Age of Discovery and Conquest: Prehistory–1763

Early Migration into North and South America

Migration Patterns into North and South America

There's much debate as to when humans migrated to the Americas, with estimates ranging from 13,500 to 50,000 years ago.

Throughout history human groups have moved to new locations, often permanently changing where they live. It is traditionally thought human groups migrated from East Asia to North America some 13,500 years ago. This human migration—or movement of groups of people from one longtime site to another—occurred because of climate change. As the climate warmed, oceans receded, and an isthmus—or land bridge connecting two landmasses—formed between northeastern Siberia, northwestern Canada, and Alaska. This land bridge, called Beringia, became a route followed by hunter-gatherer migrants who tracked large game from Asia into the continent of North America. Foraging for plants and tracking herds of wild animals, the hunter-gatherers eventually traveled to South America.

Modern archaeologists debate this theory of human migration to North and South America. Genetic research suggests that human groups migrated onto the Beringia land bridge some 30,000 years ago. Crossing Beringia, humans eventually traveled overland into North America around 16,000 years ago. The land bridge followed by an inland trek was not the migrants' only route to the Americas. Many archaeologists now believe some early migrants launched boats from settlements on Beringia and reached parts of North and South America by sea. Such coastal exploration is supported by evidence found at archaeological sites in Monte Verde, Chile, and Cedros Island, Mexico. Relics found at these locations show human habitation as early as 14,500 years ago. That's a full thousand years earlier than the traditional belief of migrations across the Beringia land bridge. In 1986 University of South Carolina archaeologist Albert Goodyear began excavations that suggest humans migrated first to the coast of South Carolina. Located near Allendale, South Carolina, Goodyear's Topper Site is on an ancient stone quarry. Artifacts such as spear points found there date back some 15,000 years, with other relics dating to 50,000 years ago.

Early Migration Patterns into North and South America, c. 48,000 BCE-11,000 BCE

Research suggests humans migrated to the Americas in multiple ways, including by crossing the Beringia land bridge from Asia.
All the evidence suggests that human groups who migrated to the Americas were hunter-gatherers. Until about 11,000 years ago, all human groups on Earth were hunter-gatherers, early people who depended on foraging and hunting for wild foods. They fished, trapped small animals, and hunted big game such as bison. They also gathered wild plant foods such as vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruit. Although there is no simple origin date to point to, it is thought human groups started domesticating animals and establishing farming communities about 11,000 years ago in the area of present-day Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

Viking Settlements in North America

Vikings established the first European settlement on the coast of what is now Canada.

The Vikings were Scandinavian and came from what are now the countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. A Viking was a seafaring warrior who traveled great distances. From about 800 CE to 1066 CE Vikings, who were known in Old Norse as vikingar—or "pirates"—because of their ferocious behavior, raided and colonized parts of Europe. Their presence influenced the continent's history. Vikings were the first Europeans to discover the east coast of North America, nearly five centuries before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Viking stories, or sagas, tell of a Norse explorer, Bjarni Herjolfsson, first sighting North America in about 985 when his ship was blown off course on a trip from Iceland to Greenland. According to the saga, he sailed along the Atlantic coastline of what is now eastern Canada and continued on to Greenland.

Some 15 years later Viking Leif Eriksson set out to find the land spotted by Herjolfsson. The expedition found a wooded flatland Eriksson named Land of Forests. Continuing to sail southward, they came upon a warmer area where they landed and built a base, initially called Leif's Camp. Their explorations yielded timber and wild grapes. They named the land Vinland, or Land of Wine. Leif's Camp is believed to be the first European settlement in North America.

Leif Eriksson's Voyage to North America, c. 1000 CE

Leif Eriksson followed an earlier explorer's navigational clues to locate the coast of North America.
Eriksson's group returned to their homeland. Two years afterward, Thorvald Eriksson, Leif's brother, organized an expedition and sailed to Vinland. After living in the area for a couple of years, Thorvald was killed in a battle with the native inhabitants. Leif's third brother tried to sail to Vinland to recover Thorvald's body, but storms prevented him. Two years later, an Icelandic trader heard of Vinland's supposed riches and led an expedition there. Those colonists stayed for three years, but then the trade with the indigenous people—the people native to the area—turned to wars, and they left.

The Icelandic Sagas contain conflicting information, but archaeological research has proved some elements of the tales to be factual. Discoveries in eastern Brunswick, Canada, show the area had abundant grapes and fine forests, both items sought by the Vikings. In 1961 a team led by Norse explorer Helge Ingstad and archeologist Anne Stine began excavating the site of a Viking settlement on the coast of Canada's Newfoundland province. The scientists dubbed the site L'Anse aux Meadows, or Meadow Cove. They estimated some 80 to 100 people lived there around 990 CE through 1030 CE. The community's buildings included carpentry workshops and an iron smelting foundry.

It is uncertain to what degree the Viking stories about Vinland were known in Europe, although they were mentioned in European writings in 1075.