Vinland – the Vikings rubbed Columbus’s nose in it. Canada

How the Vikings discovered America five centuries before Columbus

In the Scandinavian legends (sagas) you can find references to Greenland and the fertile country of Vinland, which was located even further west. Experts believe that Vinland is modern-day Newfoundland and that the Vikings were the first Europeans to visit America. The history of the Vikings’ discovery of America has many mysteries and riddles, but one thing is certain: they were definitely there long before Columbus.

Gunnbjorn and Snebjorn

Probably the first European to see the American shores was a man named Gunnbjørn. He sailed from Norway to Iceland, but a storm blew his ship far to the west. And this unpleasantness helped him to see the new land. It became known as the Gunnbjørn Islands. Localize this place at the moment failed, but apparently it is some kind of archipelago, located just east of Greenland. As for the date of the event, different historical sources give different numbers ranging from 876 to 933.

Gunnbjörn and his companions were helped to see one of the islands belonging to North America by a storm

Gunnbjörn and his companions were “helped” by a storm to see one of the islands belonging to North America

Following Gunnbjörn’s route, Snebjörn Borov made the journey west from the shores of Iceland in 978. This brave Viking already knew approximately where the Gunnbjørn Islands were located. And he succeeded in achieving his goal – with his companions he landed on one of these islands and decided to winter there. However, a quarrel over money soon ensued, and as a result, Snebjørn was killed.

Some of the crew did subsequently return to Iceland. Even a saga was written about Snebjørn’s journey, but unfortunately the text has not survived.

It is worth paying attention to the fact that Snebjørn and Gunnbjørn saw the islands belonging to North America, but not the continent itself. The continent itself, after all, was discovered somewhat later.

Eirik the Red, who sailed to Greenland

A great role in the history of the Vikings’ discovery of America was played by such a man as Eirik the Redhead. He himself could not visit the unknown continent, but he founded a settlement in Greenland – an island, which, incidentally, also geographically belongs to North America. And in general Eirik the Redhead did much to make further journeys in the western direction real.

Portrait of Eirik the Redhead

Portrait of Eirik the Redhead

Eirik was born in 950 in Norway, his father being Thorvald Asvaldson. During the reign of King Harald the Fair-haired Thorvald and his whole family were banished from the country. He settled in Iceland, an island that had long been known to the Vikings.

Eirik lived in Iceland until 982. He clearly had a violent temper and once killed a neighbor who refused to return a rented boat. For this Eirik was sentenced to banishment for three years. Taking his family and his livestock with him, he sailed to the unknown west (and in fact he had no other way out). He wanted to reach a land that, on clear days, was visible from the highest peaks of western Iceland. This land was more than 250 kilometers from the Icelandic coast.

A big obstacle in Eirik’s way were floating blocks of ice. They prevented him from reaching the shore, and the ship had to make a long detour around the southern tip of the island. Eirik and his companions were only able to disembark at a place near the modern Greenland town of Kakortok. During three long years Eirik did not meet any natives at this place. And yet he undertook several sorties along the coast and even swam to Disco Island, which is located at a considerable distance from the southernmost point of Greenland.

In 986, when his punishment came to an end, Eirik the Redhead returned to Iceland. Here he began to persuade the Icelandic Vikings to move to the land he had discovered. It was he who named the island Greenland, which means “Green Land.”

Having recruited men, Eirik the Red once again set out in the direction of Greenland, under his leadership there were 25 ships. However, only fourteen of them actually made it to their destination. With these ships landed on the island about 350 people – they were the founders of the first Norman settlement in Greenland.

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Vikings landing on land to establish a settlement in Greenland (it was much warmer there in those days)

The Vikings landed to establish a settlement in Greenland (it was much warmer there at the time)

It is interesting, that many information from ancient Scandinavian sagas (we are talking about “Saga of Eirik the Red” and “Saga of the Greenlanders”) about this settlement was confirmed by radiocarbon research recently carried out on archaeological artifacts found near the Greenlandic town of Narsarsuaq.

