Did the Vikings Discover the Azores?
Recent evidence by archaeologists studying lake sediment cores suggest the Portuguese may not have been the first people to discover the Azores: is possible Viking trader may have arrived some 700 years earlier than the Portuguese. They arrived to find pristine islands, apparently untouched by humankind and certainly no evidence of any Vikings! However, it would appear the Vikings left clues in the form of rodent stowaways which may have left a surprising genetic mark on the island.
‘Jeremy Searle, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University and his team proposed a Viking connection to the island in 2015, based on genetic similarities between Azorean and northern European mice.’
Any visitor to the islands will soon discover there is little ancient human history beyond the 15th century, when the islands were first discovered by the Portuguese navigator, Diogo de Silves. More recently a few studies have indicated at an earlier occupation, although it hasn’t been clear who these possible settlers were or when they arrived. About 10 years ago, Pedro Raposeiro, an ecologist at the University of the Azores, Ponta Delgada, set out to collect cylindrical cores of sediment from five lake beds around the Azores as part of an effort to detail the region’s climate history. As particles in the air settle to the bottom of the lake, they form datable layers. Pedro suspected they would find signs of human settlements on the island, in the form of pollen from non-native crops, spores from fungi that grow on livestock dung—dating back to the early 1400s, which they did.
However, researchers were surprised to find these indicators extended even further back in time. In a sedimentary layer dating to between 700 C.E. and 850 C.E. taken from Peixinho Lake on the Azores’s Pico Island, the researchers discovered increases of an organic compound called 5-beta-stigmastanol, which is found in the faeces of cows and sheep. They also saw an increase in charcoal particles and a reduction in the amount of native tree pollens, suggesting humans were cutting down and burning trees to clear space for livestock to graze.
Similar indicators show in cores samples from Caldeirão Lake on the Azores’s Island of Corvo from around 100 years later. Also, pollen from a non-native ryegrass show up in lakebed samples from the island of Pico from around 1150, and at 1300 on the island of São Miguel Island.
So, the evidence is starting to look conclusive. There is a high probability to suggest Vikings were occupying and taking advantage of the untouched natural resources islands at least 700 years earlier than historians have traditionally believed.
The evidence doesn’t make is clear when these earliest human settlers disappeared, but the Portuguese sailors who explored the islands in the 1400s described the islands as devoid of human life and pristine.
The big question is, who were those first ancient visitors? “Our best guess is the Norse,” who were accomplished and adventurous seafarers, Raposeiro says. But it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to suggest it might have been the Vikings, as it known they were prolific explorers and could well have ventured this far west into the Atlantic.
It is also worth considering the climate, as simulations for this period in history suggest the dominant winds in the North Atlantic Ocean blew from the northeast. Those winds would have put Viking long boats heading southwest from their Scandinavian homelands more or less directly into the path of the Azores, Raposeiro says. Those same winds, he adds, would have made it comparatively difficult for sailors coming from the Portuguese mainland to reach the Azores.
Finally, there is one more piece of intriguing evidence reading a small mammal so familiar to all of us, the mouse! DNA analysis from Azorean house mice share a substantial amount of DNA with house mouse populations that originated in northern Europe. Mice, lake rats are known to hitched rides on boats and travel the world; Viking ships would be no different. However, when these mice encountered islands with an abundance of resources and very few competitors or predators, they’d find their luck was in and populations would most likely prosper.
The answer to our initial question is yes, it’s highly likely the islands were first discovered by the Vikings!
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Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing,
This is a long email, so you might want to go grab yourself a cuppa before you start reading.
We just wanted to send you an email to say thank you so much for everything.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing, it was far beyond our dreams and expectations, and that is certainly because of you and all your plans in putting this together for us. We just loved every second (apart from me and canyoning, we do not get along, but the boys absolutely loved it!) we just can’t believe all the things that we have seen, and done, and learned about! What an incredible place!
We have certainly been bitten by the Azorean bug and we can’t wait to get back there to explore the other islands. They’re very special places, each of them for their own right.
We felt as though we were treated like royalty from the minute we arrived in Sao Miguel, even the weather was kind to us (largely) we seemed to miss the adverse weather, either arriving somewhere that had had storms the day before, or leaving just before they arrived. We did have one morning of heavy rain when we went to the tropical gardens at Furnas, but we did manage to see some of the gardens before we gave up and went back to Caloura, where there was glorious sunshine, so we spent the afternoon at the pool and made the most of the Especial and fresh lemonade from the snack bar.
Every single person that we met, we were struck by how hard they work, and how happy they all are. Many of them never leaving the island they were born on, because, why would they want to?!
We love the Azorean people and their love and pride for their islands. Their sustainable way of living also struck deep with us. It’s the way we try very hard to live ourselves. Dave’s business is retrofit insulation, preparing old housing stock to a better more eco friendly way of conserving energy, so the way they live and respect their land, was of great interest to us.
For us all, Flores is a very special place. We went to the restaurant maresia while we were there and met the owner and his son. Although the restaurant itself is eclectic to say the least, after chatting to Vincent, we understood his dads way of living and the food was outstanding! We can’t wait to visit again.
All of our guides were amazing! Their knowledge and passion is admirable.
We just loved every second and can’t thank you enough for making our trip so smooth and completely stress free.
I will spend today writing reviews online for all the companies and guides that helped us on our trip.
A million thanks to you all Jake.
The Cole family
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Azores Choice provided a prompt, helpful service. they found us the perfect accommodation for our needs and provided superb, expert advice on how to spend our week walking on San Miguel. I would certainly use them again.
Joan from Durham
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Great little company with friendly staff. Organisation of flights & accommodation very efficient. When problems arise they are helpful and very reasonable in their efforts to resolve them. We would definitely use them again for a return trip.
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Everything was excellent. The information and organisation, the hotel and the island itself all exceeded our expectations. Whale watching and other trips out, fantastic. We will book again!
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