C: Brian Kingsley Flickr & Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0 https://bit.ly/3CvFnmg

Irish monks could have been first human settlers on the North Atlantic Faroe Islands

A group of Irish monks may have been the first humans to settle in the North Atlantic Faroe Islands around 500 AD – some 350 years before the Vikings. 

New evidence which was uncovered from the bottom of a lake in the remote North Atlantic Faroe Islands backs up the theory that the Vikings were not the first band of humans to settle on the remote volcanic islands, as had previously been thought.

It has now been suggested, however, that the unknown band of humans may have been Celts – Irish monks, in fact – who crossed rough and unexplored seas from what are present-day Ireland or Scotland. The incredible findings appeared in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, published on the 16th of December 2021.

The Faroes are a small and rugged archipelago located roughly midway between Norway and Iceland, some 200 miles northwest of Scotland. No evidence exists to suggest that Indigenous people ever lived in its rocky landscape, making it one of the few places in the world that remained uninhabited until historical times. 

The Faroe Islands pictured in 2021 – C: Brian Kingsley Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 https://bit.ly/3CvFnmg

 

Previous archaeological excavations have indicated that seafaring Vikings first reached there around 850 AD, soon after they developed long-distance technology for sailing. The settlement of the Vikings could well have formed the foundation for the Viking settlement of the Nordic nation, Iceland, in 874, and their short-lived colonization of the world’s largest island, Greenland, around 980 AD. 

The fascinating new study, which was spearheaded by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is based on lake sediments containing signs that domestic sheep suddenly appeared around 500, long before the Norse occupation. Because the islands did not previously host any mammals, domestic or otherwise; the sheep could only have arrived with people. 

On this point, the research states:

“We identify the sedimentary horizon with the first appearance of sheep DNA and an increase in the concentration of fecal biomarkers within 1 cm of sediment deposition in the core (equivalent to ~25 years). The co-occurrence of these two independent molecular indicators for the presence of livestock in the watershed provides conclusive evidence for human arrival in the Eiðisvatn catchment by this time.”

“Sheep likely outnumbered humans,” the researchers add.

Further backing the case for someone other than the Vikings arriving in the area first, researchers state: “Using a combination of fecal biomarkers and sedimentary ancient DNA, we show conclusive evidence that humans had introduced livestock to the Faroe Islands three to four centuries before the Viking-age Norse settlement period that is widely documented in the archaeological record. We constrain the most likely timing of human arrival to the Eiðisvatn catchment to ~500 CE, approximately 350 years before Viking Age settlements on the Faroes. The latest possible arrival allowed by the 95% CI of our bayesian age model is ~630 CE, approximately 200 years before the earliest documented Norse activity began on the Faroes.”

While the study is not actually the first to claim that someone other than the Vikings got there first, researchers believe it settles the case. The first evidence of early occupation was revealed in 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. For many archaeologists, this constituted firm evidence of pre-Viking habitation. 

However, others wanted to see some kind of corroboration before declaring the case closed,” Colombia Climate School states.

In the study, researchers adapted a 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. In Eiði, 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 more than 10,000 years of environmental history. The scientists had actually started off in the hope of better understanding the climate around the time of Viking occupation, but came up with quite a surprise.

Colombia Climate School explains:

“Starting at 51 centimeters (20 inches) down in the sediments, they found signs that large numbers of sheep had suddenly arrived, most likely some time 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—so-called fecal biomarkers. (The  researchers also found bits of human DNA in the same layers, but suspect modern contamination during handling of the samples.) A layer of ash deposited from a known Icelandic volcano eruption in 877 helped them reliably date the sediment sequences below.”

Lead author of the study, Lerelei Curtin, who carried out the research as a grad student at Lamont-Doherty, said that it clinched the case for non-Vikings being the first settlers in the Faroe Islands. She said: “We see this as putting the nail in the coffin that people were there before the Vikings.” Curtin also acknowledged that despite the wild and rugged appearance of the Faroes today, practically every square inch of vegetation has been chewed up by Faroese sheep, a staple of the Faroese diet that are found almost everywhere.

Researchers say that their evidence ‘cannot directly speak’ to who these early settlers were. However, they do give credence to the possibility that the unknown settlers were actually Irish Monks, a claim made in some medieval texts. The researchers write that, although there is a lack of any archaeological evidence for human activity from this time period, the Vikings were late adopters of sailing technology, essentially ruling them out from being the ones who reaches the Faroes prior to the generally accepted date for their adoption of the sail sometime between 750 and 820 CE.

”This suggests that the early Faroese settlers were not Norse, however, the identity of these early North Atlantic explorers remains an open question,” the research states.

Researchers acknowledge that: “Historical documents suggest that there were Celtic monks on the Faroe Islands prior to the Viking Age.” These documents were produced by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and were published back to 1967.

In addition, some medieval texts point to the unknown settlers being Irish monks, suggesting that it was monks who reached the islands by around 500. 

Faroe stamp depicting Saint Brendan, taking up the version that he discovered was the Faroe Islands (Issued 18 April 1994). C: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 https://bit.ly/3CvFnmg

 

In Faroese, the name appears as Føroyar. Oyar represents the plural of oy, older Faroese for “island”. Due to sound changes, the modern Faroese word for island is oyggj. The first element, før, may reflect an Old Norse word fær (sheep), although this analysis is sometimes disputed because Faroese now uses the word seyður (from Old Norse sauðr) to mean “sheep”. 

In terms of the name of the Faroe Islands, which appears as Føroyar in Faroese, one possibility is that the Irish monks, (who were previously believed to have settled the island around 625) had already given the island a name related to the Gaelic word fearrann, which means “land” or “estate”. This name could then have been passed on to the Norwegian settlers, who then added oyar (islands). The name thus translates as either “Islands of Sheep” or “Land Islands”.

From Colombia Climate School:

“For one, St. Brendan, a famous and far-travelled early Irish navigator, was said to have set out across the Atlantic with comrades from 512 to 530, and supposedly found a land dubbed the Isle of the Blessed. Later speculations and maps say that this was the Faroes—or the far southerly Azores, or the Canary Islands—or that Brendan actually reached North America. There is no proof for any of this. Centuries later, in 825, the Irish monk and geographer Dicuil wrote that he had learned that hermits had been living in some unidentified northern islands for at least 100 years. Again, later speculations landed on the Faroes, but there was never any proof.”

WATCH: Irish/Gaelic Monks in Iceland, The Faroe Islands and the Scottish Isles – YouTube:

So these early settlers could very well have been Irish Monks. Indeed, authors of the study, D’Andrea and Curtin speculate that could have been Celtic monks. They add that whilst they may not necessarily have been monks, they could definitely have been celts. 

This assertion gains traction through the fact that many Faroese place names derive from Celtic words, and ancient, albeit undated, Celtic grave markings speckle the islands. 

Additionally, DNA studies of the modern Faroese show that their maternal lineages are mainly Celti, while their paternal lineages are mainly Scandinavian. Different regions in the north Atlantic mirror this (male Viking settlers are thought to have brought Celtic brides with them), but the Faroes themselves have the highest level of maternal Celtic ancestry, which suggests an existing Celtic population that came before the Vikings.

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