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Viking America: A New Theory

June 2024
15min read

Was Columbus motivated by Norse discoveries, concealed over the centuries in misinterpreted maps?

In 1965 widespread interest was excited by the first publication of a fifteenth-century map showing “Vinland” and purporting to be the earliest cartographic representation of any part of the North American continent. [See “Vinland the Good Emerges from the Mists,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, October, 1965.] The Vinland Map tended to reinforce the conclusion long held by many historians that Leif Eiriksson (or Ericson) and other Vikings landed on the northeast coast of the continent around A.D.1000. It did little if anything, however, to encourage the idea that this Norse discovery of America was more than an isolated event, one that led neither to permanent settlement nor to important historical consequences.

This impression of the ephemeral and inconsequential character of the Viking experience in America is about to be challenged in a new book, Viking America, by James Robert Enterline, which Doubleday & Company will publish this month. According to Enterline, Norse contact with the American mainland actually accelerated just before the fifteenth century, when recorded European communication with Greenland’s Norse settlements is known to have been interrupted. Indeed, that very interruption now appears to have been associated with a dispersal of the Greenland settlers, driven by climatic changes from their farms at Julianehaab and Godthaab into hunting grounds on the American continent. The implications for later historical consequences come from the fact that maps and other kinds of geographic information about that dispersal evidently were rather widely circulated in southern Europe during the century preceding Columbus. If it can be inferred that Columbus was motivated by such information, then the consequences of the Norse discovery were indeed important.

Despite its title, Enterline’s book pursues the subject from the standpoint of the history of ideas and avoids an ethnic or partisan approach. The revisory role of the book begins in its second chapter, which lays the groundwork for controverting most of the standard interpretations of the Icelandic sagas recounting Leif Eiriksson’s landfalls. It has hitherto been generally held that Markland (Norse for “woodland”), one of these landfalls, was the forest-covered Labrador coast. But close attention to the context of the sagas describing Markland shows, in case after case, that Markland was not a land of continuous forest cover, but a land of isolated stands of dwarf trees that could be slashed down by Norse battle hatchets. The information that just such isolated stands of dwarf trees do exist far north of the tree line allows the possibility that Markland was much closer to Leif’s starting place near Julianehaab in Greenland. Among other things, this fits in better with how long the sagas sav Leif took between landfalls.

Vinland has almost always been interpreted to mean “wine land,” a land of wild grapes. Yet a small minority of researchers has held to the idea, at least a century old, that the name Vinland was instead based on an archaic Norse word meaning “pastureland.” That minority view has now been newly supported. First of all, the evidence shows that the Greenlanders who named Vinland had no knowledge at all of wine or grapes, being mead and beer drinkers. Second, close reading of the sagas describing Vinland shows that its harvest was not grapes or vines, but hay for the cattle the explorers carried along on shipboard. Third, besides the Vinland Map announced by Yale University in 1965, there are two other old maps that, though not labelling it Vinland, do show a similarly shaped island in the same relative position. In each case the label, irrespective of the language used, means “pastureland.”

The first of these maps actually exists in several versions, all of which were made in the early and middle 1400’s in central Europe by the so-called Vienna-Klosterneuberg school of cartographers. On this map the island is labelled Insula Dicolzi, freely translated as “island of wild cabbage pastures.” Unfortunately, little is known about the background of this map, and the source of the information for this Insula Dicolzi, is lost to history. The opposite case occurs in the second map, Gerardus Mercator’s famous world map of 1569, which introduced the projection bearing his name. Mercator’s label for the island that the Vinland Map calls Vinland is Grocland. Mercator is known to have received this information from Dutch sources two centuries old in 1569, and Grocland in the fourteenth century meant, roughly, “land of wild heather pastures.” The source of this Dutch information, in turn, is known to have been very close to the anonymous author of the famous lost book Inventio Fortunatae, who travelled throughout all the Norse countries including Greenland in the 1360’s, and may well have been escorted on a visit to Vinland.

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.

