On this day in 1960, America’s earliest known European settlement was discovered, five centuries before Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World.
Ask most people the question “Who discovered America?” and the reply will most often be shot back with a great deal of assurance, and perhaps even a little disdain. As posers go, this is an easy one, and there are few children of primary school age who will fail to identify the discoverer as Christopher Columbus. The exploits of the famous Genoan are so etched into our consciousness, and his legacy so enduring, that it is virtually impossible to imagine an alternative course in the history of early America.
But on 21 July 1960, a discovery was made at the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland that forced historians to re-evaluate early American history, and cast new light on the extent of early European travel. Norwegian explorer and archaeologist, Helge Ingstad, looking for evidence of early human dwellings in northeast Canada, discovered a settlement that was quite unlike any other previously found.
Consisting of eight houses, a smithy, and three general workshops, the small settlement was unmistakably that of a Norse community, and was similar in form to those found in Iceland and Greenland. The buildings followed a familiar Viking pattern, being timber-framed and covered with insulating peat turf. Artefacts found in the vicinity of the buildings were consistent with those in other Viking settlements, and confirmed that, long before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, European sailors had set foot in America.
Following the discovery, a number of archaeological surveys were carried out on the site, conducted by Ingstad and his wife, Anne Stine. Carbon dating of items found on the dig showed that the settlement dated from around 990 CE, confirming its status as America’s earliest known European settlement.
The evidence gathered showed that the site did not remain settled for long, indicating it may have been a temporary base for further exploration of the region. This was consistent with early Norse texts that described the discovery and exploration of land in the West. Several stories from the 11th century Icelandic sagas described tentative exploration of a western landmass known as Vinland. The discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows suggested the sagas did not merely describe some mythical location, and provided the strong evidence that the early descriptions of Vinland were based in fact.
The discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was hugely significant in assessing the limits and capabilities of the Norse civilisation. It showed that the Vikings were capable of covering huge distances, and were every bit as intrepid, daring, and inquisitive as the explorers who followed in their footsteps some 500 years later.
For his role in discovering the New World in the late 15th century, Columbus is rightly revered, and will always be deemed a central figure when considering the course of American history. But for establishing the earliest known European settlement in the Americas, preceding the next by some 500 years, the Vikings also deserve recognition, and the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows will go down as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries on the North American continent.
Caption: The discovery of l’Anse aux Meadows proved that Columbus was not the first European in the Americas.