New North America Viking Voyage Discovered

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At the time the Norse journey took place, this area of the Notre Dame Bay coastline was populated by the ancestors of the Beothuk people.
Kevin Smith

Some 1,000 years ago, the Vikings set off on a voyage to Notre Dame Bay in modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, new evidence suggests.

The journey would have taken the Vikings, also called the Norse, from L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the same island to a densely populated part of Newfoundland and may have led to the first contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of the New World.

"This area of Notre Dame Bay was as good a candidate as any for that first contact between the Old World and the New World, and that's kind of an exciting thing," said Kevin Smith, deputy director and chief curator of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.

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Evidence of the voyage was discovered by a combination of archaeological excavation and chemical analysis of two jasper artifacts that the Norse used to light fires. The analysis, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Honolulu, suggests the jasper used in the artifacts came from the area of Notre Dame Bay. [See Images of the Viking Voyage Discovery]

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The jasper artifacts were found L'Anse aux Meadows and the Norse explorers likely set out from that outpost. They would've headed due south, traveling some 143 miles (230 kilometers) to Notre Dame Bay. When they reached their destination Norse would have set foot in an area of Newfoundland that modern-day researchers know was well inhabited.

"This area of Notre Dame Bay archaeologically the area of densest settlement on Newfoundland, at that time, of indigenous people, the ancestors of the Beothuk," a people who, at the time, lived as hunter-gatherers, Smith told LiveScience.

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Aside from likely encountering the ancestral Beothuk, the Norse would probably have been impressed by the landscape itself. The coastline had fjords, inlets and offshore islands, with lots of forests. Birds, sea mammals and fish also would have been plentiful.

"For anyone coming from the nearly treeless islands of the North Atlantic, this would have potentially been a very interesting zone," Smith said. "There are a lot of trees; there's a lot of opportunities for cutting things down; it's a bit warmer; it's an interesting mix of resources," Smith said.

For any Norse voyagers who had been to Norway, it would have been familiar. It still would have made an impression though, since the lands the Norse had occupied in their journey across the North Atlantic tended to be more barren.

Researchers don't know the specifics about the contact between the Norse and the ancestral Beothuk on this voyage, presuming it actually happened. It could have been a peaceful encounter, although the Norse sagas also tell of hostile meetings with people in the New World. Also, while the possible meeting likely would have been one of the earliest Old World-New World encounters, researchers don't know if it was the very first.  [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen]