Move Over Columbus: Europeans Were Already Active in the Americas 1,000 Years Ago

Modern tree sculpture of a Viking.

Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The Vikings got there centuries beforehand, although exactly when has remained unclear. Here, an international team of scientists shows that Europeans were already active in the Americas in 1021 AD.

The Vikings sailed great distances in their iconic longships. To the west, they established settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and eventually a base at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. However, it has remained unclear when this first transatlantic activity took place. Here, scientists show that Europeans were present in the Americas in 1021 AD — precisely 1000 years ago this year. This date also marks the earliest known point by which the Atlantic had been crossed, and migration by humankind had finally encircled the entire planet.

Microscope image of a wood fragment from the Norse layers at L’Anse aux Meadows. Credit: Petra Doeve, University of Groningen

A Solar Storm Solution

In this study, the chopping of wood by Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows was dated to exactly the year 1021 AD. The three pieces of wood studied, from three different trees, all came from contexts archaeologically attributable to the Vikings. Each one also displayed clear evidence of cutting and slicing by blades made of metal — a material not produced by the indigenous population. The exact year was determinable because a massive solar storm occurred in 992 AD that produced a distinct radiocarbon signal in tree rings from the following year.

“The distinct uplift in radiocarbon production that occurred between 992 and 993 AD has been detected in tree-ring archives from all over the world,” says Associate Professor Michael Dee (University of Groningen), director of the research. Each of the three wooden objects exhibited this signal 29 growth rings (years) before the bark edge. “Finding the signal from the solar storm 29 growth rings in from the bark allowed us to conclude that the cutting activity took place in the year 1021 AD,” says Dr. Margot Kuitems (University of Groningen), first author of the paper.


This video introduces ECHOES — Exact Chronology of Early Societies, a 5-year project funded by the European Research Council and based at the University of Groningen. Its central aim is to develop a new approach to radiocarbon dating, one that is accurate to the exact calendar year. The technique will be built on the recent discovery of annual rises, or ‘spikes’, in the concentration of radiocarbon in the atmosphere. Credit: ESRIG — Energy and Sustainability Research Institute Groningen, Pix Videos

How Far, How Often?

The number of Viking expeditions to the Americas, and the duration of their stay over the Atlantic, remain unknown. All current data suggest that the whole endeavor was somewhat short-lived, and the cultural and ecological legacy of this first European activity in the Americas is likely to have been small. Nonetheless, botanical evidence from L’Anse aux Meadows has confirmed that the Vikings did explore lands further south than Newfoundland.

This is Dr. Margot Kuitems (University of Groningen), first author of the paper, is seen here preparing samples at the radiocarbon facility at the Centre of Isotope Research, Groningen (the Netherlands). Credit: Ronald Zijlstra

The Sagas

1021 AD is the earliest year in which European presence in the Americas can be scientifically proven. Previous dates for the Viking presence in the Americas have relied heavily on the Icelandic Sagas. However, these began as oral histories and were only written down centuries after the events they describe. Whilst contradictory and at times fantastical, the Sagas also suggest encounters occurred, both violent and amiable, between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the region. However, little archaeological evidence has been uncovered to support such exchanges. Other medieval accounts also exist, which imply prominent figures on the European mainland were made aware the Vikings had made landfall across the Atlantic.

Reference: “Evidence for European presence in the Americas in AD 1021” by Margot Kuitems, Birgitta L. Wallace, Charles Lindsay, Andrea Scifo, Petra Doeve, Kevin Jenkins, Susanne Lindauer, Pınar Erdil, Paul M. Ledger, Véronique Forbes, Caroline Vermeeren, Ronny Friedrich and Michael W. Dee, 20 October 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03972-8

ArchaeologyHistoryPopularRadiocarbon DatingUniversity of Groningen
Comments ( 13 )
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  • B

    Clearly this is racism

    • JD

      I’m pretty sure both dendrochronology and the identification of isotopes don’t care about the colour of your skin… Science is based on fact, not opinion.

  • mintas lanxor

    Little-known fact: It appears that the Indians beat the Vikings to it.

  • Orlando Aguilar

    Why is this even news? That’s a known fact for many years.

  • Louis Sims

    Carefully crafted phrases and semantics does not negate the FACT that indigenous people, (Native Americans) were already here for thousands of years. Indians live in India. How would any worldwide group of people like for an outside military entity take their land massacre their seniors, women and children, rape their women and then label them as they please. And totally rewrite history to serve their own purposes mainly to cover up their horrendous deeds.
    Fake News? Nothing new!
    When we don’t call it what it is and expose the truth the same thing repeats itself over and over again worldwide.

  • Louis Sims

    Do you want to take over any people’s territory?
    Just announce that there is gold, diamonds, oil, or some other valuable resource is there. A massive Bum Rush of people will come from everywhere. Then as the “governing authority”
    You can always claim you couldn’t do anything about it because you were overwhelmed. This is a tried and true historical strategy.

  • Louis Sims

    So change Columbus day to Lief Erickson day?
    Stop the fairy tales. I know it hurts but just try the truth for once!

  • Chief Spirit

    I am American Indians by blood, Chief Spirit of Shawnee, Cherokee and Choctaw Indians Nation ♥..I don’t believe the viking or Columbus were here..first…so stop to our next generation of children and elders too..

    • JD

      Before you get “triggered”, please read all of the headline… if not the article. Nowhere in this article does it claim that they are the first, qualifiers mean things. “First Europeans” is clearly in the headline. The reason this is significant is that it proves that the traditional oral histories of both the Viking and Frisian tribes were fairly accurate… 200 years after it happened when it was finally written down by scribes. You might want to read the sagas, they may surprise you. They have a detailed account of trading with the Mi’kmaq. Just a heads up… this has nothing to do with Clovis Culture.

  • European

    To all who seem to be offended by the scientific proof that the Vikings reached America before Columbus: I always get seriously irritated when I read/hear that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Hell! He did not. Native American Indians discovered the Americas and this is the pure fact that some people just keep forgetting about. Intentionally probably.
    But this article does not challenge the idea of who was the first to DISCOVER America. It just tells us which of the European plunderers were there first.

  • Del

    Actually, since they are now finding that the blood of Native Americans has some Western Asian, and some strange Anglo European blood brought across what is known as the “Steppes” in Eur-Asia…..we then must conclude that the migration of these ancestors are the first Europeans, these people who were the ones that went on over to the Bering Straight…..and.into North America…….

  • Lightnin'

    This date also marks the earliest known point by which the Atlantic had been crossed, and migration by humankind had finally encircled the entire planet.

    So these idiots actually believe this.
    Obviously humankind was in the Americas many many thousands of years before the Vikings showed up. Someone should really have to pay for posting such racist lies as scientific fact.

    I can say with great confidence humans were crossing great bodies of water, oceans, using manmade boats or ships as early as 2700 b.c.

  • Xyz

    Phoenicians and Greeks also visited the Americas. It will be difficult to prove it because there’s no physical evidence there but there are descriptions of that in ancient texts. Although, in the Azores, there’s several archeological sites being studied and they all point to Phoenician occupation and the possibility of that they visited Central America and contacted the local empires.