Punk Science: tree clocks and Norse settlers

Hello again, fellow punk scientists.

Scientists just discovered something pretty interesting that took place almost exactly 1000 years ago on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

In A.D. 1021 the first European explorers were active on North America, and it wasn’t a man named Cristopher Columbus.

Using a technique called carbon dating, scientists were able to determine the exact age of some wood samples from the L’Anse aux Meadows Norse settlement in Northern Canada.

Before we get into all the excitement, what exactly is carbon dating? It’s a process in which scientists look for a specific type of radioactive carbon, carbon-14.

Let’s start with where carbon-14 comes from. Carbon-14 is made in the atmosphere when cosmic rays interact with nitrogen. This carbon is radioactive and can be traced in the organic matter that absorbs it, namely, plants and animals.

When scientists wish to determine the date of an organic specimen, then can look at how much radioactive carbon-14 is left in the sample. Because a plant or an animal stops absorbing carbon-14 when it dies, scientists can calculate the age of the specimen using the half life of carbon-14 as a unit of measurement.

This process has its limits, and the answers it provides are anything but exact.

In addition, because the half life of carbon-14 is roughly 5730 years, the technique can only be used to date things back to about 50,000 years ago.

Still, it is an invaluable tool in determining the age of specimens found in a variety of scientific disciplines.

For this week’s story, we’re going to look at a clever use of carbon dating that took into account historical events that occurred during the time period that was being studied. In this case, it was around A.D. 1000 in a little Norse settlement found in Canada.

The original estimation for the age of the settlement came from the Icelandic Sagas and from carbon dating done on the artifacts at the site. Both of these sources placed the settlement as being from a time around A.D. 1000, but that was as close as they could get.

The sagas themselves were written nearly two hundred years after the fact, and carbon dating isn’t always precise, leaving little room to determine the exact age of the site.

Recently, however, a group of scientists decided to get a little creative and narrow down the age of the settlement.

They used a known solar event that occurred in A.D. 993 as a baseline for their study. This solar event would have created a large spike of carbon in the atmosphere, and thus provide a much more accurate reading of when the specimens stopped taking in that carbon.

Using three pieces of wood from the settlement, scientists determined when the trees had been exposed to that spike in radiation, and then they counted the rings in the wood until they got to the bark.

Each of the wood pieces had 28 rings from the time they had absorbed the carbon and when they had stopped growing, likely when a Norse settler had cut down the tree to use the wood for repairing structures or boats.

Since trees grow one ring each year, it was an easy matter to add 28 years to A.D. 993 bringing us to A.D. 1021, exactly 1000 years ago from this year.

There is still some matter of mystery surrounding the first settlement of Europeans on American soil. For one, scientists have no way of knowing when these bits of wood were used in the settlement. Was it when the settlement was being constructed, or was it when the settlement was abandoned?

All that they can say for certain is that at some point in the settlement’s existence, these pieces of wood served a purpose for the Norse population there.

It is worth noting that the samples in question are indeed remnants from the Norse settlement and not the Indigenous peoples that lived in the area. This is because the pieces of wood in question had clearly been worked with metal tools, something that Indigenous peoples of that time did not yet have access too, but the Norse settlers did.

There were fragments of bronze embedded in the wood as well as Norse decorative carving, making it clear that it was the visiting settlers who had worked with the wood at that time.

The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was abandoned after some time, mostly because of infighting between settlers as well as conflicts with the Indigenous peoples of the region. However, this small settlement was the base from which further Norse exploration of the “New World” took place, and it survived until its occupants decided to sail back to Greenland sometime later.

For now, that’s all the science for this week. Make sure to watch for the next installment of Punk Science, where we’ll be looking at yet another fascinating topic in the STEM world. Until next time, farewell from Punk Science, where we’re making science cool again!