Their new method for dating events in the distant past immediately got my attention, because the first problem they solved was the exact date of the first European settlement in the New World. It was the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland, and the year was 1021 AD.
I was always interested in the Norse, because I grew up in Newfoundland and that was already seen as the likeliest location of the region they called ‘Vinland’. I read the sagas (‘Erik the Red’ and ‘The Greenlanders’), which were rip-roaring tales of triumph and treachery but distinctly short on geographical and chronological detail.
Then in the 1960s Norwegian archaeologists discovered the remains of eight Norse longhouses on the L’Anse aux Meadows site. So the location was known, but still not the date. The explorers came from the new Norse settlements in Greenland, which had been founded in 985 AD, but nobody knew how much later they arrived in Newfoundland.
So what the hell! Let’s say it was the year 1000 AD. The Newfoundland Museum declared that the year 2000 was the millennium of the Viking settlement, the local tourist authorities went into high gear – and somebody at the Museum contacted me to write the script for the exhibition, because...well, because I was a journalist and a Newfoundlander.
I swallowed my doubts, named my price, and did the job. Not a bad job, actually, because I could play with the fact that the Norse in Newfoundland had both peaceful and violent contacts with the local indigenous people.
Those people, probably related to the extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland or the modern Innu of Labrador, were very distant descendants of the modern human beings who left Africa around 100,000 years ago, turned right, crossed all of Asia, and finally arrived in North America when the glaciers receded about 14,000 years ago.
The Norse, on the other hand, were the distant descendants of those who turned left when they left Africa, settled Europe – and eventually island-hopped across the Atlantic. After all those millennia the two streams of migration finally met up again in Newfoundland. So I called the exhibition ‘Full Circle’, and slid past the question of exactly when it happened.
But now we know. The ECHOES team (it stands for ‘Exact Chronology of Early Societies’) figured it out by examining bits of wood found on the L’Anse aux Meadows site that had clearly been cut with iron (European) axes. A huge solar flare in 993 AD left a spike in that year’s tree rings, so just count rings out from there to the bark. The trees died in 1021.
The specific date of L’Anse aux Meadows doesn’t really matter, of course, but the technique does. Cosmic-ray-induced surges in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations are another new tool for figuring out the past, and that is now important work.
Two centuries ago our knowledge of the past barely reached back past classical Greece and Rome: say, 3,000 years. Now scientists are working hard to puzzle out past climate states ranging from hundreds to billions of years ago, because understanding the patterns of the past may help us through whatever happens next. Every scrap of information may be valuable.
All very well, but why didn’t the Norse settlement last?
They abandoned their exploration of north-eastern North America because the ‘cash crop’ they were looking for in Vinland turned out to be much closer to home: ivory from the abundant walrus population that they could hunt in Disko Bay, only a thousand kilometres up Greenland’s west coast.
They could feed themselves by farming and fishing, but it was the ivory that paid for all the things they needed to import from Europe (timber, iron and bronze, stained glass, etc.). Up to 5,000 people lived in the Greenland settlements for more than four centuries, apparently quite happy to ignore ‘Vinland’ – and then they disappeared.
Where they went or how they died has been promoted as a great mystery, but the real reason is probably that the bottom dropped out of the European market for ivory in the early 15th century as abundant new supplies became available from Africa and Russia’s new Arctic settlements.
The climate had also turned against the Greenland Norse (the ‘Little Ice Age’), so they most likely just upped stakes and moved back to Iceland, or even to Norway. No massacre, no famine, just a change in the trade routes. It’s not always dramatic.