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Perplexed... again

History at 30,000 feet: The Big Picture

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Edited: Oct 21, 2010, 8:01pm Top

What's perplexing me tonight is the whole Columbus versus the Norsemen: who discovered America first debate. (and yes this came out of a quiet moment of retrospection when I suddenly went, 'wtf'?)

What I'm hoping is that someone will be able to shed some light on why find Norse artifacts in L'Anse aux Meadows and Maine was a big deal at the end of the last century, when it was clear as doorbells that academics knew the Norse were here first. (And we talking about them knowing it in the 1800s if not before)

Is it semantics?
Is it the slow wheels of public education?

Why was the discover of these artifacts such a surprise when it only confirmed what was already generally accepted by the American Historical Society.


I should probably add that I'm trying to piece together the historiography, as it were, within my own lifetime. Made difficult by a faulty memory for this sort of thing.

Oct 21, 2010, 9:29pm Top

Well Pam, I think it really is a matter of emphasis.

The fact that the Norse were here first might seem amazing at first glance -- as it did to some -- but since it appears to have left almost no impact upon the continent it really is as unimportant as historians now deem it. There is a controversial book out these days that claims the Chinese also discovered the Americas in the ships of the eunuch admiral, but the evidence seems sketchy. Even if it is established to be fact, once again the impact is miniscule so it means very little in the long haul.

I am afraid that when and if they can establish that others may have come upon South America prior to the Amerindians from Siberia through the remnants of the lost continent of Beringia -- and there seems to be some bits and pieces of evidence to suggest that may be so -- it may turn out to be the same non-story because these folks seem to have left no lasting mark. DNA genetic markers and linguistic evidence do not point to any other significant ingredient to the descendants that Columbus encountered in 1492.

However -- and its a big and fanciful however -- if it can be established, for instance, that another later population did introduce cultural factors to the continent, such as pyramid building or mummification, that would be a story that would get a lot of press. Thus far, we have no evidence for that and what evidence we have for other populations would be very ancient indeed, far older than Amerindian.

The big question mark for both North and South American populations is what big pieces we might be missing. If the suggestion by some historians that 80%-90% of the Native American population fell victim of old world disease in the 50-100 years after Columbus made contact is in fact accurate, then there could very well be both genetic and linguistic evidence yet to be uncovered.

So, wtf?

Edited: Oct 22, 2010, 2:10pm Top

What about the possibility that the Solutrean culture of the Iberian Peninsula traded with North America 15,000 or so years ago. I once read an article on the Internet that suggested some of the Eastern Indians (Delaware, Iroquois) may be descended from proto-Europeans who traveled across the North Atlantic Ice shelf. There are certain Native Americans who look like they could have just stepped off the boat from China, while others have very Caucasoid features, yet others appear to be a blend.

Oct 22, 2010, 2:36pm Top

If I remember correctly, and there is a fairly good chance I don't, the discovery was important because it showed that the Norse covered/explored a larger area in NA than previously believed. I seem to remember this from my school days. Is the late 60s, early 70s to early for the discovery you are referring to?

Oct 22, 2010, 2:40pm Top

It's possible that a great many "ethnic Groups" visited the Americas & dipped their fingers in the gene pool. The idea of race is not a scientific fact - there is no specific criteria for each group, it was just an easy way to classify people before more thorough scientific analysis came along. And in our age of easy transportation, more and more groups are blended together.
So it is possible that many unknown explorers landed on the American continents, stayed long enough to add to the gene pool and either departed or became assimilated.
The Norse gave up their settlements because the benefits of trade weren't worth the hassle with the natives. Fishermen from the Atlantic coast of europe routinely visited the productive fishing grounds of Newfoundland. But it didn't occur to them to gather up their wives, children & make a permanent settlement. Those who did stay, inter-married with natives.
Columbus's discovery was a big deal because everyone thought (at first) that he had found a new route to the Indies.
Discoveries are only important as to their usefullness. The Chinese were'nt interest in a new world, so they left.

Oct 22, 2010, 4:15pm Top

Of course neither Columbus nor Leif Ericson were actually the first. So-called native Americans - probably immigrants from East Asia - beat them by several thousands of years.

Edited: Oct 22, 2010, 5:40pm Top

Columbus's discovery was a big deal because it was a devastating turn of events for native americans on an unimagiable scale of genocide -- most of it the unpremeditated result of old world pathogens. The 1964 "First Men on the Moon" film based on the Verne novel has something similar befall the residents of the moon after an early 20th century contact with Verne's spacemen gives the moonmen a head cold that exterminates their race.

