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Vikings arriving in North America at the Newfoundland site. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock.

Dispute Over Evidence Of Cannabis Use By Vikings In North America

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Cannabis pollen discovered near an ancient Viking settlement in Newfoundland is generating differences in opinion as to whether or not the Vikings were smoking and eating the weed while they explored North America.

Discovered in the in the 1960s and dating to around the year 1000 AD, L’Anse aux Meadows is an ancient Viking archaeological site  located on the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland. This remote outpost of the ancient Norwegian empire is the only confirmed evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact and it was named a World Heritage Site by  UNESCO in 1978.

The Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. (FlickrLickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. (FlickrLickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Traditionally, archaeologists generally agreed that this site was only occupied for a brief period in the early 11th century, but in the new paper published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , Paul Ledger, the lead author and postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland, suggests the Vikings may have inhabited the site into the “12th or even the 13th century”.

Controversial Bog-Bound Ecofacts

In August 2018 a team of archaeologists excavated a peat bog almost 100 feet (30 meters) east of L'Anse aux Meadows and according to an article in Live Science “they found a layer of ecofacts” - environmental remains which might have been brought by humans, that radiocarbon dated to the “12th or 13th century”.
Among these ‘ ecofacts’ the archaeologists recovered caribou dung, charcoal, and two beetles - one being Simplocaria metallica from Greenland and the other was Acidota quadrata from the Arctic. Additionally, Juglan (walnut) and Humulus ( cannabis) pollen was discovered but neither this nut or plant grew naturally at L'Anse aux Meadows and the scientists confided the Vikings may have “collected these when they sailed south”.

Discovered at the Viking settlement, dung, charcoal, inspects, a walnut, and cannabis pollen. (Paul Ledger / Fair Use)

Discovered at the Viking settlement, dung, charcoal, inspects, a walnut, and cannabis pollen. ( Paul Ledger / Fair Use )

The team of scientists performed Bayesian analysis which statistically interpreted radiocarbon dates from artifacts previously excavated at L'Anse aux Meadows and this showed occupation at the site for “up to 200 years before” the Vikings were thought to have first arrived. However, before we rewrite North American history, the paper says, “this does not imply a continuous occupation” and that Vikings might have abandoned, and reoccupied L'Anse aux Meadows whenever required.

Did Vikings Use Weed in Newfoundland?

The traces of cannabis pollen ‘might’ mean Vikings grew and used cannabis for making clothes, sail cloths, medicines, or for getting high while exploring the wilds of North America, but Paul Ledger says in the paper “pollen can easily be carried by the wind” and interpretations of this specific find must show caution.

The traces of cannabis pollen ‘might’ mean Vikings used it, or it could have been transported in the wind. (Kyle / Adobe Stock)

The traces of cannabis pollen ‘might’ mean Vikings used it, or it could have been transported in the wind. ( Kyle / Adobe Stock)

It must have been tempting to have concluded that the “Vikings grew weed” at L’Anse aux Meadows considering a December 2017 Ancient Origins article which discusses a research paper on portal  Forskning.no. Archaeologists discovered an isolated Iron Age farm in southern Norway at which traces of cannabis were found dating between the years 650 and 800 AD, i.e. the beginning of the Viking Age proving they certainly did use weed.

However, just because Vikings grew cannabis in ancient Norway, it would be wrong to assume therefore that a group of explorers grew it in North America, and this is why the new study claims to “pose more questions than answers”. This is a calculated and safe stance to take because while these researchers are celebrating the publication of their results a raft of more skeptical scientists suggest the ‘ecofacts’ could have been brought to bog, not by the Vikings, but by an indigenous culture of Newfoundland.

Birgitta Wallace is a senior archaeologist emerita with Parks Canada and she told Live Science “she isn't convinced” the Vikings left behind these ‘ecofacts’ because “no evidence” has been found suggesting they returned in the 12th and 13th centuries. “What we do know”, says Wallace, “is that there were indigenous people, ancestors of the Beothuk, on the site at that time”.

Beothuk Barbarians Vs Viking Berserkers, What Could Possibly Go Wrong…

The Beothuk people formed around 1500 BC and about 1000 AD the first Norse explorers recorded encounters with natives in northern Newfoundland which they called skrælingjar (skraelings) or barbarians whom they drove inland. Latterly, the Beothuk revisited their former traditional hunting camps for metal tools, parts of shelters, and building materials left by the European fishermen.

The Beothuk were the indigenous people in Newfoundland that the Vikings drove inland. (Carlb / Public Domain)

The Beothuk were the indigenous people in Newfoundland that the Vikings drove inland. (Carlb / Public Domain )

An article in Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador says, “the Beothuk’s main food sources had traditionally been caribou, fish, and seals but their forced migration inland led to the over-hunting of caribou and a decrease in the population in Newfoundland”. Being forced from their traditional territories and lifestyle into new ecosystems unable to support them caused widespread malnourishment and starvation which led to their extinction.

Top image: Vikings arriving in North America at the Newfoundland site. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie

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