Did Ancient Vikings Smoke Pot in North America?

Researchers have discovered traces of cannabis at the only known Viking settlement on the North America mainland, raising the possibility that Norsemen were using the plant for medicinal or recreational purposes.

In August 2018, archaeologists at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland uncovered cannabis pollen, along with walnut pollen and remains of two non-indigenous beetles species—Simplocaria metallica, from Greenland, and Acidota quadrata, from the Arctic.

They also found charcoal, caribou dung and woodworking debris.

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Remains of Viking settlements were first discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1960. Getty Images

L'Anse aux Meadows was settled sometime around 910 A.D. and, until now, scientists believed it was only briefly occupied. But according to a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the ecofacts found at a peat bog nearby radiocarbon date to the 12th or 13th century.

"Since the horizon is buried within a peatland, the preservation of biological remains is excellent," lead author Paul Ledger told Ars Technica. "This may afford us the opportunity to examine aspects of pre-contact lifeways that are not present in other depositional environments."

The layer from the peat bog is similar to other "cultural layers from across the Norse North Atlantic," Ledger wrote. "This does not imply a continuous occupation," he admits. It could mean L'Anse aux Meadows was abandoned and re-inhabited by the Vikings at various points.

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Ancient homes of Viking settlers in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Getty Images

The findings could shed new light on the level of contact between Viking and Native Americans before European colonization: According to Ledger, a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Vikings likely traded with tribes up and down the East Coast, acquiring butternut squash, wild grapes and, yes, cannabis.

The multipurpose plant is known to have been cultivated by Vikings in Norway: Cannabis seeds were even found with the remains of an elderly woman with cancer in Tønsberg, according to Ancient Origins, which reports "it is not unlikely that the seeds were used as painkillers."

But, Ledger admits, the pollen at L'Anse aux Meadows may also have been carried by the air or brought to the site by members of the local Beothuk or Dorset tribes. And if the Norse did indeed use cannabis in Newfoundland, it may have been to make rope or clothing. "The results presented here pose more questions than answers," Ledger wrote. He plans to return to the bog to do more extensive research.

Remains of Norse buildings were first discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s.