It was also a big deal because the backwater Atlantic coast of Europe was transformed almost overnight into the epi-center of trade, power and influence that continues to this day.

Wade's "Before the Dawn" and other sources underscore that current DNA technology confirms Amerindian origins for the denizens of the two continents. We may learn more in the future to contradict that or at least reduce that exclusivity.

Oct 23, 2010, 1:45am Top

Pam: "What I'm hoping is that someone will be able to shed some light on why find(ing) Norse artifacts in L'Anse aux Meadows and Maine was a big deal ... ".

Previous to Ingstad's excavation and identification of the L'Anse aux Meadows site in 1960, no concrete evidence of Norse exploration or settlement of North America existed, outside of obscure written records. Obviously, then, found artifacts were a very big deal.

Until then, everything else was pure speculation based on mythical evidence found only in copies of portions of the Sagas, collected by those few European Bishops responsible for the Catholic Churches once found in distant Iceland and Greenland.

Maine, however, is a different story. The only authenticated Norse object ever found in Maine is a penny minted in Norway around 1070. The coin was pierced, evidently for use as a pendant by native Americans. It could easily have been traded down the coast by Indians without the Norse ever having visited the region.

The main reason why no other notice of the discovery of lands to the west of Greenland was reported in Europe is that the Norse had no idea that they had discovered "America". Finally, and crucially, from 1200 to 1350, climate cooling and the Black Death decimated the last of the colony, as well as half the population of Norway. Gradually, but surely, all contact with the New World was ended. The only exceptions were a few lines found in obscure manuscripts.

Oct 23, 2010, 8:02am Top

Look at the history written by the Norse. It was in the form of sagas. Compare that with the written accounts of the Spanish. I think that would go a long way to understanding why one is widely taught and the other is not. Many years before the Norse wrote their accounts St. Brendan wrote his account of landfall somewhere in the north atlantic. His account was in a specific genre that would not be accepted as history today.

Oct 23, 2010, 11:37am Top

When we lived in Texas, we visited some tourist caves in Arkansas, I don't remember the name, but associated with them, just outside the entrance, was a line of runes carved into the rock face. I don't know if this was a joke, a hoax, or just unexplained. The runes had a display case built around them as if someone was taking them seriously. I have no idea what they said. I'm sure there was a marker of some sort, but I don't remember what it said.

Oct 23, 2010, 3:50pm Top

>5 MarianV:,8

The disappearance of the Norse from North America remains only partially understood. As Marian and Rood point out, the Little Ice Age and possibly relations with existing populations may have played a role. This is less well understood than the disappearance of the Norse colonies from Greenland, which itself is debated.

No definite answers there, despite clues. It may have been no single event, but some combination of climate change, declining trade relations, over-grazing of exhaustion of the soil, secular and religious taxation, etc.

Oct 23, 2010, 4:29pm Top

They may also have not had a large enough population to sustain themselves over time and been unwilling or unwilling to interbreed with the local population. DNA evidence may one day help us there. The best guess with the Roanoke colonists is they they were dispersed among the native population, but of course there were too few of them to impact upon the genetic pool in a manner that is traceable. I wonder how many Norse there were and, also importantly, was the population of both genders?

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 7:48pm Top


Rood... mythical? Really? You surprise me with the use of that word ; )

A great deal of what we know of the early history of England comes from Norse sagas. If you disregard the usually artistic license they've been shown to be remarkably accurate and detailed.


Oh yes. Wanted to ask if anyone has read The American Discovery of Europe and/or what they think Dr. Forbes.

Oct 23, 2010, 8:20pm Top

Garp; you put it nicely by pointing out that because there is no known or lasting influence it really doesn't matter.
I first heard about the Norsmen when I was in High School. It was released a few days before Columbus day. I felt that it was an attempt to undermine a holiday of particular importance to Italian-Americans!
I wonder what Paladino and Cuomo think. They seem to have started a new round of negative stereotyping, regarding Italian-Americans

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 9:54pm Top


Actually Garp, Eirik's Saga (Eric) makes it pretty clear that the land was fairly heavily populated and that newcomers weren't all that welcome. Karlsefni's group showed the white shield and traded twice with the natives, but the third time the skin-canoes returned there was a mini-war.

