The Norse beat the Portuguese to the Azores by seven centuries

The Azores group, in Google Maps. The article’s authors say the discoveries of “fecal biomarkers” in lake sediments at Corvo in the northwest around 850 CE and Pico in the central group around 700 CE, given chronological uncertainties, indicate that colonization across the archipelago at an early medieval date was “near simultaneous.”

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) has an article that is a game-changer in our understanding of the European outreach into the Atlantic world. (You either need an institutional subscription, or have to buy a copy for $10 like I did.) The authors of “Climate change facilitated the early colonization of the Azores Archipelago during medieval times”, led by Pedro M. Raposeiro of the biology department of the University of the Azores, assert: “We use a diverse set of lake and landscape proxy indicators to characterize initial human occupation and its impacts on the Azores Archipelago. The occupation of these islands began between 700 and 850 CE, 700 years earlier than suggested by documentary sources. These early occupations caused wide-spread ecological and landscape disturbance and raise doubts about the islands’ presumed pristine nature during Portuguese arrival. The earliest explorers arrived at the end of the early Middle Ages, when temperatures were higher than average, and the westerly winds were weaker, facilitating arrivals to the archipelago from northeastern Europe and inhibiting exploration from southern Europe. This is consistent with archaeological and genetic research suggesting the Norse were the first to colonize the Azores Archipelago.”

I write about the Portuguese colonization of Terceira in the Azores, beginning in 1450 by a Fleming named Jacome de Bruges, and speculations about a pre-Columbian Portuguese arrival in the Americas, in The Race to the New World

The earliest evidence, dated to about 700 CE, was found in lake sediment on the island of Pico. These “fecal biomarkers,” ie. animal poop, likely from livestock such as sheep, pigs, and goats, also appear in lake sediment about 260 km away on Corvo around 850 CE. The authors thus assert that “within chronological uncertainties, the arrival of early human settlers was nearly synchronous across the archipelago.”

This is not the first evidence that someone other than the Portuguese got to the archipelago first, around 1430 to 1450. The paper notes: “Previous work on lake sediments from Lake Azul on São Miguel Island, using pollen, charcoal, and dung fungi as proxy-based indicators, demonstrated that rye pollen together with spores from coprophilous fungi (Sordaria, Sporormiella, Cercophora, Podospora) were continuously present after 1287 CE and were interpreted as evidence of early cereal cultivation and livestock farming, respectively.”

The possibility that the Portuguese simply got to the Azores a lot earlier than thought is cast in doubt by other recent evidence.A radiocarbon date of 903 to 1036 CE for house-mouse bones on the island of Madeira to the southeast, buttressed by colonization dates of 910 to 1185 CE for this Northern European species established by molecular dating methods, indicates that these mice were accidentally introduced to the Macaronesian islands (the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands) by settlers from Northern Europe.

Furthermore, genetic evidence from modern house-mouse populations in the Azores indicates a “complex colonization history from multiple geographical origins.” Two mitochondrial sequences indicate a Northern European origin: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, and the Faroe Islands. “The observation that northern European mice contribute significantly to the Azorean mouse gene pool suggests that they were among the earliest populations introduced to the island. This strongly suggests that they arrived with the earliest settlers, from northern Europe, in the [Early Medieval Ages].”

The house-mouse evidence points straight at the Norse, and the authors observe that an early Norse discovery of the Macaronesian islands provides a plausible explanation for the presence of the Azores archipelago on maps before the official Portuguese discovery. “In fact, Corvo Island appears as Corvis Marinis (Marine Raven Island) in the Medici Atlas (1370 CE), suggesting that northern people discovered it since these northern explorers usually used ravens to help them locate landfalls when far out at sea.”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2021, 118 (41) e2108236118; DOI:10.1073/pnas.2108236118PNAS 2021 Vol. 118 No. 41 e2108236118

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