Vikings reaching the Americas started as a legend, which was since proven with the discovery of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland. Since there have been several more settlements found… which naturally stokes the imagination as to just how far and wide the North American continent the Vikings roamed. In this eagerness a number of hoaxes have also made the rounds – the “white Indians” and runestone of the northeast, the runestone in Texas and supposed discovery of a Viking long ship in the Mississippi River. Lately, there has also been a concerted effort by some to re-interpret the saga texts – which has led to an interesting although unproven theory that the Viking sailed the Great Lakes!
So the question arises… what would likely have happened if Vikings really had stayed longer in Vinland, and had more interaction with the Native Americans? Actually, there’s some good guidance to be had. Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer winning 1998 book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, starts by asking the simple question – why was it that it was the Europeans that landed in the Americas, and not the Native Americans who arrived on European shores? And yet interestingly, it literally “misses the (Viking) boat”… in that the otherwise truly superb book asks the question and explores it based on Christopher Columbus and not Leif Erikson!
“Guns, Germs and Steel” represents weapons, diseases and knowledge advances… and Diamond expertly shows how these three central factors have shaped much of human history. How could these have been affected by prolonged contact?
- Tomahawks, spears and bows/arrows – The Native American tomahawk has always struck me as having many similarities with Viking Age axes (not the Dane axe, but the smaller battle axes). But no pre-1492 iron headed have ever been found. Nor iron tipped spears or arrowheads. And the pre-1492 Native American bows were not as advanced as Viking. With prolonged contacted, it would seem likely that the Native Americans upgraded to Viking weapons either by trade, war booty or learning the fabrication skills (just as after 1492, where iron tomahawks and arrow heads appear, and later guns were adopted).
- Diseases and genes – One of the great travesties of the 1492 European arrival, was the death by smallpox and other diseases of millions of Native Americans in both North and South America. It actually killed more than armed conflicts. If there had been more contact with Viking’s arriving in the eleventh century, then it seems likely that this would have caused similar epidemics. Interestingly the Native American Mississippian Culture does decline in the centuries between the Vikings and Columbus – however, it is thought to have been from rivalries and famine… and not a disease epidemic. Likewise, it would be expected that some inter-marriage would take place – and with the modern advances in genetics making key discoveries about English and Normandy histories based on DNA, then it is remarkable that there none with the Native Americans (the “white Indian” myth nonewithstanding!).
- Iron-working, runes and boat building – Native Americans were not proficient in iron fabrication pre-1492, while Vikings were. Vikings had a rune symbols system, which was more advanced than Native American pictogram-based symbols. And notoriously the Vikings were master boat builders. If there had been prolonged contact, it seems likely that Native Americans would have adopted some or all of these knowledge advances.
It would truly be exciting to discover an iron head to an axe or tomahawk, which was fabricated before 1492. Or some iron arrowheads. Or that the demise of the Native American Mississippi Culture was linked to an epidemic caused by a European disease. Or actually finding the remains of a long ship in the Americas. Or finding an item truly etched with Norse runes.
So, while every Viking heart hopes for new evidence of more Vinland activity, then the great paradox is that if the Vikings would have had more contact with Native Americans – then it could plausibly have been Native Americans arriving in Europe on their own long ships! Or failing that, then that the Native Americans would have been better armed and have built up immunity to European disease by 1492 – in which case the history of the Americas may have evolved very differently than it did!!