The Vikings were a legendary culture that left their mark all over the world. Their collective history generally dates back to the late 8th century and lasts until the late 11th century, which includes the Vikings expansion throughout Europe and the Americas.
The Vikings have been glorified in modern day popular culture with a mixed representation of fact and fiction.
For instance, yes, the Vikings were likely the first Europeans to “discover” America, taking place centuries before Columbus’ voyage in 1492. However, no, the Vikings neither had the characteristic horns on their helmets nor drank from the skulls of their enemies.
In reality the Vikings were a subset of the Norse people who raided, settled, and traded throughout many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. The Norse, or Norsemen, were a cultural and ethnolinguistic group hailing from the lands of the modern day Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
As the Vikings expanded and settled into neighboring lands, they profoundly influenced the local cultures while simultaneously bringing back elements of foreign cultures to their homelands. The Vikings are known to have raided and settled areas as far west as the Americas and as far southeast as the Middle East.
The stories of the Vikings’ expansion into the Americas were thought to be fictitious for centuries, yet conclusive proof exists to their presence. Just when did the Vikings discover America, and why did they arrive and then subsequently leave?
Historians are still searching for some of these answers, though there are several leading theories.
The Viking Expansion North and West
One of the first recorded Viking raids took place in 793. No one knows exactly why the Norse began raiding, though theories abound.
Some believe it had to do with a shortage of available women for marriage, given the prevalence of polygynous relationships in Norse culture. Others believe it was a lack of natural resources or the Vikings seizing on a period of political weakness in surrounding regions.
Regardless of the motive, the Viking expansion westward was rapid and drastic. The British Isles were raided and settled throughout the 9th-10th centuries, as was the Normandy region of France, the Iberian peninsula, and beyond.
Further north, the Vikings colonized the Faroe Islands by 800 CE, and they settled in Iceland in 874 CE. Iceland’s climate allowed herding and only limited agriculture, but that was enough to sustain the Norse settlers whose population remains to this day.
It’s interesting to note that these arctic and subarctic lands were in many cases worse than the existing lands back in Scandinavia. Just why would the Vikings be interested in Iceland?
One of the primary reasons for Viking interest in Iceland was due to the abundant population of walruses. At the time walrus tusk ivory was highly prized with great demand from European markets.
The seafaring Northern-European Vikings essentially monopolized the walrus tusk trade with their extensive trade networks. The walrus tusks were so valuable that the Icelandic Norsemen would eventually hunt them into extinction on the island.
It is commonly told in the Icelandic sagas (Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders) that Erik the Red discovered and settled Greenland after being banished from Iceland for manslaughter.
However, it is increasingly believed that while this story may be true, he was actually following the trail of walruses in search of their prized tusks.
When Did the Vikings Discover the Americas
It is known that by 986 Erik the Red had established settlements among the southern fjords of Greenland. He called the land Greenland in hopes of attracting more settlers.
As Greenland is part of the American continent, the Vikings technically “discovered” America by 986. For whatever reason, most people do not count this.
Nevertheless, shortly after the Norse settlement of Greenland, the Vikings explored further westward and south. The Icelandic sagas detail the quests of Erik the Red’s son, Leif Erikson, and other Greenlanders and their exploration of the North American coastline.
Per the sagas, Leif Erikson was the first Viking to set foot on what they called Vinland, or “the land of wine.” The Norse likely established small settlements and camps along the route to transport goods.
They also encountered Native Americans already living on these lands. The Vikings called them skraelings or “wretches.” While initial encounters were amicable, relations are known to have quickly soured and turned violent.
Only one of these settlements has been found and excavated, the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which has been dated to around 1000 CE.
For whatever reason, the Vikings only remained at L’Anse aux Meadows for a relatively short period of time. Regardless, the significance of the discovery in the 1960s cannot be understated.
The Norse ruins on Newfoundland provide distinct proof that the Vikings were the first Europeans to have settled the Americas – nearly 500 years before Columbus.
Viking Settlements in North America
The Viking settlements in Greenland were split between two distinct areas: a western settlement near modern day Nuuk and an eastern settlement near modern day Igaliku with about 300 miles of separation between the two. Both were located on the coast among the few fjords that had arable land for meager farming and grazing.
Despite popular belief, archaeological records show that the Vikings adapted well to the icy climate. Eventually as much as 80% of their diet came from marine life, in particular seals.
The settlements would often need to come together to support one another. Massive seal and walrus hunts were organized and the results divided among the communities. It’s estimated that a maximum of 2,500 people lived in Greenland.
Even though the Norse Greenlanders had success with their hunting and meager farming, they were far from self-sufficient. In fact, they relied upon imports of grain, iron and other essentials.
For the Viking settlements further west into the Americas, only one has been confirmed, that of L’Anse aux Meadows. However, there were likely many others that remain hidden, or have been lost to time.
The sagas describe three distinct places the Norsemen visited: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland.
Helluland and Markland have confidently been identified as Baffin Island and the Labrador coast respectively. This is because the rocky, barren terrain of Baffin Island and white sand beaches and forested inland of the Labrador as well as relative locations match up perfectly with those two lands.
Vinland has proven more difficult to find. Some believe that L’Anse aux Meadows is part of Vinland, though the area notably lacks several key features, including no wild grapes.
More likely, L’Anse aux Meadows was used as a base for expeditions further south. Scholars believe that Vinland was an area as far south as Hudson River, though more likely somewhere near New England.
Why the Vikings Left the Americas and Greenland
As quickly as the Vikings came to North America, their time there was even shorter. The settlement at L”Anse aux Meadows was only in use for roughly twenty years or so. It’s estimated that the Vinland settlements lasted the same amount of time.
While it is not known why the Vikings abandoned them so quickly, there are several theories. Hostile relations with the natives surely did not help matters. Though their iron tools aided them in battle, the Vikings only numbered in the low hundreds at the most and were dramatically outnumbered.
The more likely scenario is that the Vinland settlements were too far away to be sustainable. The Greenland colony itself was not even self-sufficient, and with that as the nearest outpost, the Norsemen did not have the necessary support to sustain far-flung remote settlements.
Even though they abandoned their Vinland settlements, that did not mark the end of their contact. The Vikings still sailed west to harvest timber for ships from the Labrador coast as well as trade with some of the more friendly natives.
The Greenland settlements continued to exist for centuries. However, by the mid 15th century Iceland lost contact with the remaining Greenlanders, who subsequently vanished.
Several events caused the demise of the Viking Greenlanders. The Little Ice Age of the 14th century caused a massive shift in climate, lowering temperatures and causing treacherous weather. Sailing became dangerous, as well as hunting the seals that were the Greenlanders’ primary food source.
The 14th century also saw the onset of the bubonic plague that devastated Europe’s population. Nearly half the population of Norway – Greenland’s primary trading partner – died in the plague, though Greenland was spared.
Lastly, by the mid 14th century the demand for walrus tusk ivory had finally declined. After Portugal opened trade routes to sub-Saharan Africa, elephant tusk ivory became much more prized.
The combination of a lack of economic incentive, harsh and inhospitable weather, and a pandemic are surely what caused the demise of the last Viking settlements in North America.