If the population numbers for the east coast of North America are anywhere near as high as theorized, this is not an unexpected reaction. They lived at their bay for 3 years though... and I swear the usage of the white shield sounds as if this was an understood sign of piece. (I wish I had an authority to quiz about this aspect of the saga. )


And as for
>>The fact that the Norse were here first might seem amazing at first glance -- as it did to some -- but since it appears to have left almost no impact upon the continent it really is as unimportant as historians now deem it.>>

Stan, it's not "real historians" that don't think it's important. It's ignorant people and the publishers of history books.

The only way one could think it wasn't important is that if they either had an axe to grind, or else they had no idea of the continuity of history. Thus the idiocy about how noble the Pilgrims were. I scarce think any modern person would think so if they read any of their deeply depraved tracts. But I suppose, because we don't read those pieces anymore that it doesn't matter that there were unnaturally cruel and perverted ;)

Well I'm off to bed before I get on some other tangent...

Oct 23, 2010, 10:28pm Top

Pam -- I wouldn't think three years would leave much behind. But Pam I honestly don't know very much about the Norse in the Americas. Can you give me some reading recommendations and/or links that separate the facts from the bull. I would like to learn more about this.

cbellia -- I always found the emotional attraction of Columbus to the Italien-American community puzzling. There really is almost no connection, and even if there was, why would anyone want to celebrate Columbus, the man or his deeds? The Last Voyage of Columbus by Dugard is wonderful exposure, by the way, to what kind of character Columbus really was, and believe me it is not pretty. Although I must admit I admired him for tricking the native americans with his use of the eclipse. That was cool shit!

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 11:53pm Top

>13 ThePam:

On Forbes, here's Peter Wells writing the American Anthropologist:

"The book is interesting and thought provoking, but the
arguments and data presented do not convince this reader
that we have solid evidence for peoples of the Americas
reaching Europe before the second millennium C.E. This is
very different, of course, from saying that early American
voyagers did not reach Europe; some may well have, but the
kinds of unambiguous archaeological evidence that would
demonstrate that they did have not yet been identified. The
few objects that Forbes cites as examples of American mater
-ial culture in early European contexts are all problematic
for one reason or another. But this book helps to remind us
that we need to keep our minds open to the possibility that
such evidence may be found at any time."

Several other academic reviewers had similar things to say. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (in the American Historical Review) was rather less pleasant: "Howlers, vapid speculation, and fallacious logic abound."

I also have some thoughts on the main question, but not right now. I will say that I'm surprised no one has mentioned how central the Columbus story is to the American founding myth and the great tale of European triumphalism. Interest in everything else about pre-Colombian contacts hangs off that massive cultural touchstone. OK, so that was my central point, but I have a fun example from a 1927 US history textbook if I feel like taking the time to transcribe it.

Edited: Oct 24, 2010, 5:22am Top

>16 Garp83:: I certainly wouldn't claim any expertise myself. But there is an easily available edition of the relevant sagas in the Penguin Classics series (The Vinland Sagas), and Farley Moffat gives an interesting try at reconstructing the events in his Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (I do think he gets carried away a bit too much over his own views though).

Oct 24, 2010, 5:26am Top

> 14: pointing out that because there is no known or lasting influence it really doesn't matter.

That depends. I would say that while it had no lasting influence for North America as we know it, it's still a fascinating piece of medieval history.

Oct 24, 2010, 8:01am Top


I didn't read that review, but did another yet a third that was just as disparaging. Shame that.

I might still get it by Interlibrary sometime in the future because it's intriguing to get away from the notion that history was something done to the American Indians.

Edited: Oct 24, 2010, 8:15am Top


>>Pam -- I wouldn't think three years would leave much behind.>>

Different perspectives, Garp-me-buddy. 3 years with trading is long enough to transmit viruses. There were extinctions in the Indian population before Columbus. Is there a connection? Well, we won't be able to say yay-or-nay without keeping an open mind so that we recognize evidence if we see it.

And repeated contact between the Norse and the Innuit and other indigenous peoples would tend to imply, to me at least, that it was only a matter of time before diseases were shared-- Columbus or no Columbus.

If those implications can't be viewed as important, well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. (I'll address some other issues later.)

Oct 24, 2010, 8:35am Top

Pam, the disease exchange is relevant and thought-provocative. Could the colder climate play a role? Could the Norse population not be carrying anything as devastating as the Spanish ships? (Smallpox ran through the Inca empire). I am curious about all of this.

