Sunday Nibble #85: How we now know the Vikings landed here a thousand years ago

Not long after I found out I’m actually partly Scandinavian, science nails down the exact year the Viking first arrived in North America — exactly a thousand years ago.

Back in June, I wrote about my DNA test results suddenly revealing that I actually don’t have any German, British, or French ancestry on my father’s side, and I’m about 34% more Irish than I thought I was — 67% instead of 50%.

Other than two 3% dashes of Italian and Basque, the rest of my ancestry is entirely Scandinavian. It led to a mini-identity-crisis, although a good one. I mean, if you’re going to find out that you don’t really have any Western European or British ancestry, finding out that you actually descended from the people of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

The one country I can currently trace an ancestor to is Sweden, from which my 13th great-grandfather emigrated to England some time in the late 15th century. His grandson in turn wound up to be kind of a big deal in England himself — but he was still Swedish.

I can trace that line back paternally to a man named Sone Sonesson, who lived in the 14th century and who was my 18th great-grandfather, which is actually 20 generations removed. (You have to add 2 to the number of levels of great-grand to account for your own parents and grandparents, since your first great-grandparent is three generations back to begin with.)

But if you go back around 300 years before Sone was born — early enough to have a child born in 1384, but that’s all I know — you’ll find something else interesting.

First off, the year you’re looking at is 1021 C.E., exactly a thousand years ago. And, secondly, thanks to science and the Sun, we now know that this is the year that Vikings landed in North America for the first time.

Yes, they came from the larger Nordic world — Iceland and Greenland — but Scandinavia is part of that, too, and there may have been Swedes on those boats. “Viking” was not a nationality, after all. Just a profession.

But that voyage was 471 years before Columbus never even made it to this continent, and the Vikings also managed it without committing genocide against any of the natives. They didn’t even establish permanent settlements. They just came, probably traded, may or may not have left a few Viking babies implanted in the locals, and then went on their way.

So how do we know the year so precisely? Simple. The Sun let out a tremendous fart in the form of a solar storm in 992 C.E. that left its mark on the planet, and so actually set a time clock that we could use to date the arrival precisely.

Normally, to date ancient things, scientists use carbon dating, which compares the ratios of isotopes in the carbon in a sample, which shows roughly how old something is. The problem is that it’s only a rough estimate, so any attempt to date the Viking’s arrival in North America basically came down to “The 11th century, probably, kind of.”

In this case, though, the time clock is set in trees and its done when a solar storm creates a distinctive radiocarbon signal in a tree’s annual growth rings. Basically, the solar radiation permanently timestamps a particular ring of a tree when it happens.

When scientists used this method to examine trees that had been cut by Vikings — they’d used metal blades, which the natives did not have — they counted 29 growth rings after the solar storm marker. The year of the storm, 992, plus 29 years, gives us 1021 C.E.

We don’t know how long the Vikings were here, but now we know when they got here, and it also gives credence to the Icelandic sagas that told of Viking adventures in “Vinland,” aka North America.

The other remarkable thing about it is that the Vikings became the first Europeans to have crossed the Atlantic, ever. Combine that with the Native Americans having previously crossed the Pacific many years earlier, whether by land bridge or boat or both, and that fateful day a thousand years ago marks the point in time when human beings had first completely circled the globe.

Well, as far as we know at this point. But as we become better at combining chemistry, astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, and every other science we can throw at things, the more exacting will become our picture of our human past.

Nailing a date a thousand years ago to the exact year is no mean feat, especially because we don’t have a precisely dated document  that even gives a Viking year that we could maybe calculate to get the year in the modern calendar. The Icelandic Sagas were oral histories, so imprecisely dated in any way other than the typical, “It was many years ago.”

Or — and I’m guessing because I haven’t looked at them yet — they might use the old Bible trick of listing generations of ancestors, which can give a rough count of the number of years passed. For example, Sone Sonesson was born in the vicinity of 580 years plus or minus a generation before me, which gives a rate of 28 years and 11 months per generation — very approximately.

Then again, this accounting is how the Bishop of Ussher very incorrectly pegged the creation of the Universe as having happened in 4004 B.C.E.

In fact, he says it all happened on October 23, 4004 B.C.E., which means that we’re all one day short in celebrating the 6,025th birthday of all of creation!

The difference between that precise date and 1021 C.E., though, is that the Bishop of Ussher basically pulled the former right out of his ass. Meanwhile, scientists did science. So here’s to the thousand year anniversary of the Vikings arriving in North America, taking a look around, and not fucking it up too much.

Those who came much later should have taken a lesson from that. And yes, I’m looking at you, Christopher Columbus, you genocidal maniac.
Image source: Hans Dahl (1849-1937), (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

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