Evidence of Norse explorations southward from Greenland has long been known but is highly controversial. Among the somewhat less controversial evidence is the history of the game lacrosse. Modern man first learned this game from Indians native to the St. Lawrence Valley, but they in turn apparently learned it from the Norsemen. The Norse and Indian versions of the game both contain a feature so unusual—paired opponents whom other teammates may not help or hinder—as to make the probability of independent origin vanishingly small. The other evidence for southward exploration from Greenland is more controversial. Part of the reason for the controversy has been that some of that evidence, such as the Kensington (Minnesota) “rune stone,” indicates a late date (1362) and an interior location inconsistent with the preconception that Norse explorations of Temperate Zone America must have radiated from an eastern-seaboard Vinland. Without insisting on any one of these controversial items as evidence for his theories, Enterline argues that nevertheless they all fall within the pattern of his theory of a late-fourteenth-century dispersal westward from Greenland in subarctic regions, followed by exploration southward from there in the early fifteenth century. But just as this exploration of the temperate part of America was getting under way, officially recognized communication between Europe and Greenland was terminated, presumably because the Norse colonies had ceased to exist. It was never re-established.

The author’s picture of the last living Norseman on the North American continent is quite different from the traditional romantic image of some embattled hero in the Greenland settlements in the early fifteenth century succumbing to an Eskimo onslaught. Instead, Enterline’s last Norseman is a close friend of the natives in either arctic Canada or the Great Lakes region, having all his cousins of mixed racial stock and finding nobody purely of his own race to marry. It is perhaps the seventeenth century, and he remembers only dimly the language his grandparents used to speak and their stories of how they came to be here among new peoples. He has, in short, become an American.

But the suppositions bringing the Vikings directly into the mainstream of American history are those regarding Columbus. Enterline frankly admits that it is impossible to show any direct, noncircumstantial evidence that Columbus himself had any knowledge of Norse activities on the western mainland. But many of Columbus’ contemporaries seem clearly to have had such information. Since much of history is based on circumstantial evidence, it is fair to pay attention to circumstantial evidence in this case also. Enterline argues as follows:

… all writers on the subject of Columbus have been curious and dissatisfied about the explanation of Columbus’ motivation for his voyage. If his belief that he could reach Asia by sailing westward was based on nothing more than the generally accepted knowledge that the earth was round, it could not possibly have received the interest and backing it did. … But the scholars of his time were quite right in opposing Columbus’ scheme to sail westward to Asia, because they knew the size of the globe and the safe maximum time at sea for a fully provisioned ship. There was absolutely no hope of Columbus’ sailing even one third of the actual distance westward to Asia.… In the absence of sure knowledge of something out there, Columbus’ project appears to be either that of a god or a naive self-deceiver who was saved by good luck. Those writers who have tried to understand Columbus in more human terms have generally come to the conclusion that he had shadowy information of which we are no longer aware, based on the actual existence of the American continents, but misconstrued as the east coast of Asia.

An important part of the author’s circumstantial approach is to show that such shadowy information was not held uniquely by Columbus but was widely shared. Indeed, Enterline points out that in the early fifteenth century academic interest in a westward view of eastern Asia increased markedly....This occurred just during the time when [many former believers in a flat world] were being converted to a Ptolemaic theory which forced them to think quantitatively in terms of the entire globe. The result, aided and abetted by Ptolemy’s own incorrectly small estimate of the size of a degree and by a longing for Marco Polo’s spice islands, was an increasing pressure for downward revision of the concepts of the size of the Earth. It was this revision, necessarily incorrect, which was responsible for getting America “officially” discovered. Within a short time, people like Doctors Paolo Toscanelli [1397-1482] and Hieronymus Müntzer [1437-1508] began discussing the practical possibility of making an actual voyage westward to Asia. From the number of different official proposals to kings on record, it is not difficult to imagine how many less official schemes went unrecorded. Neither is it difficult to imagine that unrecorded actual attempts were made. … The first downward rationalizations of the size of the degree sufficient to force the east coast of Asia to coincide with the east coast of America … seem to have been arrived at by Columbus. However, it would be doing him a dishonor to suggest that such a fantastic rationalization was not already in the air. It would seem that only definite knowledge of land which could not otherwise be accounted for would have called for such mental gymnastics. These rationalizations were eventually able to overcome the objections of royal advisers, and soon thereafter the necessary funding for what was to be the official discovery of America became available.