Edited: Oct 24, 2010, 10:06am Top

Well, in current 'real life' cold climates are not free from disease. The flu virus that we all suffer from, in fact, prefers a cold, dry climate. (And the saga itself talks about a epidemic that spread through a farmstead over the winter killing many people)

As for your previous reference to separating the wheat from the chaff, or the mythology from the 'b.s.', I'm just now parsing out the secondary literature and I'd be hesitant to commit to any one 'authority'.

It's especially difficult to do considering how many 'validating' approaches to the Norse expeditions that there are to choose from. Linguistic (the saga in questions contains bits of dialog in archaic language that is at least 2 centuries older than the written bits); oceanography (are the days listed for sailing from pt A to B reasonable); genealogy; archaeological, and even climatological.

I'll give you the source I'm using though. It's a translation that is near transliteration at points. I offer it up because I would never suggest to someone to bow to any 'authority' without having read the primary source first to gain their own impressions.

The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503
It's available for free at google, gutenberg and archive.org. google => http://bit.ly/bwBskS

It's only 33 pages long so it's possible to scan it rather quickly -- if you leap past the begats-and-marriages -- to at least get the gist of what's covered. I think you'll find it unlike what you were expecting.

darn internal pointers not working. Bit.ly is however

Oct 24, 2010, 11:12am Top

re disease -- yes flu thrives in temperate climates, but flu is only one ingredient to the mix. Much more prevalent are the other pathogens that thrive in warmer climes.

I will check out the available literature, as you recommend.

How many Norse comprised the settlement? Is there a sense of that?

Edited: Oct 24, 2010, 11:20pm Top

Whether the Norse had an impact or not, I find the Norse encounter with the Native American population to be of historical interest, especially from a Big History point of view. For the sake of the point, let us put aside the undocumented possibility of other earlier European or African visitors to the Americas.

The significance is this: many thousands of years ago (20? Maybe as many as 50?) a group of people went east toward Asia and wound up in the far northeast of the North American continent. Another group took a different path, and wound up in the north of Europe. When the Norse crossed to North America, the two groups met again. They had changed in superficial appearance, in language, in culture, but they were both still human, in contact again after a long and eventful interval.

This matters to our view of human history writ large, IMHO.

Oct 25, 2010, 8:44am Top

In re-reading my past posts I fear I may have given the impression that I think the Norse visit is unimportant and/or uninteresting. That is not what I meant to imply at all. I think it is fascinating and certainly has significance of its own. I only meant to speak rhetorically to Pam's original post, pointing out that it is often overlooked because it lacks centrality to the overall narrative of North American history. That aside, it remains an important piece of history well worth exploring. I apologize for the ambiguity of my comments.

Oct 25, 2010, 11:30am Top

So noted, Garp. And I agree with you on both points: minimal significance to North American history per se; of significance from a human history/development point of view.

Oct 25, 2010, 1:04pm Top

Yes. It brought on our first spat, Garp.


Oct 25, 2010, 1:34pm Top

and I didn't even know we were spatting .... LOL

Oct 25, 2010, 5:06pm Top

2 novels, well written and well researched that tell the story of the encounter between the Norse and the Native people are
Freydis and Gudrid by Elizabeth Boyer and The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley.

Oct 25, 2010, 8:14pm Top

My understanding of the 'Matter of the Norse settlements' is that the Norse weaponry was insufficiently advanced to win against the superior numbers of the locals.

Iron swords are marginally better than stone arrows, but they aren't in the same league as Pizarro's and Cortes' firearms were 500 years later.

Oct 26, 2010, 4:11am Top

True, but that didn't keep the Norse from occupying parts of Europe (compared to which their technological advantage was next to nill).

Edited: Oct 26, 2010, 7:40am Top

Bob! Haven't heard from you in awhile. Hope all is well.

Actually, in the narrative there is an interesting little transaction that takes place wherein, after a battle....

Here, rather than tell you about it, I've edited my post and added the text.


The Skrellings, moreover, found a dead man, and an axe lay beside him. One of their number picked up the axe, and struck at a tree with it, and one after another (they tested it), and it seemed to them to be a treasure, and to cut well; then one of their number seized it, and hewed at a stone with it, so that the axe broke, whereat they concluded that it could be of no use, since it would not withstand stone, and they cast it away.


