Earlier this month, there appeared to be big news out of Newfoundland for both history and cannabis buffs: Physical evidence that the Norse settlers who arrived on the northern portion of the island about 1,000 years ago had grown cannabis.
The misunderstanding seems to stem from the single mention of the word “cannabis” in a newly published paper in the journal PNAS, said Paul Ledger, a PhD candidate at Memorial University and the paper’s lead author.
The word was used in reference to a single grain of Humulus pollen, Ledger said, which was found in peat moss. There are a few species of plant with similar pollen, one of them being cannabis, but the discovery of that single grain doesn’t actually say anything definitive about which plant the pollen belonged to, or who was responsible for its appearance in the area, he said.
It took just a couple of misunderstandings and a few articles to spread the misleading “cannabis-growing Vikings” word. Ledger’s peat moss research may not have revealed anything new about cannabis cultivation in North America—but it may point to new information about Norse settlement on the continent.
What Did They Find?
Ledger and his team did their research in L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, where Norse explorers established a settlement about a millenium ago.
The Memorial University archeologists excavated peat moss to study environmental conditions and made an unexpected finding: cultural material that has been carbon-dated to the late-12th to mid-13th century, at least 100 years after the Norse are believed to have abandoned their settlement and left Newfoundland.
In addition to the maybe-cannabis pollen, the cultural materials found included charcoal, wood chips, and the remains of insects not believed to have been introduced to the island until a few centuries later.
“The material we found probably post dates the Vikings,” Ledger said.
But just as the single grain of pollen doesn’t prove that Vikings were growing cannabis hundreds of years ago, the cultural materials themselves don’t prove that the Norse settlers were in the area longer than previously established, Ledger said.
‘We can’t really say who it’s from or how these things got there,” he said. They could be materials left behind by the Norse and used by other people still in the area, like the Indigenous people well established in Newfoundland at the time, for example, or materials that originated with those Indigenous people themselves. The insects may have been brought over by the Norse, remaining longer than the settlement, or brought onto Newfoundland by the Inuit who came to the island.
“It’s posing more questions about what is going on really than answering any.”
Ongoing research by Ledger and his team may yet lead to a new understanding of the earliest European presence in North America, but it’s not likely to shift the history of cannabis on the continent.
For now, it’s safe to assume that cannabis first came to North America with European colonizers a few hundred years after the Norse were here—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t cannabis growing on Newfoundland today, thanks in part to upcoming production facilities at sites as varied as a large Canopy Growth building in St. John’s to former fish plants in outport communities.
So far, no Vikings appear to be involved.