When the Vikings kicked off globalization : The Indicator from Planet Money How the Vikings trading with a North American Indigenous group shortly after the year 1000 connected global trading networks and kicked off the first version of globalization.
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How Vikings Launched Globalization 1.0

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How Vikings Launched Globalization 1.0

How Vikings Launched Globalization 1.0

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The year is 986, and the Norse sagas tell of a Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson who is sailing west from Norway.

VALERIE HANSEN: He wanted to spend the winter with his father.

GARCIA: That is Yale historian Valerie Hansen.

HANSEN: And his father, he thought, was in Iceland. So he went to Iceland.


There's apparently never been any getting out of going home for the holidays.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: But Bjarni's father is not in Iceland. His father had gone to Greenland with other Norse explorers. So Bjarni keeps sailing west towards Greenland, and he gets blown off course by the currents until he spots a new land southwest of Greenland.

HANSEN: And he goes to three places that the sagas tell us about. And one of them has slabs of rock that most people think is Baffin Island. One of them has a lot of trees, and most people think that that's the Labrador coast of northeastern Canada. And then the third place looks much more fertile and much more inviting, and that place is called Vinland. And we're not absolutely sure to this day where it was.

VANEK SMITH: Bjarni and his men keep sailing. They never actually set foot on North American land. Instead, they return to Greenland and told the other Norse settlers what they have seen.

GARCIA: And around the year 1000, Leif Eriksson follows that same path from Greenland back to Vinland, becoming the first European to set foot in the Americas. But that is just the beginning of the story. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, Vikings - Vikings, Cardiff.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Cardiff and I have sort of a strange shared love of Vikings. Today on the show, though, we promise this loops back to economics. It is a story you might not have heard in your childhood classrooms - how the Vikings kicked off globalization.


VANEK SMITH: So scholars think Vinland was somewhere near the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in modern-day Canada. That is close to the border with the U.S. state of Maine. Vinland had plenty of trees and grass and fish, and it had grapevines. That is how it got its name, Vinland.

GARCIA: But wherever it was, in the year 1000, when Leif Eriksson sails there with his Viking crew and then camps there for the winter, the Vikings do not encounter any Indigenous peoples before they return to Greenland.

VANEK SMITH: And the first encounter between the Norse and Indigenous peoples in the Americas comes a few years later, when Leif's brother Thorvald brings his own crew to Vinland.

GARCIA: When they arrive, the Vikings under Thorvald come across nine Indigenous men sleeping, and then they do something horrible. Valerie Hansen is a historian at Yale and the author of "The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected The World - And Globalization Began."

HANSEN: The Norse, without talking to them or waking them up or making any effort to figure out who they are, kill them - kill eight of the nine men that they find. And then the ninth man escapes, and he comes back with some friends. And they then attack the Norse, and they shoot Thorvald. And he dies of an arrow wound.

GARCIA: Thorvald's men go back to Greenland, and several years after that, the Vikings return again to Vinland under the command of Thorfinn Karlsefni.

VANEK SMITH: And this time, the Vikings not only make contact with the Indigenous peoples, but they also trade goods with them. And this is the first recorded instance of Europeans trading with people in the Americas.

GARCIA: Now, we don't know exactly which Indigenous group or groups the Vikings came across. Scholars think it might have been the ancestral Beothuk, but there were several Indigenous groups near the area that it could have been.

VANEK SMITH: And the Vikings want fur pelts in their trade with the Indigenous groups. These pelts can be used to make clothes for a cold winter. And the Vikings - you know, cold winter was kind of their thing. They definitely needed fur. And back then, Valerie says, fur pelts are also just a prized good all across the world.

HANSEN: They're used to make clothing. They're an extremely prized commodity in the medieval world. And one of the things that I think is very interesting is that, yes, people in cold climates are making clothing out of fur, but so are people in hot climates. The caliph in Baghdad has a wardrobe that's filled with fur robes.

