SECTION 2 HISTORY AND OTHER DISCIPLINES: Radiocarbon dating and accelerator mass spectrometry

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

Although the age of exploration in history textbooks usually begins with the efforts of the Portuguese and Spanish in the fifteenth century, most students know that it was the Norse who were the first Europeans to encounter the new world of the Americas, not Columbus. However, there has been some hesitation among scholars about the exact date of this first discovery and settlement. In 1960, a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland in Canada was discovered by Helge Ingstad. Ingstad had believed in the existence of a Norse settlement in Canada based on mention of travels to a new land called “Vinland” in the Icelandic sagas like Groenlendinga saga (1190), and Erik's saga (1260). Although several Viking-age artifacts were found at the site, the dating of the site was inconclusive. To better confirm the time period, radiocarbon dating from L'Anse aux Meadows was performed at the Trondheim Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory during the excavation period. Recently, there has been new interest in further confirmation of the exact date of the settlement using more modern radiocarbon dating techniques since the accuracy of calibration has increased in the years since the original research. A new study benefits from results with those of the Isotrace Accelerator Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Both studies made use of charcoal from the settlement’s cooking pits. The results, based on thirteen charcoal samples and using both radiocarbon dating and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) resulted in new confidence that the date of the Norse settlement of Newfoundland occurred between 1000 and 1020. Researchers concluded, “With this highly accurate measurement, a historical event at ca AD 1000 is even more strongly supported. The 14C date is presented with a certain probability distribution in a range, and the result cannot be used to pinpoint a definitive expedition. There is a probability of 68% that the occupation occurred between AD 1000 - 1018 and 95% from AD 986 - 1022.”
With more confidence than ever, we can today confirm that the Norse discovered and settled the Americas over 450 years before Columbus.