooden objects found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which was first excavated in the 1960s. It’s not clear how the objects were used, but each had been cut with metal tools. Scientists using a new type of dating technique and taking a long-ago solar storm as their reference point have established that the settlement was occupied in AD1021.

On three of the finds, the scientists identified an annual tree growth ring that displayed a signature spike in radiocarbon levels. This spike has been dated to the year 993, when a surge of cosmic rays from solar activity bombarded Earth and increased the planet’s atmospheric levels of radioactive carbon.

Proof that the trees were cut by Vikings was there, too. The objects had all been modified by metal tools, evident from their characteristically clean, low-angle cuts. Such implements were not manufactured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the area at the time.

The Vikings possessed extraordinary boat-building and navigation skills, establishing settlements in Iceland and Greenland. Many archaeologists believe the principal motivation for them seeking out new territories was to uncover new sources of timber. It is generally believed they left from Greenland, where wood suitable for construction is extremely rare.

Despite its precision, that date leaves unanswered when Vikings first set foot in the Americas. Evidence of a possible second Viking settlement in Newfoundland from around 1,000 years ago remains preliminary. Still, the discovery begs the question: how much of the rest of the saga adventures are true?