This, of course, begs the question of how the Norse knew about this, and additionally, why anyone would whack a rock with an axe in the first place.

Oct 26, 2010, 7:31am Top


Thank you, MarianV. Both added to my reading list.

Oct 26, 2010, 10:36am Top

>33 ThePam: "This, of course, begs the question of how the Norse knew about this, and additionally, why anyone would whack a rock with an axe in the first place."

Those silly Skrellings! I agree it is so self-serving that it is hard to take at face value.

Oct 26, 2010, 1:47pm Top

I'm not sure how to take that excerpt, Stellar. When reading it in context I didn't get the impression that it made light of Skrellings. Particularly as they had almost just killed everyone in the settlement. Perhaps the meaning is more evident if you could read it in the original. Puzzling

Oct 26, 2010, 2:17pm Top

#6 (BarkingMatt) - "Of course neither Columbus nor Leif Ericson were actually the first. So-called native Americans - probably immigrants from East Asia - beat them by several thousands of years."

You said it, Matt.

I understand that people are using "Columbus discovered America" as a kind of cultural shorthand. But it always seems to me that it conveys the idea that the millions who were already inhabiting North America had yet to realize that there was earth under their feet.

Maybe that's the reason for the tradition of placing the dead on elevated platforms. You can't bury someone in the ground if you have never noticed it's there.

I am, of course, being silly here. It comes easy to me. What infuriates me is the perpetuation of the Euro-centrism of Western History. I look and my grandchildrens' history texts and it hasn't changed, to any significant degree, since I was in school, in the olden days. They talk as if North America almost didn't exist until it was "discovered" by Europeans.

Europeans were among the LAST to find out about it. And Christopher Columbus, bless his fuzzy head, thought he was in India.

Oct 26, 2010, 2:37pm Top

#17- eromsted

And I read a little further in the thread and find that you have raised the same point much more eloquently.

I, for one, would like to see the excerpt from the '27 history book. thanks to ThePam for posting the link to "The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot 985-1503" in #23.

Oct 26, 2010, 6:14pm Top

1: ThePam
" ... I'm hoping ... that someone will be able to shed some light on why find(ing) Norse artifacts in L'Anse aux Meadows and Maine was a big deal at the end of the last century, when it was clear as doorbells that academics knew the Norse were here first.

#8 Rood:
" ... everything else was pure speculation based on mythical evidence found only in copies of portions of the Sagas, collected by those few European Bishops responsible for the Catholic Churches once found in distant Iceland and Greenland." Rood

Message 13: ThePam
Rood... mythical? Really? You surprise me with the use of that word ; )

A great deal of what we know of the early history of England comes from Norse sagas. If you disregard the usually artistic license they've been shown to be remarkably accurate and detailed."

Whoa, Pam. Hold on. Until Ingstad located evidence of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in 1960, concrete evidence of Norse exploration to North America was just that: hoary myth.

A person can write all he wants about a subject, and collect it in dozens of books lining dusty shelves, but when a thousand years go by and all connection with the principals are lost to history, the truth of those claims becomes rather elusive.

It may seem a simple question, now that evidence is on exhibit, and the buldings at L'Anse have been restored, but I'm old enough to remember when people speculated that the Kensington Rune Stone was genuine, too, as concrete evidence that Norwegians visited what is now western Minnesota before 1200. The Texas runes mentioned in #10 by geneg carry on the same tradition of speculation.

The possibility of Norse exploration of North America became a popular question only at the time of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, when all praise was being heaped on Columbus. It was a time of heightened nationalism among people of Norwegian ancestry, a time when the Norwegian language was being resurrected by linquists, a time of increased polar explorations by Norwegians, and a time when Norwegians were attempting to throw off the yoke of foreign (read Swedish) rule, something that did not occur until 1905.

So upset did Norwegian become about the world's neglect of the accomplishments of their ancestors in favour of that upstart, Columbus, that a replica of a Norse knarr was constructed and sailed across the Atlantic in 1893, where it was eventually moored in Lake Michigan, as a demonstration that Norwegians could well have arrived in the New World 500 years before Columbus.

Ingstad's explorations in search of proof of first millennium Norse landings in the New World were prompted by the same nationalistic fervor. To be blunt ... we would not be here discussing the Norse exploration of North America were it not for Norwegian nationalism in the late 1800's.