Leif Eriksson and his legendary voyage

When the Vikings had already settled in Greenland, the merchant Bjarni Herjolfsson went there from Iceland. He had a very specific goal – he wanted to visit his father, who had moved to the “green land” together with Eirik the Red. But Herjolfsson’s drakkar went astray in a storm and accidentally ended up near the eastern shores of America – it was in the late summer of 985 or 986. Bjarni, for some reason, did not wish to winter in these places, which were supposedly rich in forests. He preferred, after all, to sail to Greenland. Once there, he told Leif Eriksson, son of Eirik the Redhead, of his adventure. Leif listened with interest to the unusual story and bought his ship from Bjarni. And in about 1000, Leif Eriksson sailed west on Bjarni’s ship (a fact which incidentally is evidence of serious problems the Greenlandic Vikings had with timber – there really was not much wood on the island) with a crew of a few dozen men.

It is interesting that in 999, shortly before sailing to the western lands, Leif made a business expedition to Norway. And in Norway Leif was baptized by Olaf Tryggvason, then King of Norway. On top of that, Leif took a priest to Greenland on his way back, who began to baptize the local settlers. Leif’s mother and other Greenlanders converted to Christianity, but his father, Eirik the Redhead, chose not to abandon paganism.

Statue of Leif Eriksson with a cross in front of Hallgrímur Church in Iceland

Statue of Leif Eriksson with a cross in front of Hallgrímur Church in Iceland

In the course of Leif’s journey westward, the regions of the Americas belonging to Canada today were discovered. The first land that appeared to the Vikings was almost all rocky, with mountains rising in the distance. Leif called it Helluland (“land of great stones”). Today, scholars tend to associate it with Baffin Land. The next shore the mariners discovered looked friendlier. There were plains covered with trees and sandy beaches stretching along the shoreline. The place was called Markland (“boundary land”) – most likely the Labrador Peninsula. Subsequently, Greenlandic Vikings sailed to Markland at least once more to extract timber for their ships. It turns out that Leif Eriksson in 1000 (symbolic date) was the first to see the mainland of North America.

 Artist Christian Krogh's painting of Leif Eriksson discovering America

Painting by the artist Christian Krogh “Leif Eriksson discovers America”

From Markland, the mariners moved further south and kept this direction for a long time until they reached a truly fertile land. Here there was such prosperity that, as the saga says, cattle did not need to be fed in winter. The new territories had clear rivers and lakes, and fish (particularly salmon) were plentiful. In addition, there were no long nights or severe cold in winter.

Vikings on a new unknown continent

Vikings on a new unknown continent

The Vikings decided to overwinter in this land, establishing two small settlements. The new land was given the name “Vinland” – most likely it was the island of Newfoundland. Leif Eriksson spent the winter in Vinland and then returned to Greenland, bringing with him valuable cargoes of grapes and timber.

Other hikes in Vinland

Upon his return from the voyage, Leif gave the ship to his brother Torvald, who also wished to see Vinland. Torvald’s expedition was deeply unsuccessful, however: the Normans encountered the “Skralings” (apparently, the Scandinavians’ nickname for the natives, the Alkongins or Eskimos), and Torvald was killed in the encounter.

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This may have been what a conventional encounter between the Vikings and the Skrelings might have looked like.

Thorstein, another son of Eirik the Red, wanted to find his brother’s body and set out on the high seas in Leif’s ship. Together with Thorstein and his wife Gudrid there were 20 men on the ship. A violent storm broke the plans of the Vikings – they were not destined to sail to Vinland, they stopped for the winter in the Western Norman settlement in Greenland, where a large part of the crew, including Torstein, died of some illnesses.

Another voyage to Vinland was made by the wealthy Norwegian Thorfinn Karlsefni. He set sail from the Greenland shore in 1004 or 1005 in three ships with 160 people on board. Together with Thorfinn, his new wife, Gudrid, widow of Thorstein, who had by that time returned from the West Greenland settlement, also set out on this voyage. Thorfinn reached Vinland safely. And in the fall, Gudrid bore Thorfinn a boy, Snorri, who was the first Viking born in America. For about three years Thorfinn and his companions explored the unknown lands. And for each wintering they had to look for a new place – because of the attacks of the same “skralling”. Eventually Thorfinn decided to return to Greenland. It is known that from Vinland he brought two captive “scralings.

Statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia (USA)

Statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia (USA)

Another journey to Vinland was undertaken by two Icelanders, Helgi and Finnbogi, in the 1010s or 1020s. Leif’s sister, Freydis, went with them on their long journey. But even these voyagers failed to establish a colony in lands rich in natural resources. In general, all attempts of the Vikings to gain a foothold on the new continent ended in failure.

How did the name Vinland come about?

Vinland can be translated as “the land of grapes. And such a name gives rise to a number of theories and hypotheses. For example, there are researchers who believe that Leif and his crew landed in what is now the United States, in southern Massachusetts. There are no problems with wild grapes there and never have been.

But opponents of these researchers consider this hypothesis untenable. Eriksson was an excellent navigator who knew his business. He had already made a number of important discoveries, and he would hardly have moved further south, exposing himself and his companions to great risk.

There are other explanations for the origin of the word “Vinland. There is an opinion that Leif gave the land another name, but at some point it became distorted and was recorded in a distorted form in the ancient chronicles.

We cannot exclude the possibility that Vinland is just a beautiful “advertising” name, which does not correspond to reality. Leif was trying to get as many Vikings to come here as possible.

In addition, there is a version that perhaps by “grapes” was meant blueberries and gooseberries, of which there are many on Newfoundland. These berries could theoretically also be used to make wine.

A modern map showing the likely location of Vinland, as well as Helluland and Markland

A modern map showing the probable location of Vinland, as well as Helluland and Markland

There are also experts who believe that grapes did grow in Newfoundland in those years, as there was a milder climate then. The fact is that the events described took place during the so-called medieval climatic optimum (this is the period from the 10th to the 14th century), when the ocean waters in the north Atlantic were 1° C warmer than they are now

Archaeological finds at L’Anse-aux-Médouze

Real evidence of the existence of settlements of the ancient Vikings in America was first found by the famous Norwegian traveler Helge Ingstad. In the twenties of the twentieth century, Ingstad, then quite a young man, suddenly gave up his law practice and, inspired by the ancient sagas, went in search of traces of the mysterious Vinland. This search for him took several decades. During this time the Norwegian managed to hunt wild animals in Canada, to be governor of Eirik Red’s Land in Greenland and the governor of Spitsbergen. He also organized an ethnographic expedition to Alaska in the fifties. Ingstad searched for Viking heritage in places ranging from the Hudson Strait in the north to Long Island in the south.

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Helge Instad has spent many years searching for traces of Vikings

Helge Ingstad spent many years searching for Viking traces

It wasn’t until 1960 that the dream of a determined Norwegian unwilling to give up came true. In the northern part of Newfoundland, near the fishing village of L’Anse aux Meadows, he was lucky enough to discover traces of a medieval settlement. An international archaeological team had been excavating there for several years, and in 1964 the scientists came to the logical conclusion: in Newfoundland there really were Scandinavians in the eleventh century.

More specifically, eight dugouts and one forge were found. Scientists believe there were no more than a hundred Vikings living on Newfoundland who left the island a few years later. Bronze clasps, iron rivets, and other important objects found there were on display in Washington, D.C. This exhibition caused a great stir.

 Reconstruction of Viking dugouts on the island of Newfoundland

Reconstruction of Viking dugouts on Newfoundland Island

The Scandinavian colony in Greenland lasted much longer – about five centuries. But because of the worsening climate associated with the end of the climatic optimum, as well as other factors, it also disappeared completely around the beginning of the 16th century. And yet in the thirteenth century, in its heyday, there were about five thousand Vikings in this colony.

Virtually nothing remains of the Viking colony in Greenland today

Of the Viking colony in Greenland today, virtually nothing remains.

Descendants of the Indians in Iceland.

There is another indisputable evidence of the presence of the Vikings in America long before Columbus. In 2010, a genetic study was conducted in modern Iceland, and the results were surprising. It turned out that among the inhabitants of Iceland are descendants of North American Indians.

