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New evidence suggests Vikings not the first to colonize the Faroe Islands

According to new archaeological evidence, the Faroe Islands were colonized much earlier than previously demonstrated, and it wasn’t the Vikings.

The research places human colonization in the 4th to 6th centuries AD, 300-500 years earlier than previously believed. Directed by Dr. Mike Church from Durham University and Símun Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, the study is part of the multidisciplinary project “Heart of the Atlantic.” Research results have been published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The findings of the study challenge the scale and timing of human settlement across the North Atlantic region, having implications for the colonization of similar island groups across the globe.

The Faroes were a stepping stone for the dispersal of Europeans across the North Atlantic, culminating on North American shores in the 11th century AD – 500 years before Columbus set sail on his famous voyage.

The study was carried out at an Á Sondum archaeological site on the island of Sandoy.

Analysis revealed an extensive windblown sand deposit with patches of burnt peat ash, indicating human activity, which dated back to pre-Viking phases. The ash spreads contained barley grains which were burned in domestic hearths as a common practice to control wind erosion throughout the 4th-6th centuries and 6th-8th centuries.

According to Church, this discovery provides firm archaeological evidence of human colonization in the Faroes some 300-500 years before the large scale Viking colonization of the 9th century AD. It is yet unknown who these people were or where they came from.

Most of the archaeological evidence from this early colonization will likely have been destroyed during the Viking invasion, thus explaining the hitherto lack of proof for earlier settlement. The findings also raise questions regarding the timescale of human activity on other islands systems where similar evidence could have been destroyed.

According to Arge, while it is unknown who the people were that settled here and where they came from, it is clear that they prepared peat for use, by cutting, drying and burning, indicating their presence there for some time.

The dates of this early evidence will now be considered in relation to other sources to determine whether there may be other similar sites on other islands, which could lead to further structural archaeological evidence.