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Among these adventurers Leif Ericson (970-1020), the son of Eric the Red (c.950-1003), who had discovered Greenland, entered the history books for his sighting of Vinland in about 1000. True, one saga from 1387 states that a certain Bjarni, Son of Herjulf, had beaten Leif to Vinland, having been blown off course and sighted land there as early as 985-6. But no further support for the Bjarni claim has turned up.
Just what is meant, then, by this Norse ‘discovery’ of North America? Leif Ericson was a Christian missionary who had been sent to Greenland by King Olaf I of Norway (r.995-1000) with orders to bring the faith to settlements there. On the return voyage his boat was blown so far south that he was brought within view of Nova Scotia. The authors of the Norse sagas, amazed that he survived this adventure, dubbed him ‘Leif the Lucky’.
Except for Ericson, most of the other Norsemen who made contact with North America were traders by profession. Had their commercial interests fared better, they might have given the continent a second look, but they didn’t. Their one serious venture onto North American territory resulted in a fight with native Americans, after which they quickly fled to their boats. The southernmost confirmed evidence of Vikings in the New World was discovered in 1960 at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
From the sod houses and primitive artefacts that archaeologists excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows and in Greenland these Norse traders emerge as hardy adventurers. As to their ‘explorations’, they were carried out in a thoroughly ad hoc way, usually the result of accident or unfavourable winds. At their most deliberate the Vikings strove each time to sail a little further down a coastline than their immediate predecessor. Either way, when they returned to Greenland, Iceland or Norway they told their tales to wide-eyed listeners huddled around log fires. There is no evidence that any of the Viking leaders who headed towards North America were literate.
It took another three generations before Adam of Bremen (c.1050-1081/5) in northern Germany, wrote the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, a chronicle which included the stories he had heard concerning the adventures of Leif the Lucky. Adam and other chroniclers and authors of the sagas offered their reports in a stolid and matter-of-fact way, with no indication that they had any idea of the implications of these remarkable travels.
At around the same time that the Vikings were venturing south and westward from their bases in Greenland, a very different process of discovery was taking place in landlocked territories many months’ journey from the nearest open salt water. Beginning more than 3,000 years ago, traders from the great urban centres of what is now Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan had sent goods across Eurasia, from Europe to India and China. They moved their cargo in long camel caravans, which carried the equivalent of a dozen or more modern freight containers. Gold and silver coins minted in their cities were honoured as currency as far afield as Sri Lanka and England. Vikings, among others, collected hordes of these beautifully crafted coins because they knew they would be accepted widely. Once back home the Central Asian traders not only told their tales around neatly built hearths in solid multi-storey houses but wrote down detailed information on the geography and climates of the lands they had visited. Local scholars collected and analysed these reports.