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135 MIN READ TIME

America’s Stonehenge

BY GERT JAN VAN ‘T LAND

Early American History: Columbus and the Vikings

Long before Columbus sailed to America, the continent had of course been discovered and inhabited by humans. The Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas had built impressive civilizations in Central and South America long before the year 1492. And where the U.S. and Canada are today, the remains of a large variety of ancient human cultures can be found. Archaeologists generally agree that the oldest remains of human activity in North America date back to about 12,000 years ago, although some scholars claim findings of even older dates along the American West Coast.

It was probably not before the year 1000 CE that Europeans first laid eyes on the American east coast. According to the Sagas—an accepted, though not very precise form of historiography—in the year 980 Erik Thorvaldsson, also known as Erik the Red, traveled westward after he had been banished from a Viking settlement on Iceland. He discovered new territory and, with some followers, founded a settlement there. Probably for marketing purposes, hoping to attract followers, he dubbed this new place “Greenland.” According to the Norse Sagas a ship, en route from Iceland to Greenland, lost its way and finally reached its destination after sailing eastward (!) from an unknown coast. The Sagas tell us that later on, Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, went back to that coast and founded a settlement there. They probably reached what is now the Canadian island of Newfoundland. There is strong evidence for this scenario. On the coast of Newfoundland the remains of a Viking village have been found, as well as Viking artifacts. Dating back to the year 920 (plus or minus 30 years) according to the C-14 dating method, these remains provide evidence that Vikings are probably the first Europeans to have settled America. Life on the inhospitable Newfoundland coast probably wasn’t easy for the Vikings, and they seem to have abandoned their village after only a few decades without leaving any lasting influence on the land or the local people.

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