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New research points to human settlers on remote North Atlantic islands centuries earlier than believed

Experts have been trying to prove for decades that an unknown group of humans settled the North Atlantic Faroe Islands hundreds of years before the Vikings, and researchers believe that new evidence finally confirms it.

(CN) — New research released Thursday points to a group of unknown settlers inhabiting the North Atlantic Faroe Islands more than 300 years before the Vikings — long believed to be the first explorers there — ever graced the islands’ shores.

Situated about 200 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland and serving as a midway point between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are a small archipelago largely dominated by rugged cliffs, roaring winds and a tundra-like landscape. It’s also an island network that is believed to have no indigenous population, making it one of the few areas on Earth that had no human presence before historical records began.

The Faroes have another interesting claim to fame, as well: for decades, experts couldn’t decide on who landed there first. Past archaeological excavations have revealed that Vikings first reached the islands around 850 A.D., only a short time after advances in their long-distance sailing technology made the journey possible. For some time, it was largely agreed that this was the first time human civilization found its way to the Faroe Islands.

But before long, evidence on the islands began to emerge that didn’t quite line up with this narrative.

In the 1980s, researchers found evidence that a weed commonly linked to pastures and early human activity was on the archipelago around 2200 B.C. and in 2013 researchers also found charred barley grains trapped underneath a Viking longhouse that seemed to predate Viking occupation by up to 500 years.

These discoveries began to raise questions and eyebrows alike, causing some to conclude that human settlers found the island centuries before the Vikings made their appearance, though some experts wanted more evidence to corroborate the story. Now, in a study published Thursday in Communications Earth & Environment, they have gotten exactly that.

This was made possible when a team of researchers led by Lorelei Curtin and William D’Andrea, scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, took a small vessel to a lake on Eysturoy, one of the largest islands on the archipelago, to collect sediments that have amassed under the water for over a millennia.

Around 20 inches deep into the sediment, they found evidence of something they didn’t expect: sheep. Dating techniques reveal that between 492 and 512, but potentially as early as 370, a massive amount of sheep suddenly appeared on the Faroes, hundreds of years before Vikings found the islands.

A sudden invasion of sheep on the barren Faroe Islands suggest that they had to have arrived alongside people who brought them.

“We see this as putting the nail in the coffin that people were there before the Vikings,” lead author Lorelei Curtin said with the release of the study.

Experts still haven’t found any evidence of physical remains from these pre-Norse people, but they say this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The islands don’t have much in the way of land that is easily settled, so the areas that were likely got built over by the Vikings shortly after their arrival.  

With the theory of pre-Viking people on the islands all but confirmed at this point, just one question remains: who exactly where these mystery settlers? Experts are not entirely sure, but they speculate that it was likely a group of Celts. This is due largely to the fact that many areas on the Faroes are named from words derived from the Celtic language and a series of ancient Celtic grave markings — though they are not dated — litter the islands.

Kevin Edwards, an archaeologist and environment researcher at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen who coauthored the 2013 study that found charred barley grains, says that while these findings bring convincing new evidence of people predating the Vikings on the Faroes, he is also excited about similar stories on other islands from the area potentially being unveiled in the future.

“Is similar evidence to be found in Iceland, where similar arguments are made for a pre-Norse presence, and for which tantalizingly similar archaeological, pollen-analytical and human DNA are forthcoming?”

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