Hints of Norse Trips to New World

The first known contact between Europeans and Americans--Viking landfall in Newfoundland--is thought to have happened about 1000 years ago. Last week an archaeologist presented accumulated evidence from years of finds that the Vikings didn't just drop by once--she suggests they made frequent and prolonged contact with aboriginal peoples, at least 200 years before Columbus.

Archaeologists have suspected that the Norse once traveled the eastern arctic coasts. Those coasts weren't deserted; hunter-gatherers known as the Dorset once populated spots such as Baffin Island. Recently, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull started searching for clues to Viking visits among the remains of Dorset settlements.

Sutherland first came across Norse objects while examining the museum's artifacts from Nunguvik, a Dorset site on northern Baffin Island. She found two strands of soft yarn, one 3 meters in length. Neither the Dorset nor other native northern groups were known to have spun fibers, and the specimens looked like yarns Sutherland had seen in Greenland Norse sites. She sent samples to textile specialists for testing, who concluded that they were probably from the 13th or 14th centuries. Also in the museum's collection were carvings of European-looking faces. And several pieces of wood revealed European carpentry techniques, such as iron-stained holes apparently made by square nails and special kinds of fitted joints called mortise-tenon and scarfing.

Three other Dorset sites on Baffin Island yielded even more Norse objects, and their range suggests that the Vikings were frequent visitors to Canada's far north, Sutherland argues: "The contact was possibly sufficient to have influenced local technology."

Archaeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution notes that tough economic times in the 13th century may have led the Norse to try their hand at trading walrus ivory, which was much coveted in Europe. That might spur a journey to the high Arctic and contact with the walrus-hunting Dorset.