Viking America: A New Theory

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Acceptance of the meaning “pastureland” for Vinland allows a reinterpretation of its location independently of the northern growth limit of wild grapes. This limit has played an important part in the familiar attempts to identify Vinland as one of various places along the eastern seaboard of the United States. But the speed the Norsemen would have had to attain to reach these places within the sailing times specified by the sagas strains modern credulity as much as it would have strained the Norse ships, and it allows no time for them to have done any exploring along the way. On these grounds Enterline rejects any possibility that Vinland was in Virginia, Massachusetts, or even Maine. The site generally admitted to be Norse at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, Newfoundland, excavated in the 1960’s by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, lies beyond the northern growth limit of wild grapes but is still a thousand miles southward from Leif’s first stopping place, Helluland, generally presumed to be Baffin Island. Furthermore, Enterline demonstrates that the topographic descriptions of Vinland in the sagas are inconsistent with the features of the Newfoundland site. He suggests that while it cannot be Leif’s Vinland, L’Anse-aux-Meadows may well be the remains of Hvitramannaland, another land described in Norse sagas.

Mr. Enterline settles on the location of Leif’s Vinland at the very northernmost part of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, on the west coast of Ungava Bay. Here, he shows, there is an abundance of wild pastures that fulfill the revised interpretation of Vinland. Most important, he gives an analysis of the sagas’ geographic descriptions so closely correlated with this Ungava Bay locale that every environmental detail mentioned by the sagas is identifiable with a real feature. No writer arguing in favor of any other identification of Vinland has ever attempted so thorough an analysis. Moreover, unexpectedly and unknown to either party, while he was working out this analysis Canadian researchers were investigating ruins on this very shore on the west of Ungava Bay. They turned out to be Norse.

These results form the foundation of an objective reassessment of Norse history that indicates a much more gradual exploration southward from Greenland than heretofore imagined. And such a reassessment gets strong support from another unexpected source: Eskimo archaeology. The first generations of Norsemen to settle in Greenland found the land uninhabited, and Danish archaeologists have shown that the Eskimos did not arrive until the thirteenth century, at the conclusion of the Thule Eskimo migration eastward across Canada. This Eskimo culture was influenced in many respects by contacts with the Norse culture, and the new hybrid that resulted is known as the Inugsuk culture. Its borrowed features include knowledge of how to make staved barrels and tubs, how to carve saw blades in bone, and how to fashion blades with metal procured from the Norsemen. Enterline sees the locations of Inugsuk Eskimo ruins as a kind of road map of where the Norsemen had been. These locations suggest that any interest the Norsemen might have had in southward exploration was at least equalled by their interest in northward exploration: there are Inugsuk sites all the way to the northwesternmost corner of Greenland. At this location there have also been found pieces of Norse woven cloth, chain-mail armor, and carved chess pieces. But here the Danish archaeological province ends, and the Canadian record begins.

That record has been investigated less intensively than one might hope, but Enterline has nevertheless collected a number of clues that suggest a most startling conclusion: that the Norsemen had discovered the Northwest Passage. Archaeological and anthropological traces along this route as far west as Alaska are taken by him as hints of an answer to a long-standing question: What were the circumstances under which the Norse settlements in Greenland eventually and mysteriously disappeared? His answer is that when a known climatic deterioration in the late Middle Ages made their already marginal dairy farming no longer possible, the Norsemen had to move to hunting grounds in arctic Canada. The huge herds of arctic caribou, which even now migrate in reduced numbers north and south across the Northwest Passage twice each year, were made up of the most easily killed of all large game animals and evidently provided a relatively comfortable livelihood. In the central Arctic the Norsemen apparently came under Eskimo influence to the same extent as the latter had come under Norse influence in Greenland. These nomadic Norsemen learned the obvious practicality of Eskimo clothing and house-building methods but also the less obviously practical art of making maps. While the earliest known Eskimo culture included the art of communicating geographic information by tracing maps on snow, sand, or driftwood, the Norsemen originally had no tradition whatsoever of map making. This little item of cross-cultural influence was later to have profound results in Europe.