However, in 1961, a Norwegian husband and wife archaeological team did just that by uncovering a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.
This was concrete proof that not only did Norse explorers and settlers reach North America hundreds of years before Columbus but that Canada had a new historical legacy linking it to the early medieval world of the Vikings.
The history of the so-called "Viking Age" is the history of the expansion of peoples from the Scandinavian Peninsula outward into the North Atlantic world. In fact, the very start date of this period (793 CE) was a westward raid, across the North Sea, to the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England.
This westward expansion would soon see Viking societies established throughout the British Isles and onto Iceland by the late 9th century CE. From Iceland, the Norse pushed further westward to establish two settlements in Greenland by the last two decades of the 10th century CE.
The two settlements in Greenland were at the far western edge of the Viking world, extending from Northern France to the Eurasian steppes to Scandinavia. The Norse settlements in Greenland had, at their height, a population of between 2000 to 10,000 but still remained an important economic link with other Viking societies for farm products (archaeologists have discovered the ruins of over 620 farms) and the lucrative trade of furs and walrus ivory.
It was from these settlements, on the very western fringes of the Viking world, that voyages of "discovery," further west, would be launched from.
L'Anse aux Meadows
One day in 1960, George Decker, a local citizen of a small fishing village on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, a province of Canada, led a Norwegian woman through a field. The Norwegian woman, Anne Ingstad, was an archaeologist who, along with her husband Helge, had grown up on the old Norse sagas which mentioned "Vinland." This was a land, west of Greenland, where Norse explorers and sailors had "discovered" and had run-ins with what they called skraelings – the indigenous population.
When Decker led Ingstad, she was struck by what looked like the remains of buildings. Decker, however, dismissed them as being the remnants of an "old Indian camp." This piqued Ingstad's interest, and she, along with her husband, would start to excavate this sight at the beautifully named L'Anse aux Meadows.
The husband and wife team carried out seven archaeological excavations over the next eight years and made a groundbreaking discovery. The remains of the "old Indian camp" were, in fact, the remains of an Old Norse settlement.
They uncovered not only the remains of eight buildings – including a carpentry workshop and what is assumed to be a chieftain's hall - but also unearthed over 800 Norse objects ranging from knitting needles to part of a loom. Carbon dating and tree ring analysis have given an estimate of this settlement to be nearly a millennium old, constructed sometime between 990 – 1050 CE.
The Ingstads, and their archaeological team, had conclusively proven that the Norse had reached the North American continent long before other European voyages of discovery centuries later. The site at L'Anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Norse settlement, outside Greenland, in North America.
The monument to Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine - L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Photo: Robson90 / Shutterstock
Hang on - the Vikings "discovered" Canada?
Long before the traditional starting of the "Viking Age," indigenous peoples had settled in the Americas. Climatic conditions from 50,000 to 17,000 years ago saw falling sea levels that allowed people to move across the Bering Strait, from Siberia to the North American landmass. Around 17,000 years ago, glaciers began to melt, allowing people to move further eastward into what is now Canada, arriving approximately 14,000 years ago.
By the time the Norse had established a settlement on Greenland, First Nations peoples had established communities throughout Canada, whilst the Inuit people had spread across from Alaska to reach the eastern seaboard of Canada. On the island of Newfoundland, where L'Anse aux Meadows is situated, there is evidence of settlement by five indigenous groups long before the Norse arrived.
Nonetheless, the Norse were the first Europeans to establish a settlement (regardless of how short-lasting it was) in Canada until the French established a presence in Quebec some six centuries later.
Was Canada mentioned in Old Icelandic sagas?
Interestingly, the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows has been linked with the establishment of Vinland by Leif Erikson – at least according to Icelandic sagas. These two sagas - The Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders – written in the early 13th century contain accounts of voyages, by Leif Erikson, to a coastal region named "Vinland."
The sagas differ on whether Erikson was the first to discover this new land (Greenlanders credits Bjarni Herjólfsson), but both agree that it was Erikson who would lead an expedition to this newly "discovered" land.
What can be ascertained from the sagas is that Vinland was part of a wider region where several settlements were possibly established. Erikson's discovery of Vinland included Helluland (said to be a craggy and desolate place), Markland (a heavily forested area that some historians have linked to the area around Cape Porcupine in southeastern Newfoundland), and the establishment of a small settlement named Leifsbudir.
Despite dealings with the skraelings – assumed to be the local indigenous population (which tragically involved deadly combat) Leif and his men wintered in Vinland. They returned the following spring to Greenland with supplies of grapes and timber. It was the discovery of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows that proved that the Norse settlement of Canada was more than just a ripping yarn; it was a historical fact.
The bronze sculpture named the "Meeting of Two Worlds" marks the meeting of human migration in Northern Newfoundland, where the Vikings first landed in North America. Photo: Mary Anne Love / Shutterstock
A return of the Vikings?
Despite the establishment of a Norse settlement in modern-day Canada, there is no evidence of any further Norse activity after the 11th century CE. The Norse world had expanded to the fringes of the North American continent temporarily but would then contract back to Greenland and eventually Iceland by the latter stages of the medieval period.
Norse languages would be spoken in Greenland until the early 15th century, when the two settlements went into terminal decline. This was the end of the Norse settlement of North America but not the end of European influence.
Following Christopher Columbus' "voyages of discovery" in the late 15th century, the link between Europe and the North American continent was again established. However, it would take more than a century for the first European settlement, by the French, in what would become Canada. In 1605 CE, Samuel Chaplain established the first French settlement and founded Quebec City. This was the first European settlement in Canada following the Norse some six centuries before.
The decline of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows would not be the end of the Norse influence in Canada. During the latter stages of the 19th century CE, Canada saw a significant influx of Scandinavian migrants. Huge western swathes of what are now the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan developed with the help of Scandinavians. In fact, the latest census taken in Canada in 2016 saw over 4% of the population (1.2 million people) claim Scandinavian ancestry. They have a rich cultural heritage, which can be traced back almost a millennium.
As for the remains of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO a decade later.
For the latest deep dive into exactly when the Norse arrived in Canada, read a Nature Journal article here.
As for the further archaeological progress of the exploration of the Norse settlement of Newfoundland, read a BBC Magazine article on this here.
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A recreation of a Viking timber-and-sod-longhouse at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Photo: Bob Hilscher / Shutterstock
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