It was the vague information on the Norse dispersal and the resulting belief that eastern Asia was so close to the West, according to Enterline, that caused Columbus and his contemporaries to re-estimate downward their idea of the size of the globe, and hence of the degree, and then turn around and use this reduced value as an argument for the practicality of sailing westward themselves to Asia. The sources of the shadowy European information on the Norse dispersal are bound to be vague, especially since recognized European communication with the Greenland settlements terminated in 1408. But evidence such as European garments from the late fifteenth century found in a Greenland graveyard shows that unrecognized, unofficial communication did continue. Much of that communication may have been maintained by pirates known to have attacked Greenland in that era and by clandestine private traders from Bristol, England.

The author now takes another tack: … Columbus’ contemporary Las Casas evidently interviewed Indians in Cuba and found that ‘The neighboring Indians of that island asserted that there arrived to this Island of Hispaniola other bearded white men like us, not many years before us.’ He recorded this in connection with the story of a lost pilot who supposedly preceded Columbus, but the beards could just as well have been worn by Norsemen as by Spanish conquistadores. … If these men had somehow also encountered the Aztec/Mayan civilizations in nearby Yucatan, or even heard about them through the Cubans, and returned the information to Europe, then one might be able to explain why Marco Polo’s extravagant lands of gold began, as with one Albertin de Virga’s 1415 map, to be associated with the West instead of the East. Before 1400, Zeno told a story of gold-users south of the Norse countries which would certainly have hastened the process as well. These stories provide a refutation to the proclamation by some scholars that Columbus could not have been motivated by the Norsemen, because he sailed so far south. If such information, in whatever form and by whatever means, reached Columbus, then it would be not at all surprising that the course he plotted for the golden land of Cathay led him eventually to the latitudes of the Aztecs. Those who wish to may imagine Dominicus Ducier’s 1422 map, which shows continental land in the western ocean, as extending to those latitudes, and a scholar of the stature of [Armando] Cortesão has taken a nautical chart of 1424, which introduced new islands in the western ocean, to represent these very West Indies. The medieval Norsemen tell us in several texts that they believed Vinland was connected with Africa. They may, in saying this, have been letting us know how far south they had gone. Indeed, if North America was taken to be Asia, then South America fits the geographical situation of Africa very accurately. … This analogy would have been the ultimate step of the Grand Misunderstanding, equating the entire New World with the entire Old World.

The “Grand Misunderstanding” is an entirely new concept invented by Mr. Enterline to explain how Columbus and his contemporaries could have been influenced by Norse information without the fact being explicitly recorded by history. In effect, it amounts to a failure by the Norse explorers and all those who heard about the Norse explorations to realize that the American land was a new continent rather than the eastern edge of Asia. But the full concept of the Grand Misunderstanding involves a much wider geographic region than the eastern seaboard and calls for a revolution in the study of historical cartography. Enterline claims that pre-Columbian Old World maps show in several cases, for example, an island at the northeastern corner of the Eurasian continent (Siberia) whose outline is similar to the island at the northeastern corner of North America, Baffin Island; islands along the arctic coast of Eurasia that look very much like the arctic archipelago north of Canada; and peninsulas at the northwestern corner of Eurasia (Scandinavia) that look just like the peninsulas of the northwestern corner of North America, i.e., Alaska. In other words, the Norse explorers who made these regional maps, which eventually found their way into the hands of European cartographers, thought they were exploring Eurasia, from east to west. One of the more famous maps involving this misconception is Claudius Clavus’ 1427 map of “Scandinavia,” which is actually a much better representation of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula than of any part of Scandinavia. The extent of the explorations implied thereby is certainly greater than anything heretofore proposed, but it seems to be supported by the wide variety of archaeological and anthropological evidence existing along the route of the Northwest Passage.

