Speed Reads

Running Rings around Columbus

Archaeologists used tree rings and astrophysics to prove Vikings were in Canada in 1021

Scientists and historians have long known that the Vikings beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas, and now they know by exactly how much: 471 years. A group of archaeologists, geoscientists, and at least one dendrochronologitst — a scientist who dates events and objects using tree rings — reported Wednesday in the journal Nature that they have pieced together definitive evidence that Vikings arrived in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1021, exactly 1,000 years ago. 

A husband-and-wife team of archaeologists discovered the remnants of what they believed was a Norse settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland in the 1960s. Scientists now believe this settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows, was built by Vikings who traveled to Canada from Greenland.

The team of Canadian and Dutch researchers pinpointed the elusive date of the settlement using evidence of an extremely rare solar storm found in three tree segments cut with axes or other metal instruments. Newfoundland's Indigenous people "didn't use metal tools" at that time, said Margot Kuitems, an archaeologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the study's lead author. 

This is "the only known date for Europeans in the Americas before Columbus," Michael Dee, a study co-author from the University of Groningen, told USA Today, calling that date a huge turning point in the history of human migration. "Previously the date was based only on sagas," Kuitems told NBC News, "oral histories that were only written down in the 13th century, at least 200 years after the events they described took place."

The researchers knew that one of these rare solar storms — called Miyake events after their discoverer, Japanese cosmic ray physicist Fusa Miyake — took place in 992 or 993 A.D., and they found the telltale signs of radiocarbon 28 rings before the outer bark of those three pieces of wood, each from a different tree. With the date of that inner ring fixed, "all you need to do is count to when you get to the cutting edge," Dee said.

Dendrochronologitsts not involved in the research were persuaded by the findings. Until now, the dates for when L'Anse aux Meadows was settled were "guesstimates," Sturt Manning, an archeologist and director of the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory, told The New York Times. "Here's hard, specific evidence that ties to one year."