How extensively did the Vikings explore the Americas a millennium ago?

vikingsthree entering greenland

Around the year 1000, Leif Erikson set sail from Greenland and landed first in ‘Stone-slab land’, then ‘Forest land’ and finally in Vinland, where Erikson and his men found ‘fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees there were maples’.

Where exactly did Erikson land? The sagas provide important clues. Vinland enjoyed more hours of daylight than Greenland: ‘In the depth of winter, the sun was aloft by mid-morning and still visible at mid-afternoon,’ information that places Vinland somewhere between New Jersey and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

In 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, the archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, set out to find these places.

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When they arrived at the village of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island, they asked the locals about possible Viking remains. One man showed them some grassy mounds on a beach, which the villagers believed were abandoned dwellings of native peoples. The structures turned out to be the collapsed remains of eight sod buildings originally held up by wooden frames.

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The Norse stayed at L’Anse aux Meadows for only 10 years before deciding around 1010 CE to return home. It’s not clear why they left: disputes with the locals might have prompted their decision. They could also have realised that the goods available in North America – primarily pelts and lumber – wouldn’t support a settlement in the long term.

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