Who Was the First to Discover America? ~ A guest post by Alex lemaire

I’m pleased to welcome to the blog Alex lemaire.  He describes himself as an ordinary guy who is interested in history and he believes metal detectors are time machines that help unearth history.  You can find his blog at https://metaldetectorplanet.com/ 

Leiv Eriksson Discovers North American. Painting by Christian Krohg, 19th C.


One of the popular beliefs is that Christopher Columbus was the first man to discover America.   He was an Italian sailor on board a Spanish ship, looking for a faster route to reach India.  The trip lasted for three months and he accidentally discovered the New World on October 12, 1492.  People in various countries of the Americas celebrate this day thinking Columbus is the discoverer of the new continent.

However, archeological evidence shows the Vikings already knew about the New World 500 years before Columbus.  They even settled for a while in Newfoundland and Labrador (the most easterly province of present-day Canada).  Their remains were found in the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site discovered in 1960.  The site is 1000 years old and was inhabited somewhere between 989 and A.D 1020.

The site consists of eight structures built in the same style as those found in Greenland and Iceland during the 11th-century.  These buildings were shelters and workshops for woodworking and iron production.  Native Americans didn’t master metallurgy so the iron artifacts must have European origins.  After further examination of the blade sharpening tools excavated from the site, archaeologists found traces of bronze that was usually made by the Vikings.

Before this discovery, historians had no evidence suggesting that Columbus wasn’t the first European to arrive to the new world.  The only thing they had were sagas.  According to these tales, a sailor named Leif Eriksson discovered the American continent somewhere around A.D 1000.

Eriksson was the son of an outlaw, Erik the Red, who was expelled from Iceland to Greenland where he set up the first Viking settlement.  Eriksson was born in Iceland around A.D 970-980 but he grew up in Greenland.  He then traveled to Norway where he converted to Christianity.

There are a few differences between the sagas due to the fact they were transmitted by word of mouth before being written.  One version says that Eriksson accidentally discovered America because he lost his way when he was going back home to preach the new religion.  According to the other, he heard about the existence of a strange new land and he wanted to explore it.

After reaching his destination, he saw a rocky land he called Helluland, which means Stone Slab Land in Norwegian.  Then, the sailors headed west and found a land with lots of trees, which they called Markland (Forestland).  They finally dropped anchor and settled for a while in an area rich of wild grapes which they called Vinland (Wineland).

It is interesting how the Sagas match the reality.  The Helluland (Stone Slab Land) looks like the Baffin Island, the Markland (Forestland) is similar to Labrador and the Vinland (Wineland) could be the island of Newfoundland where the L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered.  The archeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows is dated to the time when Leif Erikson lived.


New horizons at L’Anse aux Meadows


Further reading:  “Vikings, the North Atlantic Saga” edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, “The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland” by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, UNESCO, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/4

Leif Erikson: Norse explorer, Birgitta Wallace, ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leif-Erikson

Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada, Heather Pringle, National Geographic News, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/10/121019-viking-outpost-second-new-canada-science-sutherland/

The Viking Explorer Who Beat Columbus to America, Christopher Klein, History, https://www.history.com/news/the-viking-explorer-who-beat-columbus-to-america