The Secrets of the Lake: New Research Shows that Humans Settled the Faroe Islands Centuries Earlier Than Previously Thought

Sometime around 500 A.D., an unknown band of humans settled in the remote Faroe Islands, a small, rugged archipelago about midway between Norway and Iceland, some 200 miles northwest of Scotland. This is a significant revision of the older consensus, which had Vikings peopling the Faroes around 850 A.D., and it was made possible by evidence dredged up from the bottom of a lake.

NEWS Faroes
Sheep suddenly appeared in the Faroes around 500AD, brought there by early human settlers. Courtesy Raymond Bradley/UMass Amherst

“This is an important finding,” says Raymond Bradley, distinguished professor in geosciences at UMass Amherst and one of the authors of a paper recently published in Communications Earth & Environment, “because it forces us to revise the early history of early exploration of the North Atlantic by pre-Viking mariners”

The Faroes are an imposing landscape of towering coastal cliffs, windswept interiors, and rocky tundra stretching under cloudy skies. There is no evidence that Indigenous people ever lived there, making it one of the planet’s few lands that remained uninhabited until historical times. Past archaeological excavations have indicated that seafaring Vikings first reached them around 850 AD, soon after they developed long-distance sailing technology. The settlement may have formed a stepping stone for the Viking settlement of Iceland in 874, and their short-lived colonization of Greenland, around 980.

This new study, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is based on lake sediments containing signs that domestic sheep suddenly appeared around 500, well before the Norse occupation. Previously, the islands did not host any mammals, domestic or otherwise; the sheep could have arrived only with people. The study is not the first to assert that someone else got there first, but the researchers say it clinches the case.

The first physical evidence of early occupation came with a 2013 study in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, which documented two patches of burnt peat containing charred barley grains found underneath the floor of a Viking longhouse on the Faroese island of Sandoy. The researchers dated the grains to somewhere between 300 and 500 years before the Norse; barley was not previously found on the island, so someone must have brought it.

But the researchers in the new study employed a different, non-archaeological approach. In a small vessel, they sailed out onto a lake near the village of Eiði, site of an ancient Viking locale on the island of Eysturoy. Here, they dropped weighted open-ended tubes to the bottom to collect muck—sediments dropped year by year and built up over millennia, forming a long-term environmental record. The cores penetrated down about 9 feet, recording some 10,000 years of environmental history. The scientists had started out hoping to better understand the climate around the time of the Viking occupation, but came up with a surprise.

Starting at 51 centimeters (20 inches) down in the sediments, they found signs that large numbers of sheep had suddenly arrived, most likely between 492 and 512, but possibly as early as 370. The telltale signs: identifiable fragments of sheep DNA, and two distinctive types of lipids produced in sheep digestive systems.

“We see this as putting the nail in the coffin that people were there before the Vikings,” said lead author Lorelei Curtin, who did the research as a grad student at Lamont-Doherty. She noted that while the Faroes look rugged and wild today, practically every square inch of vegetation has been chewed up by Faroese sheep, a staple of the Faroese diet that are found nearly everywhere.