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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Many thanks for reading – Ian, Max, Jake, Paul and Carol
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