So that's why the findings of Norse artifacts became important. It may not mean much to anyone else, but to Norwegians ... it still is "a big deal".

N.B. I had occasion to visit New York City in May of last year, at the time of the annual celebration of Syttende Mai .... 17 May: Norwegian Constitution Day, which commemorates the ratification of Norwegian independence from Denmark, following the exile of Napoleon to Elba. Though the Norwegian community in New York City is relatively small, there were two parades, with all-day celebrations at various cultural centers, plus live broadcasts piped in from Oslo of their still wildly popular celebration. So watch out when you bump your head into a Norwegian.

Oct 26, 2010, 6:38pm Top


Well if Columbus had talked to some Vikings he would have known it wasn't India. And they could have assured him that the world was round too!

Edited: Oct 26, 2010, 6:47pm Top


Now Rood. There's a difference between unsubstantiated literature and 'myth'. Zeus and Thor are myths. Do you really mean to lump this lovely saga in with them?

((I may have to call you out, man. Who's your second?))

Oct 27, 2010, 10:15am Top

It's many years since I read up on this stuff, but I seem to remember getting the impression that by Columbus's time it was getting to be fairly common currency among seafaring folk that there was land there across the Atlantic.

I suspect that we have knowledge of 'official' expeditions like those of Columbus or the Norsemen of the sagas, but not of 'unofficial' and, importantly, probably illiterate contacts - whether long-distance fishermen (there must have been an element of exploration to exploiting the Newfoundland fisheries), or merely victims of unusual weather patterns on the way to the Azores or Cape Verde Islands who managed to make it back home again.

Obviously they didn't know a lot, or Columbus wouldn't have thought it was India or wherever; but I'll bet the pre-Columbus common seafarers far away from the royal courts and centres of learning knew a bit more about the Americas than has come down to us (oh for a time machine).

Oct 27, 2010, 11:35am Top

>42 alaudacorax: IIRC, an accurate distance to the Far East was known. That was why King João II of Portugal rejected sponsoring Columbus' journey -- he and his advisers rightly concluded that Columbus was wrong about the distance. The Spanish rulers thought the same, but eventually provided limited support.

But they might have come to the conclusion that it was worth doing anyway had they realized there was land much closer. They did not seem to believe that.

Of course, I have no idea whether sailors themselves thought differently. I imagine if the idea of land right across the Atlantic were given general credence, the monarchs would have been aware of it too. But I could be wrong.

Oct 27, 2010, 12:16pm Top

To my knowledge no one knew or predicted that anything lay between Europe and the Indies. Hence that is why Columbus held onto the belief that he reached Asia till the end of his life

Oct 27, 2010, 4:12pm Top

The ancient Greeks would not have been aware of the Americas, but they had nailed the circumference of the earth to within a few hundreds or at most a couple of thousands of miles. They would have known that Columbus had not sailed nearly far enough to reach Asia. Alas, Between them and Columbus there had been several Tea Party Eras, and as a result no one had a clue. It all had to be re-learned, as I'm sure it will again in a couple of thousand years.

Edited: Oct 27, 2010, 4:34pm Top

Seems the Norse knew that something was there, but I don't know if they didn't know it was India... if you know what I mean.

Here's an unrelated image that I wish I could get to scale. *sigh* I give up.

Oct 27, 2010, 5:33pm Top

Gene, I love your analysis "several Tea Party Eras" -- so true. It fits so well into the way I feel today after watching the Rand Paul supporter stomp on that woman's head while no one did a damn thing about it.



So if this doesn't worry people, I guess a rejection of science and intellect and common sense won't make the news. But it worries me. This guy stomping on this woman's head is a pig. And the fact that Rand Paul didn't think it was a big deal makes him a pig too. I never agreed with John McCain's politics, but if one of his supporters did this McCain would have beat the shit out of him. Paul is a douchbag like his supporters.

Oct 27, 2010, 5:35pm Top

Columbus both underestimated the size of the globe and overestimated the extent that Asia stretched to the East. The ancient Greeks could have helped with the first part but I don't believe they knew how far the Eurasian continent stretched to the East.

Oct 27, 2010, 5:38pm Top

Also, the Basque fishermen fished the Newfoundland shoals before Columbus' voyages and may very well have discovered the land that wasn't too much beyond there. Apparently fishermen were very secretive about their fishing grounds and its not too surprising that they might have known something that the royalty of the time didn't.