GARCIA: And, of course, in exchange for the fur pelts, the Vikings need something to trade that the Indigenous peoples want.

HANSEN: What the natives wanted most was to buy red cloth. They also wanted to buy swords and spears. But Karlsefni and Snorri - Snorri's his other leader - forbade that.

VANEK SMITH: You know, it's all about the pop of color, Cardiff, even back then. So the Vikings stayed for a little while in Vinland, but there is a misunderstanding when one of the Indigenous peoples tries to grab a Viking weapon. The relationship goes south, and later, there is a battle. And the Vikings are outnumbered, spears and all. And from this, the Vikings realize that they cannot settle in Vinland without a constant threat of attack. So they abandon their settlement, fight their way out and go back to Greenland to settle.

GARCIA: Here is where we have to say that we don't actually know just how true these stories are, Valerie says. These are stories that were passed down through the generations by descendants of the Vikings, so naturally, they make the Vikings look good, heroic, adventurous. And correspondingly, they refer to the Indigenous peoples in derogatory ways and make them out to be the bad guys. It's a totally one-sided account of what happened.

VANEK SMITH: And so these stories were only written down hundreds of years later in these two separate sagas called the "Vinland Sagas." And even the two sagas contradict each other about some of the events.

GARCIA: Yeah. But even if the sagas are not actual history, we do know that the stories are at least based on actual history because there is more than enough archaeological evidence now to confirm that the Vikings really were in North America, that they traveled there repeatedly from Greenland and that they both traded with and fought with at least one North American Indigenous group.

VANEK SMITH: And it's not clear just how long the Vikings actually tried to settle in North America before they gave up - possibly as little as a decade, Valerie says. But there's also archaeological evidence that the Vikings kept returning to visit North America for decades at least and maybe longer, probably to pick up lumber for their buildings back in Greenland.

GARCIA: And our favorite piece of evidence for this - a Norse penny minted between 1065 and 1080.


GARCIA: Yeah. And it might have been traded from the Vikings first and then between different Indigenous groups. By the way, that penny was dug up in the United States.

HANSEN: And it was found in a giant garbage pile called a midden with a lot of shells in it on a coastal site called Goddard Point in Maine.

GARCIA: But here is why the trade between the Vikings and the Indigenous group in North America is so interesting. Valerie says that this trading network was one of the many trading networks that were being established simultaneously at that moment in history, around the year 1000.

VANEK SMITH: To the west of the Atlantic Ocean, there were trading networks linking North and South America.

HANSEN: In the Americas, there is a trading center called Cahokia Mounds, which is in East St. Louis - modern East St. Louis. And at Cahokia, archaeologists have found goods from the Northeast, from the Great Lakes, from California. There's some evidence of ties to even the Maya, and then there's connections between the Maya in Mexico and the Andes.

VANEK SMITH: And to the east of the Atlantic Ocean, Valerie says...

HANSEN: There are trade networks all through Europe, and there are these new networks in Eastern Europe. They're connected to Africa. There's a trade route from East Africa that goes up to Baghdad. The port outside of Baghdad is called Bosphorus. And then that trade route goes around India and Southeast Asia and gets to China.

GARCIA: So by making it across the Atlantic and connecting East to West, the Vikings had closed the global loop, as Valerie says, when they established that trade with Indigenous peoples in North America. And even if it wasn't a huge amount of trade and even if that trade only lasted a short while, it was the first time in history that, hypothetically, an item that was traded almost anywhere in the world could have made it to almost any other part of the world. And that is how the Vikings launched globalization or at least an early version of it.

VANEK SMITH: International trade Viking-style. By the way, we are using the words Norse and Vikings interchangeably - technically not the same thing. The Vikings were Norse people who specifically engaged in, you know, marauding and pillaging, looting. And visits to the Americas by the Norse were something different. We took a bit of literary license, you know, just the way that they do in the sagas.

GARCIA: (Laughter) This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods and Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

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