|Thor Heyerdahl Believes Vikings Were the First Tourists~
From the New York Times Dec 19, 2000
EXCAVATIONS PROVE that a few score Norsemen bumped ashore in northern Newfoundland 1,000 years ago,
landing in America almost 500 years before Columbus. But scholars
generally dismiss the event with an asterisk because they say it did
not change the course of history.
Have they sold the Vikings short?
Dr. Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist, thinks so, but then,
he is no conventional scholar. He is best known for the perilous "Kon
Tiki" raft expedition from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, made to
illustrate that ancient South American Indians could have colonized the
In interviews and a new book, Dr. Heyerdahl and Per Lilliestrom, a
Swedish map expert, claim that thousands of their hardy Norse ancestors
may have prospered in the land that Leif Ericson christened "Vinland"
in A.D. 1000. In their view, the colonists spread as far south as
today's New York City, fishing, tending farm animals and cutting timber
for several hundred years under the solicitous eye of the Catholic
Church in Rome.
"Vinland is more than most people think," said Dr. Heyerdahl, robust
and combative at 86. "I would draw the boundaries of Vinland to include
the area from Hudson Strait in the north down through the Gulf of St.
Lawrence and all the way down to Long Island.
Why would they stop?"
Dr. Heyerdahl has an affinity with the tough Norsemen who ventured into
water so foreboding that medieval map makers illustrated it with
dragons and whirlpools. After gaining fame for "Kon Tiki," Dr.
Heyerdahl sailed from Morocco to Barbados on a primitive-style reed
vessel to promote the idea that ancient Mediterranean mariners could
have paid visits to Central America. His theory of a Greater Vinland is
nearly as daring, coming just as other prominent scholars have closed
ranks around a minimalist account of the Norse journeys.
The view held by most established scholars is that the height of Norse
civilization in America consisted of eight sod buildings and a
blacksmith forge. They were excavated in the 1960's at L'Anse aux
Meadows, Newfoundland. A bronze cloak pin, iron rivets and other
artifacts from the blustery site are part of "Vikings: The North
Atlantic Saga," an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in
L'Anse aux Meadows settlers almost certainly came from Greenland, where
Leif Ericson's father, Eric the Red, founded a Norse colony in A.D.
987. But no more than 90 people seem to have occupied the Newfoundland
outpost, and they left after a few years. The Greenlandic mother colony
lasted half a millennium, then disappeared in one of anthropology's
great mysteries. Its population reached a peak of 2,000 to 5,000 people
in the 1200's.
In making their case that Norsemen wandered through much of the
American Northeast, Dr. Heyerdahl and Mr. Lilliestrom cited medieval
European writings and maps suggesting that the Greenlanders were on to
something big. They also mounted a fresh scientific defense of "Norse"
artifacts that most experts have dismissed as phony or misidentified: a
rune stone from Minnesota, a mysterious stone tower in Newport, R.I.,
and Yale's "Vinland Map."
The result is a book, "Ingen Grenser," Norwegian for "No Boundaries."
It will be revised and retitled before release in English in 2001,
according to the publishing house J. M. Stenersens Forlag.
The unique approach of Dr. Heyerdahl and Mr. Lilliestrom was to cast a
Roman Catholic glow over medieval Greenland and Vinland. They even
called Leif Ericson "a Catholic missionary." The sagas say he was
baptized at the royal court in Norway before converting Greenland to
Christianity and discovering the new Western lands.
It was in the Vatican Library in Rome that Dr. Heyerdahl found the
earliest reference to a land beyond Greenland, in Adam of Bremen's
"History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen" from 1075.
"He also spoke of another island," Adam wrote, referring to his
interview with King Svend Estridsen of Denmark, "which many have found
in this great ocean, and which is named Vinland because grapes grow
wild there, and yield the best wine. There is also an abundance of
self- sown grain, as we know not from hearsay only, but from the sure
report of the
Dr. Heyerdahl said, "I think few people are aware that 400 years before
Columbus, the papal see knew there was land over there." He noted that
16 bishops were assigned to oversee Greenland and associated lands
between 1112 and the demise of the Greenlandic colony around 1500.
The clearest suggestion that something transformative had taken place
in North America came from the hand of a 17th century Icelandic bishop.
Citing 14th century annals that have been lost, the bishop, Gisli
Oddsson, wrote: "The inhabitants of Greenland, of their own free will,
abandoned the true faith and the Christian religion, having already
forsaken all good ways and true virtues, and joined themselves with the
folk of America."
Scattered Norse finds in eastern Canada do suggest that the
Greenlanders crossed the northern Davis Strait for centuries to trade
with the Inuit or to cut timber, but there is no sign of wholesale
resettlement. And the only undisputedly Norse object found in today's
United States was an 11th century silver coin from Norway that turned
up in Maine.
By contrast, the American scenario in "No Boundaries" is a rich one:
Settlers and traders from throughout the North Atlantic drifted west to
escape the grasp of royal tax collectors and bishops demanding tithes.
On becoming Vinlanders, they lived primitively, much as French trappers
did centuries later, marrying Indian women and leaving few traces.
According to Mr. Lilliestrom, their numbers may have spiked around
1110. A reported 10,000 Norwegian crusaders returning from the Middle
East sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar that year, but there is no
record of a homecoming in Norway. Mr. Lilliestrom thinks they may have
sailed or been swept westward on the current that would later bring
Spaniards to America. On sighting land, he said, they would
instinctively have turned north and found the Vinland farers.
Such an infusion would have raised Vinland's profile, accounting for
later mentions of the place in Icelandic annals and even, Mr.
Lilliestrom said, on the infamous Vinland Map.
In 1957, Yale bought the map, supposedly drawn before Columbus yet
showing "Vinilanda Insula" in the Northwest Atlantic. When chemical
analysis suggested the ink contained a 20th century synthetic version
of titanium dioxide, the map was denounced as a fraud. But Mr.
Lilliestrom denounced the denouncers after a chemistry experiment of
From the Swiss Alps, where the Vinland Map was purportedly made, he
acquired natural anatase crystals and ground them finely in accord with
ink-making instructions from a 15th century German art book. The
resulting titanium dioxide ink was, he claimed, identical with the
chemical and crystalline structure of the ink on the Vinland Map.
For Mr. Lilliestrom, the significance of the map is its Latin notation
stating that Vinland was visited in 1117 by "Henricus, apostolic legate
and bishop of Greenland and the nearby areas.
"There must have been a Christian congregation in Vinland/America at
that time, because otherwise the pope would not have sent a man so high
up in the church's hierarchy," he said.
In his view, the Norse Vinlanders later dissolved so thoroughly into
the Indian population that only their light skin and the occasional
pair of blue eyes remained for European explorers to remark upon in the
16th century as they sailed along a coast identified on their maps as
"Norumbega" or "Normanvilla."
When Dr. Heyerdahl discussed "No Boundaries" at the University of Oslo
recently, more than 600 people crowded the hall. Skeptics said they
feared the "Kon Tiki" adventurer could touch off a wave of uncritical
Vikingmania in North America.
"This is farther out than anything he has ever done before," said
Birgitta Wallace, a Parks Canada archaeologist who devoted 20 years of
her career to L'Anse aux Meadows. "In my opinion, it's not much more
than a fantasy."