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The Vikings, or Norse, explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic, including the northeast fringes of North America, beginning in the 10th century of the common era. While this settlement process did not have the lasting effects that later settlements and conquests would have, it can be seen as a prelude to wide-scale European settlement in the Americas.
It is often erroneously described as the Viking colonisation of North America, but there are few findings that support this idea. It is rather better described as Viking attempts to take control over routes and rights for trading animal hides, fur and other commodities. Thus these settlements only grew to a small size and never fully developed into permanent colonies.
The Icelandic poems are the first written sources in Europe that reference North America. Some scholars believe that South American petroglyphs are rune-like symbols and thus offer proof of Norse contact (e.g. Nazca urn in Peru, Brazil, Paraguay), but this assertion has never found support among Scandinavian runologists. There are also runestones found in North America (e.g. the Kensington Runestone, Newport Tower and Oklahoma runes) that are thought by some to descend from the Viking Age. Runological experts generally do not support either the North nor South American runestone finds to be sound proof of Viking contact, and some suggest that these stand merely as proof of the quality and diversity of pre-historic Native American arts. There is a map describing North America, the Vinland map, the age of which is subject to some debate. While it is at least based on a real, historical map, the Vinland map does show parts of the Greenland coastline that were covered with ice around 1100-1300th century.
According to Icelandic Sagas, Vikings from Iceland first discovered Greenland in the 980s. Erik the Red led a settlement expedition there in 985. At its peak, the colony consisted of two settlements with a total population of between 3,000 and 5,000; at least 400 farms have been identified by archaeologists.
At its height, Viking Greenland had a bishopric (at Garðar) and exported ivory, rope, sheep, seals, and cattle hides. In 1261, the population accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian King, although it continued to have its own law. In 1380 this kingdom entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark.
The colony began to decline in the 1300s. The Western Settlement was abandoned around 1350. By 1378, there was no longer a bishop at Garðar. After a marriage was recorded in 1408, no written records mention the settlers. It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the late 1400s, although no exact date has been established. The most recent radiocarbon date found in Norse settlements as of 2002 was 1430 A.D. +/- 15 years. Several theories have been advanced about the reasons for the decline. The Little Ice Age of this period would have made it harder to travel between Greenland and Europe, and more difficult for Greenlanders to farm for subsistence; in addition, Greenlandic ivory may have been supplanted in European markets by cheaper ivory from Africa.
Despite the loss of contact with the Greenlanders, the Danish government continued to consider Greenland a possession, and the existence of the island was never forgotten by European geographers. European whalers made occasional landfalls on the island in the 17th century. In 1721 a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland, not knowing whether the civilization remained there, and worried that if it did, it might still be Catholic 200 years after the rest of Scandinavia had experienced the Reformation. Though this expedition found no surviving Europeans, it marked the beginning of Denmark’s assertion of sovereignty over the island, a story that belongs to the Danish colonization of the Americas.
According to the Icelandic sagas (“Eirik the Red’s Saga” and “the Saga of the Greenlanders” — chapters of the Hauksbók and the Flatey Book), the Vikings started to explore lands to the west of Greenland only a few years after the Greenland settlements were established. Bjarni Herjólfsson, a merchant, while sailing from Iceland to Greenland, was blown off course and sighted land west of the latter. He described his discovery to Leif Ericson, who explored the area in more detail and planted a small settlement.
The sagas describe three separate areas discovered during this exploration: Helluland, which means “land of the flat stones”; Markland, which was covered with forest (something of definite interest to the settlers in Greenland, which had few trees); and Vinland, which was somewhere farther south of Markland. It was in Vinland where the settlement described in the sagas was planted.
Leif’s settlement did not prosper; the settlers fought over the few women who accompanied the expedition, and also had conflicts with the local Native Americans (whom they called Skraelings). The settlement was abandoned after a few years. The Greenland Norse remembered the existence of land to the west, though, and continued to travel to Markland for wood. The final voyage may have occurred as late as the 14th century.
For some centuries after Christopher Columbus’s voyages opened the Americas to large-scale colonization by Europeans, it was unclear whether these stories represented real voyages by Vikings to North America. The sagas were first taken seriously after the Danish archaeologist Carl Christian Rafn in 1837 pointed out the possibility for a Norse settlement or voyages to North America.
The question was definitively settled in the 1960s, when a Viking settlement was excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The location of the various lands described in the sagas is still unclear, however. Many historians identify Helluland with Baffin Island and Markland with Labrador. The location of Vinland is a thornier question. Some believe that the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement is the Vinland settlement described in the sagas; others, based on elements in the sagas that depict Vinland as being warmer than Newfoundland, believe that it lay further south. For more on the debate, see the article on Vinland. There are still many questions remaining, and only new archaeological findings can supply more information.
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