Edited: Oct 27, 2010, 5:41pm Top

>45 geneg: History of the knowledge of the sphericity of the Earth, according to the ever-reliable :) wikipedia:


This indicates that by the 11th century, Europeans knew of the accurate independent measurements of Islamic scholars.

Not covered in the above is the history of that Islamic effort. In 820 AD, the Caliph Al-mamun sent a team of astronomers to perform a survey in the Sinjar desert in present-day Iraq. Their study gives the circumference of Earth as 39,986 km, close to the modern value of 40,075 km (circumference at the equator).

al Biruni, around 1000 CE was the first scientist to provide a mathematical solution for determining the circumference of the earth. He used trigonometry combined with the measurement of the angle to the horizon from a mountain peak. This is considered as one of the earliest applications of trigonometry to geographical problems. He is sometimes regarded as the "Father of Geodesy' as a result. (Geodesy ~ Mathematical Geography).

Edited: Oct 27, 2010, 6:28pm Top

Snorre Sturlason wrote (or at least the translation says he wrote):

"The earth's round face, whereon mankind dwells, is much cleft because great gulfs run up into the land from the ocean. It is known that a sea stretches from Norvasund (...Straits of Gibraltar) to Jorsalaland (... Jerusalem), and from the sea there goes towards the north-east a bight which is called the Black Sea. It is there that one finds the division between the three parts of the earth; to the east is is called Asia, but the land to the west is sometimes called Europa, sometimes Enea. But to the north of the Black Sea there stretches the great Serkland (... North Africa), others equate it with Blaland (... where black skinned people live).

It then goes on to talk about mainly western countries: Russia, Great Britain and so on, before going off into mythology. (I should say the parenthetical bits are mine)

Snorre's timeframe was 1179 – 1241 AD and he seems to have a good grasp of current politics. Serkland, for example, refers to the Saracens. As versus Blaland.

In any case, I'd love to get a literal translation of the first sentence to get the gist of what his meaning is. "The earth's round face" is tantalizing but also could be deceptive. Anyone read old Norse?

Oct 27, 2010, 6:38pm Top

My Old Norse is a little rusty. But I doubt they were Flat Earthers.

Edited: Oct 27, 2010, 6:48pm Top

I wouldn't think so because of what you see of the horizon far out at sea.

And I really think we need to scour LT for some Norse history/language weenies, ur, fans... aficionados.

Edited: Oct 27, 2010, 7:13pm Top

Jon Stewart's Earth (A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race) came into our house today, and in it my wife found this description of Asia: "Asia extends from Russia in the East to Russia in the West". Perfect!

Oct 28, 2010, 2:28am Top

I've found one Swedish translation of Heimskringla, that starts as "The round disc of Earth...". Others just give it as "the circle of the world". The relevant words here are "kringla heimsins", which has given the work its name, so all sources I've so far checked have provided translations.

Oct 28, 2010, 10:14am Top

Don't disc and circle imply a flat earth? I would think if the original meant sphere that's the word the translator would have used.

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 1:36pm Top

Ahh, yes, I've found that too. The disk references. I don't think we're going to be able to cipher this one without expert help. My thinking is that euphemism is rife in Nordic lit so we can't be sure what we've got nor what's implied.

If someone has an extant 'authority' to contact, I'd be happy to drop him/her an email.

Oct 30, 2010, 12:50am Top

As Columbus relied on Ptolemy's geographical calculations, which estimated each degree of earth to be only 50 miles instead of the more accurate 70, it might be said that Ptolemy was responsible for the mistaken notion that the New World was part of Asia. If that is true, then Ptolemy must also be given some credit for the exploits of Columbus, who might never had attempted an Atlantic crossing had he not believed Asia to be comparatively close to Europe.

Oct 30, 2010, 1:02am Top

Pam ... we know that much ... if not most of the Sagas are based on reality and on actual experience, but to a medieval priest or scribe, with absolutely no knowledge of the facts ... they were simply fantastically imaginative stories. The number of people who actually read them each century must have been less than could fit into a confession box on a busy day at the local Cathedral, probably far fewer than we packed into telephone booths and Volkswagens during the 60's.

Oct 30, 2010, 11:32am Top

>58 Rood: It may never be known whether Columbus deliberately fudged his calculations in order to secure funding for his explorations.

