Well, so much for North American history as we know it
For years, students were taught with a near absolute certainty that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Sure, he never actually landed on the shores of what would become the United States of America, and sure, there were already millions of people here when Columbus arrived, and yes, he was actually kind of a genocidal monster, but the history books were vague on all that.
There are a lot of asterisks by the story of Columbus discovering America, but the biggest of all may simply be that he wasn’t the first explorer to navigate the ocean to reach the Americas. The Vikings were here first by several hundred years, and new evidence suggests their colonization of North America was more extensive than first believed.
Time to rewrite the history books again.
The first recorded explorer to cross the ocean and reach North America (not counting Greenland) is Leif Erikson, who sailed around 1000 AD and landed in Vinland (pronounced “Windland”), modern day Newfoundland. That puts him in the Americas nearly 500 years before Columbus.
Technically, Erikson’s expedition was the second to reach North America. The story goes that Erikson heard stories of the distant land from a merchant named Bjarni Herjolfsson. Erikson purchased the merchant’s boat, along with his navigational notes, which led him and his crew to Newfoundland. A small colony was established at what has become known as “L’Anse aux Meadows,” but it was abandoned a few years later.
A century after Erikson’s trip, others tried to sail to Vinland. None returned, and the initial discovery faded into legend.
Despite rumors and stories, Erikson’s journey wasn’t proven until the 1960s, when the ruin of L’Anse aux Meadows was uncovered; a new discovery suggests that Erikson’s settlement wasn’t the only one. Using satellite technology and the ancient Norse sagas as reference, a research team led by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, uncovered the remains of a settlement 300 miles southwest of L’Anse aux Meadows.
That essentially rewrites the history of North America, in a significant way.
Last year, Parack won the $1 million TED prize for her work repurposing satellite imagery for archaeological discoveries. The ancient settlement, located at Point Rosee, was discovered after Parack used that satellite imaging.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” she told the BBC of the new find. “Typically in archaeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books, but what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.
“This new site could unravel more secrets about the Vikings, whether they were the first Europeans to ‘occupy’ briefly in North America, and reveal that the Vikings dared to explore much further into the New World than we ever thought.”
Following ancient legends and stories, Parack and her team began to focus on an area southwest of Erikson’s landing site. The team used satellites, and eventually settled on Point Rosee. After some initial excavations, they uncovered evidence of iron-working, and the remains of a turf wall.
“The sagas suggest a short period of activity and a very brief and failed colonization attempt. L’Anse aux Meadows fits well with that story but is only one site,” archaeologist Douglas Bolender said. “Point Rosee could reinforce that story or completely change it if the dating is different from L’Anse aux Meadows. We could end up with a much longer period of Norse activity in the New World.”
More excavations of the land are forthcoming, but the settlement may not be the only one of its kind.
“For a long time, serious North Atlantic archaeologists have largely ignored the idea of looking for Norse sites in coastal Canada because there was no real method for doing so,” Bolender said. “If Sarah Parcak can find one Norse site using satellites, then there’s a reasonable chance that you can use the same method to find more, if they exist. If Point Rosee is Norse, it may open up coastal Canada to a whole new era of research.”