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There’s Now Evidence That Other Europeans Beat the Vikings to the North Atlantic

Someone, and we don't know who, beat the Vikings to the Faroe Islands by as much as 500 years

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Starting in around 800 AD, Norse Vikings sailed out from Scandinavia on an exploratory campaign that carried them across the world. They sailed from their homes in northern Europe, largely around Norway, to the far-off lands of Iceland, Greenland, and even Canada. In many cases the Vikings, cruising in their sleek longships or their stout knarrs, would settle on land previously untouched by human hands. But as it turns out, the Vikings were not the only civilization cruising the North Atlantic more than 1,200 years ago. On the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago mid-way between the tips of Norway, Scotland and Iceland, archeologists have found evidence of settlements that predate even those of the Vikings.

Previously, archaeologists thought that when the Vikings came across the Faroe Islands around 800 AD, they had stumbled on unsettled land. The conditions were not great: farmland was in short supply and mostly near the coasts. But the new research suggests that the idea of a pristine, though rugged, landscape may not be true. Someone else—it’s not clear who—beat the Vikings to the Faroe Islands, maybe by as much as 500 years.

According to the Conversation, speaking with the scientists behind the new research, an archaeological dig in 2006 turned up evidence they weren’t expecting:

“We uncovered some burnt peat ash containing barley grains under the Viking longhouse. It was not until we had it dated that we realised what we had found.”

It was a common practise across the North Atlantic for peat to be burnt for warmth, before being spread on fields and grasslands to improve soil stability and fertility. Barley is not indigenous to the Faroes and so must have been either grown or brought to the islands by humans. Their findings are therefore conclusive evidence that the Faroes were colonised in pre-Viking times.

Some scientists have previously argued that the Faroes had been settled before the Vikings made landfall, but there was no specific evidence for these claims. The new find shows that someone was there first. The big question now is: who? According to Charles Choi for LiveScience, there are many contenders:

It remains unknown who these newly discovered settlers were. Possibilities may include religious hermits from Ireland, late-Iron Age colonists from Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia.

“Maybe these were intrepid explorers arriving from each of those areas,” Church said, adding that the findings raise more questions than they answer.

But more than causing a slight rethink of the Faroe Islands’ founders, firm evidence that people were cruising the North Atlantic before the Vikings could cause a reanalysis of the whole timeline of this exploratory era. The Conversation:

The Faroes were the first stepping stone beyond Shetland for the dispersal of European people across the North Atlantic. The findings therefore allow speculation as to whether Iceland, Greenland, and even North America were colonised earlier than previously thought.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Raiders or Traders?
To Adapt to Harsh Greenland Climate, Vikings Gorged on Seals
Why is Bluetooth Called Bluetooth? (Hint: Vikings!)

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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