Norse contact with Native Americans before the Viking Age

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When the Vikings reached the New World, they called the native inhabitants (American Indians or Native Americans), “Skræling.”

There has been much debate as to what exactly this word or label meant.

Some translate it as “skin wearers,” which may be true as to how they described them. The Norse generally wore woolen or linen clothing and North American Natives generally wore animal skins.

There was one thing that is puzzling about the Norse describing their interactions or meeting the Skræling. The Viking explorers weren’t curious or baffled by these new people. They acted as if they’d come into contact with people like this before and their way of life. This is significant because it tells us that the Skræling were not an unusual sighting by the Norse.

For example, 500 years later when other Europeans had come to the New World (The Americas), they were ultimately curious of these strange new people they had never seen before. They were curious of their ways and everything about them. But not the Norse, they didn’t appear to be curious at all and merely noted interacting with these people. The Norse reaction seems to hint that they’d come into contact with people like this on a fairly regular basis.

This is because the Norse did in fact have regular contact and knowledge of these people. The Skræling and Thule people were commonly referred to by the Norse. The island of Thule, which is now called Qaanaaq, is located in northwest Greenland towards Canada and is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It is believed the Thule people are the ancestors of the modern Inuit (Eskimo) as they are linked biologically, culturally, and linguistically.

The Vikings were in regular contact with the Thule people, particularly in the 11th century when they explored Greenland and the edges of Canada where they referred to these people as both “Thule” and “Skræling.” During the occurrence of the “Little Ice Age” from 1650 AD to 1850 AD, the climate changed and caused the Thule communities to migrate. These people scattered and resettled in different areas. They later became known as the Eskimo and then later became known as the Inuit People.

Another very significant group of people that the Norse were in continual contact with were the Sami people (Sámi or Saami). The Sami are an indigenous Finno-Ugric people who inhabit the Arctic area of what’s called “Sápmi” today.

The area of Sápmi encompasses much of the northern halves of Norway and Sweden along with the far northern portion of Finland including the Kola Peninsula of Russia.

Map of the Saami Homeland by Rogper, 4 May 2004.
Map of the Saami Homeland by Rogper, 4 May 2004.

The Sami languages are a part of the Uralic language family, a language family that is associated with native speakers of Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Language regions today that are also traditionally known to be areas that were either part of or in contact with the Norse.

The first mention of a Uralic people was in Tacitus’s Germania, mentioning the Fenni (usually interpreted as referring to the Sami) and two other possibly Uralic tribes living in the farthest reaches of Scandinavia.

In recent times, linguists often place the Urheimat (Urheimat is a term that refers to the original homeland of the language) of the Proto-Uralic language in the vicinity of the Volga River, west of the Urals, close to the Urheimat of the Indo-European languages, or to the east and southeast of the Urals.

Related to this Uralic language is the language of the North American Eskimo. The Eskimo–Uralic hypothesis associates the Uralic languages with the Eskimo–Aleut languages. Uralo-Siberian is an expanded form of the Eskimo–Uralic hypothesis. The hypothesis associates the Uralic languages with Yukaghir, Chukotko-Kamchatkan, and the Eskimo–Aleut languages. This linguistic connection shows that these people were in or near the areas that were also inhabited by Norse people.

There are other things that show that the Norse were very familiar with and accustomed to the Skræling people. It’s very probable that the Norsemen coming into contact, either knew of or had dealt with Skræling people before. This is why they didn’t concern themselves too much with meeting ‘Native Americans’ as did the latter explorers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries when they began coming to the New World and meeting the Native Americans.

The Norse were already very acquainted with a people they called Skræling. A more primitive people that Norse explorers and traders would occasionally come into contact with. The Norse also had contact with the Sami people that were located just North of them. These were a people the Norse had regular contact and interactions with due to proximity to each other. Contact between cultures which exists Today by modern Scandinavians.

This contact of Northern people was extended with the Thule people (Eskimos / Inuits) across the North where the Norse traveled all the way to the New World. A land which the Norse referred to as Vinland.

There were many commonalities of these people, such as how the Nordic Sami and the Skræling lived. Look below at the comparisons of Sami lavvo tents in North Scandinavia to that of the Native American (Skræling) teepees most commonly knows from the North American Great Plains.

A Sami indigenous northern European family in Norway around 1900
A Sami indigenous northern European family in Norway around 1900

The above picture is of the Sami people in Norway and the picture taken below is of the Sami people in Lapland. Both in Northern parts of Scandinavia.

Nordic Sami (Saami) people in Sapmi (Lapland) in front of two Lavvo Tents
Nordic Sami (Saami) people in Sapmi (Lapland) in front of two Lavvo Tents

The following pictures are of teepees made by the Great Plains Natives (Indians) in North America. Note how they are almost identical to the tents made by the Sami.

A young Oglala girl sitting in front of a tipi, 1891
A young Oglala girl sitting in front of a tipi, 1891

The above photograph and watercolor painting on the next page are both of Native American shelters in the North American Great Plains. The style of housing between the two cultures is astoundingly almost identical.

Sioux Teepees. 1832-1834.
Sioux Teepees. 1832-1834.

Not only did the Norse tell of the Skræling people that they encountered over the centuries, but the aboriginals also tell of making contact with the Norse. The Inuit (Eskimos) have a tale about a Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner or European) that was speared by a Kayaker and how they feared revenge from the Kavdlunait because of the killing.

Violence was the usual interaction between the two people, inhibiting peaceful trade and any real successful settling of these areas by Viking explorers. Such stories are also mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Greenlander Saga written in the 13th century, about Thorvald and Thorfinn Karlsefni’s attempt to settle in Vinland.

Thorvald’s first contact with the native inhabitants, whom would come to be known as the Skrælings. he’d captured and killed eight of the inhabitants when they were attacked at their beached ships. Thorvald is said to have been wounded by an arrow that flew between the edge of the ship and a shield, lodging into his armpit which had been the cause of his death.

Thorfinn, after barely surviving a rugged winter, had at first made peaceful interacts and trade with the Skræling they’d came into contact with. Only later did the peaceful interactions end when Thorfinn’s men came under attack after a native had been frightened by a bull that had gotten loose. The settlement was forced to retreat to more defensible ground and fight back where it was reported that he had lost two men and the Skræling had lost several of theirs.

The Norse explorers pointed out that despite all that the land offered in these areas, they would be under constant attack by Skræling. At this point, the Norse and Skræling were already at war with one another and any further peaceful contact between the two people was simply not going to happen.

There have been recent findings in DNA research where they analyze a type of DNA that is passed only from mother to child. Using this research, scientists have found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native Americans.

This signature DNA probably entered Icelandic bloodlines around the time period of 1000 AD when the first Viking-American Indian child was probably born. It is believed that a Native American female was transported from Vinland to Iceland on one of the Viking voyages, as the Norse were well known to capture inhabitants on their raids.

The North Americans and the North Europeans had known and had contact with each other for a very long time.

Additionally, new archaeological data and the latest DNA research have revealed that Europeans had indeed visited North American shores far earlier than the Vikings. These findings date arrivals to approximately 17,000 years before Columbus was even born. This was a time when the two regions were connected by land-ice bridges and from hunters following seals along the ice’s edge.

This explains why the North American natives and the Norse Viking explorers were of no surprise to each other when the Norse explorers spoke of them. They had been in previous contact off and on with each other for not hundreds, but thousands of years.

Additional sources:


by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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