Scientists are examining evidence that could indicate Vikings established a settlement in southern Newfoundland, hundreds of kilometres from L’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking settlement site — so far — in North America.
It’s understandable that historians and archeologists are excited, but we worry that it’s yet another view of North American history through a European lens.
At least 10,000 years before the Vikings came, people inhabited this vast land and developed a rich array of cultures and languages that have been too much overlooked.
That isn’t to say the Newfoundland site should be ignored. Far from it — it has the potential to be a fascinating discovery that could expand knowledge about Viking explorations. But it’s only a small speck in the overall history of this continent, one moment in a long timeline.
There are many gaps in that timeline, gaps widened by Europeans’ antipathy toward the culture and history of the people who lived here for millennia.
Duncan McLaren, an assistant professor of anthropology, is among those trying to fill some of those gaps. He was part of a team of researchers from the Hakai Institute, University of Victoria and local First Nations that discovered human footprints on a shoreline of Calvert Island in Queen Charlotte Sound that are thought to be the oldest footprints ever discovered in North America.
The footprints were radio-carbon-dated at 13,200 years old, more than 2,000 years older than human imprints found in Mexico.
There are many archeological sites in B.C. yet to be discovered, McLaren says, so much more can be learned about the peoples who lived here.
Yet what we know shows the coastal peoples lived rich lives and expressed their beliefs and stories in magnificent art. Fifteen centuries before Socrates, Coast Salish people were building and living in houses, as indicated by evidence found on Sidney Spit.
We revere the names of European explorers who made their way across the continent or sailed along its coasts, yet many could not have ventured far without the help and direction of those who already lived here.
Lewis and Clark’s celebrated voyage to the Pacific would not have been possible without a map supplied to Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Peter Fidler. That map was drawn by Old Swan, a Blackfoot chief from the prairies of Western Canada.
David Thompson travelled 90,000 kilometres in his North American explorations, was the first person to map the Columbia River drainage and has been described as the greatest land geographer of all time. Jacco Finlay, son of a Chippewa mother and a white Hudson’s Bay fur trader, played a key role in Thompson’s travels, including blazing a trail for him across the Rocky Mountains.
American anthropologist Alice Kehoe, who did extensive work in Canada, has long lamented the incompleteness of North American history as seen from a European perspective.
“America’s history begins some 14,000 years ago,” she wrote. “Invading Europeans met no wilderness, but landscapes and resources rendered through millennia of human actions.”
The original peoples of North America used science and intelligence, she said. They built complex cities, and for thousands of years, followed extensive trading routes that were later used by white explorers.
Long before the Spanish, the British and the Russians explored Canada’s West Coast, people lived here, built communities, fought battles and learned from the land. The exhibits in the Royal B.C. Museum offer but a glimpse of the sophisticated, complex societies that flourished here.
We wish the scientists well as they probe the Newfoundland site looking for more clues about the Vikings, but let’s not forgot that history spanning millenia waits to be uncovered on the West Coast and elsewhere in Canada.