Oct 30, 2010, 1:42pm Top

60> If he were deliberately fudging it he'd have to be pretty stupid since he would have been deliberately sailing out into an ocean that he would have known he couldn't get all the way across. Wishful thinking is probably more like it.

Oct 30, 2010, 3:00pm Top


Not sure whose 'Medieval priest or scribe' we are talking about now. Do you mean one's Columbus might have had contact with, or British or Norse-- and exactly in which centuries.

Edited: Oct 30, 2010, 3:17pm Top

Well, instead of just having a useless dup, here's a list of just the saga's about Kings, per der Vikipedia.

* A Latin work by Sæmundr fróði, ca. 1120, lost.
* The older version of Íslendingabók by Ari fróði, ca. 1125, lost.
* Hryggjarstykki by Eiríkr Oddsson, ca. 1150, lost.
* Historia Norvegiæ, ca. 1170.
* Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium by Theodoricus monachus, ca. 1180.
* Skjöldunga saga, ca. 1180, badly preserved.
* Oldest Saga of St. Olaf, ca. 1190, mostly lost.
* Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum, ca. 1190.
* A Latin Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar by Oddr Snorrason, ca. 1190, survives in translation.
* A Latin Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar by Gunnlaugr Leifsson, ca. 1195, lost.
* Sverris saga, by Karl Jónsson, ca. 1205.
* Legendary Saga of St. Olaf, ca. 1210.
* Morkinskinna, ca. 1220 but before Fagrskinna.
* Fagrskinna, ca. 1220.
* Óláfs saga helga by Styrmir Kárason, ca. 1220, mostly lost.
* Böglunga sögur, ca. 1225.
* Separate Saga of St. Olaf, by Snorri Sturluson, ca. 1225.
* Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, ca. 1230.
* Knýtlinga saga, probably by Ólafr Þórðarson, ca. 1260.
* Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar, by Sturla Þórðarson, ca. 1265.
* Magnúss saga lagabœtis, by Sturla Þórðarson, ca. 1280, only fragments survive.
* Hulda-Hrokkinskinna, ca. 1280.
* Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta, ca 1300.

Sometimes counted among the kings' sagas:

* Jómsvíkinga saga
* Orkneyinga saga
* Færeyinga saga
* Brjáns saga

There's more Islandic saga's, most of which survived.

* Bandamanna saga
* Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss
* Bjarnar saga Hítdœlakappa
* Brennu-Njáls saga - considered by some the greatest of Icelandic prose sagas
* Droplaugarsona saga
* Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar - tells of the adventures of Egill Skalla-Grímsson, the warrior-poet and adventurer
* Eiríks saga rauða
* Eyrbyggja saga
* Færeyinga saga
* Finnboga saga ramma
* Fljótsdæla saga
* Flóamanna saga
* Fóstbrœðra saga (two versions)
* Gísla saga Súrssonar, (two versions) of an outlaw poet.
* Grettis saga
* Grœnlendinga saga
* Gull-Þóris saga
* Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfífls
* Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu
* Hallfreðar saga (two versions)
* Harðar saga ok Hólmverja
* Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings
* Heiðarvíga saga
* Hrafnkels saga
* Hrana saga hrings
* Hænsna-Þóris saga
* Kjalnesinga saga
* Kormáks saga
* Króka-Refs saga
* Laxdæla saga
* Ljósvetninga saga (three versions)
* Reykdœla saga ok Víga-Skútu
* Svarfdœla saga
* Valla-Ljóts saga
* Vatnsdœla saga
* Víga-Glúms saga
* Víglundar saga
* Vápnfirðinga saga
* Þorsteins saga hvíta
* Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar
* Þórðar saga hreðu
* Ölkofra saga

Plus the Pættir, and a bunch of forms I'm not familiar with at all. I find it all rather synaptically stimulating.

Edited: Oct 30, 2010, 7:04pm Top

To get back to the original question, I've found what seems to be THE referenced source:
Robert McGhee's
Contact between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence

American Antiquity, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 4-26Published by: Society for American ArchaeologyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/280509

It's his opinion, at least as I understand him, that while there is much that supports a wider contact between the Norse and N. American Indians than many suppose, that evidence points to their being that there was more effect on the Norse than there was on the natives.

As far as disease, he writes, "Although the Point Revenge Indians and the Dorset Palaeoeskimos of Labrador and Ungava appear to have become extinct prior to later European contact, they seem to have outlasted the Norse Greenlandic colonies."


This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.

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