Finding Vinland, the Vikings who beat Columbus to America
Once presumed to be a mythical land, archaeologists are now hunting for the truth about Vinland, the settlement built by Viking explorers in North America
Stories of the relentless Viking wave that swept over Europe have fascinated historians for centuries, with evidence of their plundering to be found from Britain to Scandinavia and the Middle East—but there is one mysterious land they never successfully settled, which they called Vinland.
Once shrouded in myth, evidence is now mounting that Vinland was a real place. Piecing together archaeological finds, carbon data and legend, researchers believe that Viking seafarers attempted an outpost on the shores of North America—five centuries before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.
The word “discovered” is somewhat loaded, given its Eurocentric lens. Long before Spanish colonists or their Scandinavian forebears dropped anchor, America’s first arrivals simply walked, migrating from Russia to Alaska across the dried out Bering Sea.
But the Vikings were certainly the first to stumble upon the Americas from the east coast.
Their adventures are chronicled in two sagas—The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red—which, despite their reliance on oral histories, provide some vital clues about the lives of those first European pioneers.
Leif the Lucky’s American expedition
Leif Eriksson wasn’t the first Icelander to set his eyes on the continent, but he did lead the first voyage to set up camp there.
It was Bjarni Herjolfsson who could lay claim to discovering North America, after being blown off course on his way to Greenland (where he intended to join his father and the exiled Norseman Erik the Red).
Anxious to return home, Herjolfsson chose not to go ashore—a decision he paid for back home with ridicule for his lack of enterprise.
"It was Bjarni Herjolfsson who could lay claim to discovering North America"
Erik the Red’s son, Leif “the Lucky” Eriksson, decided the strange land was worth a closer look.
He set out with a second expedition, retracing Herjolfsson’s route along three coastlines: the first, a barren, rocky land he named Helluland (which some have located at Baffin Island); the second, a forested place called Markland (near Cape Porcupine, Labrador); and the third, a luscious land with plentiful supplies of salmon, vines and grapes, which he christened Vinland.
The rediscovery of Vinland
“Vinland”, in Old Norse, translates to “wine-land”, and so researchers tended to hunt for the Viking settlement further south where grapes may have feasibly grown.
But in the 1960s, husband and wife archaeologists, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, conjectured that there had been a mistranslation, and that “vin” actually meant “meadow” or “pasture”.
"'Vinland', in Old Norse, translates to 'wine-land'"
In the Nordic sagas, multiple groups made camp at the original settlement built by Leif Ericson, which meant, the Ingstads argued, that Vinland had to be in an easily identifiable location.
After consulting a map, they concluded that the strait between Newfoundland and Canada’s mainland made the most obvious landmark for the ancient voyagers.
They ventured to Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, where locals directed them to ruins in L'Anse aux Meadows. Upon excavation, they were confirmed to be Nordic, with unearthed items including a bronze pin, a bone knitting needle and part of a spindle.
A cosmic ray offers further clues
Thanks to a powerful solar storm, scientists have been able to more accurately pinpoint when Leif Eriksson led his crew to Vinland’s shores.
In the year 993, a cosmic storm released an enormous swathe of radiation that the world’s trees absorbed the world over, effectively leaving a bookmark to measure the passage of time against.
In 2021, researchers retrieved pieces of timber with visible tree rings from the longhouse at L'Anse aux Meadows and scoured each ring for signs of the storm.
They found the radiation spike 28 rings in from the bark, which dated the longhouse’s construction to 1021 CE.
The mysterious case of the butternuts
But one thing still didn’t add up—scattered about the Newfoundland site were butternuts, or white walnuts, which had never grown that far north in Canada.
The butternut tree is found further south, below New Brunswick, which also happens to be the boundary beyond which wild grapes could once be found.
At the very least, this suggests that the Vikings ventured further abroad than L'Anse aux Meadows. Perhaps the Newfoundland settlement was merely a jumping-off point, with the ruins of the Viking wine country yet to be uncovered.
Relations with the locals were mixed at best (and grisly at their worst)
Not known for their peaceful international relations, the Vikings failed to befriend the locals, whom they called Skrælings.
Shortly after Leif’s return to Greenland, his brother Thorvald struck out on his own voyage, moving into Leif’s Vinland base (Leifsbúðir, or “Leif’s booths”) and exploring the surrounding land.
"The Vikings failed to befriend the locals, whom they called Skrælings"
On one such trek, Thorvald and his men encountered a group of Native Americans sleeping under skin-covered canoes and killed nine of them.
But one managed to escape, returning a few days later with reinforcements to attack the Nordic aggressors. Thorvald would not survive the melee—a fatal arrowshot made him the first European to be killed on American soil.
Ghostly visitation, or culture exchange?
It wasn’t just the men who made it to America. The sagas also feature names like Freydis Eiríksdóttir and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, the latter of whom may hold the key to the first recorded conversation between a European and a Native American.
Gudrid accompanied her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni on another expedition to Vinland, which made better headway with the locals—who may have been Newfoundland’s Beothuk Indians.
The Saga of the Greenlanders recounts how the Beothuks paid the Norsemen a visit, offering their own goods in exchange for milk.
"Perhaps this was not a ghostly doppelgänger at all, but a Beothuk woman"
While the two groups traded outside, a shadow fell across the door where Gudrid was sitting, and a short woman with red hair appeared.
“My name is Gudrid, and what is yours?”, the Icelander said. “My name is Gudrid,” came the eerie reply.
This episode has generally been told as a supernatural encounter, but American Indian has another interpretation. Perhaps this was not a ghostly doppelgänger at all, but a Beothuk woman, wearing red ochre to colour her hair and imitating the European’s speech.
A Native American may have journeyed to Iceland
Given Iceland’s remote location, with a largely Scandinavian and Celtic heritage, it was with some surprise that a DNA study found a potential Native American link in the population.
In 2010, a genetic variation remarkably similar to one usually found in Native Americans and passed from mother to child was detected in 80 Icelanders.
Perhaps, the researchers suggested, at least one Native American woman travelled back to Iceland with the Vikings.
Snorri Thorfinnsson, Gudrid’s son, is thought to have been the first European born in North America—though he did not stay in his birthplace long.
Having failed to make peace with the locals or build a self-sustaining settlement, Snorri’s family abandoned Vinland and returned to Iceland.
Snorri grew up to be one of the leading figures in the Christianisation of Iceland, building the first church at Glaumbær.
"Snorri Thorfinnsson is thought to have been the first European born in North America"
The secluded settlement of Vinland, meanwhile, faded from memory—though Icelanders would return to the Americas in their droves centuries later, between 1875 and 1915.
Nearly a quarter of the island’s population migrated to New Iceland at Lake Winnipeg, escaping the fallout from Mount Askja’s devastating eruption in a new American home.
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter
Loading up next...