ATHENS, W.Va. – A new study dating the earliest settlement of the Faroe Islands has been making international news, and part of that work was done right here in West Virginia in the electron microprobe and volcanic ash labs at Concord University.
People have long been curious about the Vikings and when they first reached places like Iceland, Greenland, and even North America. The Faroe Islands, located in the northern Atlantic Ocean between Norway, Iceland, and the UK, are also part of this story. Viking settlements have long been known on the Faroe Islands, but the new study upends our understanding of when people first reached the islands, pointing to a settlement more than 300 years earlier than the first major Viking structures on the islands.
There are two main parts behind the discovery of this much earlier settlement. One part is finding the earliest markers of human occupation. This was done by identifying traces of sheep DNA in lake sediment core samples. The other part is figuring out when that settlement actually happened. Establishing the date of that arrival is where the Concord University geoscience labs come in.
“We’ve been collaborating with Dr. Nicholas Balascio at the College of William and Mary in Virginia for several years now,” says Concord University geosciences professor Stephen Kuehn. One of Dr. Kuehn’s specialties is identifying and chemically-fingerprinting volcanic ash to figure out which volcano and which eruption it came from.
“We call it the ‘Tephra Lab.’ Tephra just refers to volcanic ash and any other larger material which falls to the ground from a volcanic eruption.”Dr. Stephen Kuehn
“A key part of our ability to do this here hinges on the electron microprobe in Concord’s Science building. That is what lets us get chemistry on tiny bits of ash so that we can identify volcanic events,” says Dr. Kuehn, who also manages Concord’s Electron Microprobe Laboratory. The Faroe Islands project is one of many that Concord’s Tephra Lab and electron microprobe are part of. “We also work with people in Greece, Alaska, Chile, and other places, and we involve Concord students in our own studies of Cascade Range volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens.”
The Faroe Island volcanic ash samples were analyzed on Concord’s electron microprobe in 2017 and 2020. Dr. Balascio visited the lab in 2017 to do the first analyses, and Dr. Kuehn did the later analyses in 2020. This helped them to match the ash to known eruptions from Iceland that have well-known ages.
“The Faroe study team then combined carbon dating with the volcanic ash dates, and this helped to pinpoint the time when people brought sheep to the island 300+ years before those Viking settlements,”Dr. Stephen Kuehn
Selected press coverage:
Kreider, Freida, Ancient Eruptions Reveal Earliest Settlers on the Faroe Islands, AGU EOS, 16 December 2021, https://eos.org/articles/ancient-eruptions-reveal-earliest-settlers-on-the-faroe-islands
Schultz, Isaac, Mystery Group of Humans May Have Populated the Faroe Islands Before the Vikings, Gizmodo, 16 December 2021 https://gizmodo.com/mystery-group-of-humans-may-have-populated-the-faroe-is-1848226904
Girshon, Livia, Ancient Sheep Poop Tells the Tale of the Faroe Islands’ First Inhabitants, Smithsonian Magazine, 21 December 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ancient-sheep-poop-tells-the-tale-of-the-faroe-islands-first-inhabitants-180979265/
Rincon, Paul, British or Irish reached remote Faroe Islands before Vikings, BBC News, 16 December 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-59683287
Strickland, Ashley, Ancient sheep poop reveals an unknown population on Faroe Islands before Vikings, CNN, 16 December 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/16/world/faroe-islands-human-population-scn/index.html
The original scientific research article (open access):
Curtin, Lorelei and seven others, Ancient Eruptions Reveal Earliest Settlers on the Faroe Islands, Nature Communications, Earth and Environment, December 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-021-00318-0
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