A noncartographic occurrence of the Grand Misunderstanding seems to have arisen when Europeans heard stories of the Eskimos migrating eastward into Greenland. The Eskimos, who had started their migration in Alaska, described themselves in Greenland as having come from the western end of the continent, at the northern corner. Europeans hearing this decided that they meant they were from Lapland, in northern Scandinavia, and had travelled eastward in northern Asia. Meanwhile, the Europeans reasoned, the Norsemen had sailed westward to Greenland and met the presumed Laplanders there, supposedly just off the northeastern corner of Asia. Thus Claudius Clavus thought the Eskimos were Karelians from near the White Sea.

Another kind of misunderstanding confirms the idea that maps were indeed supplied by Norsemen to European cartographers. This misunderstanding, committed by cartographers rather than explorers, is called by Enterline the “Smaller Misunderstanding.” A cartographer committing the Smaller Misunderstanding decided that if a map of an unknown land (and Scandinavia was an unknown land, cartographically, in pre-Columbian times) came to him from Scandinavian hands, then it must be a map of Scandinavia. There are many Old World maps, otherwise relatively accurate, in which the representation of Scandinavia looks nothing like the actuality of that region, but does look like, for example, Baffin Island, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and even the entire Quebec-Labrador peninsula.

The author has admitted that he cannot show any evidence proving that Columbus himself knew directly about the Norse explorations. But he does arrive at this conclusion: “There was an unquestionable indirect influence of fundamental proportions on Columbus, through the vague but persistent ideas of land in the West which were already in the air. The great accomplishment by Columbus was to make the Grand Misunderstanding become accepted throughout the rest of the European scholarly world.”

The possibility that such misunderstood information about Norse explorations could have lain under the noses of historians for centuries without being noticed motivated Enterline to search out facsimiles or originals of nearly every known world map from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance and to examine them for possible evidence of such misunderstandings. He found that dozens of such maps contained strange lands that previous historical cartographers had dismissed without analysis as figments of medieval cartographers’ imaginations but that were actually examples of the Grand or Smaller misunderstandings. The author’s method, after recognizing the existence also of medieval textual documents incorporating such misunderstandings, was to arrange all the ninety-odd documents involved into a chronological sequence and then to study the historical developments reflected in that sequence. The results led to the theory of a dispersal of the Greenland settlements westward into Eskimo America and southwestward into Indian America in the century immediately preceding Columbus.

My own first contact with James Robert Enterline was in the fall of 1965, when he began frequenting the New York Public Library’s Map Division, of which I am chief. The author of this book is, surprisingly, a mathematician—he formerly administered a successful computer-technology company and has designed a computer for the United States Air Force. But he was stirred by Yale University’s announcement of the Vinland Map in 1965 to turn to full-time research on the Norse question. He brought his objectivity as a scientist to bear on the highly partisan question of Columbus versus Leif Eiriksson, and a new theory resulted that is even more startling than any theory either partisan faction had previously imagined. Perhaps this kind of author, combining a mathematician’s attention to detail with the fresh approach of a convert to a new subject, was what was required to produce the insightful and revolutionary synthesis that Viking America is. Enterline made field trips to Greenland and Iceland, and he has done documentary research in the British Museum as well as in the major collections in the United States. His present scholarly role was affirmed last fall when he was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries held at Yale University.

The author approached me in the fall of 1966 because he had difficulty believing the unexpected implications into which his own research was leading him, and he sought a critical estimation from me. Hours of discussion led to what amounted to an encouragement on my part, for I felt he was on the threshold of making some startling discoveries.

The eight-hundred-page manuscript he finished several years later, however, is not the book discussed here. The present book is a distillation for a less cartographically specialized spectrum of readers and summarizes the cartographic chronological analysis while giving complete details of the conclusions based on that analysis. Specialists wishing to pursue the painstaking details of the maps will have to await release of this supportive evidence in another volume. I have read the manuscript of that volume and find that each document discussed is supplied with an individual bibliography, that it contains a separate bibliography of facsimile atlases, and that it contains a general bibliography which, together with the one in the present volume, embodies by far the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection of references on the Viking presence in America ever assembled in English. In short, the research on which the present book is based is thorough and dependable.

There is no question but that Viking America introduces many ideas that are bound to provoke discussion. If these ideas can withstand the scrutiny of scholars, they will have introduced a wholly new aspect into the mainstream of American history.

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