It turns out that in the early XI century, there was a woman born in Iceland to one of the North American Indian tribes. How she got to the island is unknown, most likely she was brought as a prisoner. But it is certain that she gave birth to one or more children in Iceland.

Fake artifacts and fictitious American history: Christopher Columbus vs. the Vikings

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The role of Columbus in American history is indeed great. This has long been tried by all means and means to cross, trying to prove that the Vikings, not the Spaniards, were the first to arrive here. Tragic events in the United States a year ago led to a series of vandalism of monuments to the famous explorer. It is not without reason that he is considered responsible for the genocide of indigenous peoples. The Americans, in their desire to erase this man from the history of their country, even went as far as to forge artifacts. Meanwhile, the truth in the question of who discovered America after all surprised everyone in the end.

Map of Vineland

In 1965, Yale University purchased a certain ancient map. “The Map of Vinland” was unveiled with unprecedented pomp. Of course, because it was a discovery that turned the entire history of America upside down. The document was dated the middle of the 15th century. On the map was shown a part of the coast of North America. According to this, it was clear that the continent was discovered not by the Spaniard Columbus, but by the Scandinavian Vikings. All this actually looked too good to be true by then.

In modern times, the discovery of North America by Europeans has become a cause for conflict.

The idea was not at all new. There are two whole sagas in Icelandic epic that tell of Viking expeditions to North America. According to these texts, they even built several settlements there, traded and fought with the natives. Archaeological finds made on the Canadian island of Newfoundland back in the 1960s also corroborated this. But this new artifact suggested something more. It turns out that these lands were known in Europe before Columbus!

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The discovery of the continent has long been the cause of violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the Americas. Even Europeans are divided into two opposing sides on this issue. Northerners believe that it was their pagan ancestors, the Vikings, who discovered the land. Southerners, on the other hand, sought to elevate the role of Columbus and the Spanish monarchy. The pre-Columbian evidence of a map of Vinland strengthened the position of the former.

Yale University published a map of Vinland with great pomp in 1965.

A blatant forgery

As it turned out in the end, the map really was too good to be real. Just a couple of months after it was published, scholars found glaring discrepancies with other medieval sources. In addition, there were a number of questions about the mysterious location of such an important artifact in the past 5 centuries. Already in the 70s of the 20th century experts actively pointed to obvious problems with the dating of the map. More accurate research could not be done. There were vehement opponents who claimed that such a valuable document could be damaged in this way.

The controversy lasted for decades. Relatively recently, all the necessary research has been done, which finally proved completely that the artifact is a fake. Specialists conducted a series of analyses of the ink used to draw the map. The research determined that the age of the fake is the 20s of last century. Modern realities allowed the use of a very accurate method called X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.

This analysis put a period to this controversial issue. Titanium was detected in the ink. This substance only began to be used in the 1920s. The scan also revealed some writing on the back of the parchment. It had been deliberately altered by someone to give the document authenticity. This was another strong indication that the map was forged. Furthermore, the forgery was of very high quality and was deliberately made to mislead the scientific world. Researchers were left with one question: who could have dared to do such a thing?

The ink used throughout the map contains traces of titanium, which only became popular in the 1920s.

The ink used throughout the map contains traces of titanium, which only became popular in the 1920s.

Nostalgia for the Vikings

In medieval texts, the Vikings refer to the American region as Vinland. Mentions of it contain both Scandinavian and ancient Greek and Roman records. The narratives are truly impressive. There are ancient magical rituals, blood feuds between clans, epic battles with Native Americans, and boisterous trade. The theme is exploited endlessly in fiction, movies, anime, and even video games.

In the early 20th century, there was already a similar wave of nostalgia for the rugged Norse warriors. Perhaps this inspired the forger to create a fake medieval map. Experts say the motivation could have had both financial and political overtones. The map was first offered by a certain antiques dealer to the British Museum in 1957. The specialists at the time treated the artifact with fair suspicion and refused to buy it.

