The Faroe Islands, sitting between Iceland, Norway and the British Isles, were an important stepping stone for Viking exploration across the North Atlantic. It has long been accepted, based on archaeological evidence, that the Norse were the first to settle the Islands – but there have been niggling doubts, with several indirect lines of evidence suggesting that an existing human population was there to greet the Vikings when the first longships landed.
In new research published in Communications Earth & Environment, researchers have presented the first unequivocal evidence that the Vikings were not the first to settle the Faroes. Using a combination of faecal biomarkers and sedimentary ancient DNA, they have been able to date the earliest settlement to 500 CE, approximately 300 years before the Vikings adopted the sailing technology that saw them expand their territories across vast swathes of the global north.
Lead author Lorelei Curtin, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, USA, and colleagues drew evidence from sediment cores taken from the Eiðisvatn catchment, home to a major archaeological site that was once a Norse summer farm settlement known as Argisbrekka. From these cores, researchers were able to identify the presence of lipid molecules, called faecal biomarkers, that derive from excrement.
The Argisbrekka faecal biomarkers bear the distinct signature of an origin in sheep digestive tracts. All mammals of the Faroe Islands were originally introduced by humans, so this evidence of sheep poo is a clear indicator of human presence. By dating the sediments in which these markers were found, the researchers were able to shift the date of livestock arrival back several centuries.
“The initial appearance of sheep DNA and increased faecal biomarkers predates the first documented usage of the Argisbrekka site by the Norse by approximately 300 years,” the researchers write.
The team was able to further corroborate the new settlement date using next-generation DNA sequencing technology, which allowed them to compile a profile of the ancient DNA lingering in the sediment cores. Sampling across 11 different depths, they found increasing concentrations of both sheep and grass DNA coinciding with a disappearance of woody plants.
Where once this shift in vegetation was attributed to late Holocene climate change, it now appears that widespread grazing was the dominant driver of landscape transition from shrublands to grasslands and peatlands in the Faroes.
This new evidence validates long-held doubts surrounding the Norse-settlement narrative, which was based primarily on the dating of archaeological structures. The earliest structures on the Faroes date between 800 and 900 CE, consistent with the timing of the widespread Norse expansion to new territories in Iceland, Greenland and all the way to North America.
The current study approaches the question with novel methodology.
“While the nature of archaeological records causes them to be temporally fragmentary, sedimentary archives provide continuous records of the environmental history of a landscape,” write the researchers.
The results have opened up the discussion regarding pre-existing lines of evidence that have consistently called the established timeline into question.
Many place names in the Faroes derive from Celtic words, and a number of Celtic grave markings have been identified across the Islands. Perhaps the most compelling evidence lies in the genetics of modern Faroese people – there is a strong asymmetry between paternal and maternal ancestry, with the paternal lineage dominantly Scandinavian, while the maternal lineage is primarily from the British Isles.
Although strongly suggestive of an existing population, none of this evidence is directly conclusive.
“By 800 CE, the Vikings were already active in the British Isles,” write the researchers. “They were already influenced by Celtic culture and could have brought wives from the British Isles to the Faroe Islands.”
But with the current research firmly establishing the existence of human populations on the Faroe Islands long before the Vikings had taken up sailing – generally believed to be between 750 and 820 CE – it now appears unlikely that these first settlers were Norse.
So, who were the first inhabitants? Unfortunately, that’s still a mystery. While genetic profiles, place names and grave markings might hint towards a Celtic population, the direct sedimentary DNA evidence can’t pin this down.
“The early Faroese settlers were not Norse, however the identity of these early North Atlantic explorers remains an open question,” assert the researchers.
Jamie Priest is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Adelaide.
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