The document was then purchased by the American dealer Lawrence K. Witten III. He paid quite a price for it at the time. The map was offered to Yale University. They refused to buy it because of the exorbitant price. One wealthy graduate bought the artifact and donated it to the University of Connecticut.

A monument to Christopher Columbus in America.

The chain of events already raised a lot of questions. Witten was hiding who he bought the card from. Now that everyone knows it is a forgery, it is clear why. The merchant Ferracholi de Ri, who sold the document to the rich man, was soon convicted of theft and forgery of manuscripts. Consequently, the provenance of this map was becoming highly suspicious. It came to light in the late 1980s.

That’s when curators at Yale University bought the artifact and tried to determine if it was authentic. When they dated it to the 1440s, they based it primarily on the writing style and age of the parchment on which the map was depicted.

Another “discovery.”

If the truth had come to light then, it would have fit in with the major cultural movement that was sweeping America in the 1920s. In fact, more recently, another fantastic discovery was made. Swedish immigrant Olaf Oman discovered a stone with runic inscriptions in Minnesota. This artifact served as proof that the Vikings had not only landed on the coast of America, but had gone inland. There they built their settlements.

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Photo of the Kensington runestone, 1910.

The scientific world was at once very skeptical of this discovery. Despite the clear evidence that it was just another fake, experts had been arguing for decades. Experts in medieval history wrote entire treatises about nationalists trying to rewrite American history. The Vikings became a successful lead-in to create new racial and political myths.

In the north of the continent, anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic followers of Columbus began to erect monuments to the Vikings. Against this background, it seems no coincidence that Yale University published a map of Vinland the day before Columbus Day in 1965.

Not Columbus, but the Vikings?

North America is no longer for whites?

Of course, both the Kensington runestone and the map of Vinland are brazen forgeries. But as we know, there is no smoke without fire. And so it is in this case. All the nostalgic rumors about the ubiquitous Vikings and the fake evidence have grown up around a core of historical truth.

According to all the contemporary evidence we know that the inhabitants of early medieval Scandinavia (who are called Vikings today) were fervent travelers. Already in the 9-10 centuries they made daring raids on the coasts of France and England. Around the same time, they moved along the Volga River to the south of modern Russia. There they had time to trade and fight in Baghdad with the Abbasid Caliphate.

Thus the restless nomads also reached the shores of America. On the island of Newfoundland, which belongs to Canada, were discovered the remains of an ancient Viking settlement. For a long time, scientists could not determine its exact age. Most conclusions were based on artifacts that turned out to be false, as well as a few Icelandic sagas and oral histories that could not be taken seriously into account.

Recently, however, scientists have conducted a number of studies in addition to radiocarbon analysis. They were able to figure out the exact date when the trees were cut down, which were used to build houses in the Newfoundland Viking settlement of L’Anse-aux-Médouze. This was the evidence that put an end to all arguments. In 992, exactly 471 years before Columbus, the Vikings arrived in America. The settlement is now the only one known in North America as belonging to the Vikings. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not very big. There are only three dwellings, a blacksmith shop, and a few workshops for repairing ships.

Reconstruction of a Viking boat at L settlement

The Vikings did not stay long in North America. Their movements were limited to Nova Scotia and some nearby regions. If the sagas are to be believed, the Norse traded successfully with the natives for a time. Then they were ruined by internal strife and unsuccessful wars with the natives.

In one saga, a female warrior named Freydis (sister of the famous Leif Eriksson) participates in a battle against the Native Americans. She performs with naked breasts and strikes her sword in an attempt to intimidate her enemies. Then she also kills several of her fellows with an axe. After that, the handful of surviving colonists head back to Greenland.

It wasn't just the sagas and fake artifacts that served to create the new history.

Of course, the inspiration for the blatant forgeries was not these medieval tales. They were merely polished to suit the political and cultural demands of the early 20th century. It’s just that Americans were so desperate to minimize the role of Spaniards, Italians, and indigenous peoples that they even went as far as to falsify them. The funny thing is that they found what they so desperately and unsuccessfully looked for in all the wrong places. History does not need to be invented; it is already full of breathtaking surprises.

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