Vikings were supposed to be the lager louts of the first millennium but archaeological finds in Canada are likely to immortalise them as the pioneers of transatlantic trade.
The discoveries, at Nunguvik on Baffin Island in the Arctic, show the Norsemen had formed links with the people of North America, the earliest contacts between the Old and New Worlds. Although there is evidence indicating the Vikings travelled to America centuries before Columbus landed in 1492, the latest finds come close to proving a cultural exchange with North American natives.
The evidence centres on wooden items and a length of yarn excavated at the site, inhabited by an Eskimo-like people called the Dorset who lived on Baffin Island from about 500BC to AD1500. The artifacts are dated to about AD1000.
One carving shows two faces chin-to-chin. One has the features of indigenous North Americans, whose ancestors crossed to the New World 20,000 years ago from north-east Asia. The other, with a long, narrow face and nose and heavy beard, is a dead ringer for a Viking.
Patricia Sutherland, an archaeologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, also found a three-metre strand of yarn. It is spun from arctic-hare fur mixed with goat hair, similar to that found at Viking settlements on Greenland.
Ms Sutherland said northern North American natives did not spin yarn but used animal skins for clothing. There are no goats anywhere near Baffin Island. Although smelted metal has been found at Dorset sites and probably came from far away, yarn is unlikely to have survived such long-distance trade. It probably arrived more directly, on a Norse ship, Ms Sutherland said. "There was contact we hadn't suspected before between the Dorset and the Norse. The contact was more extensive, over a larger area and over a longer period."
Other wooden objects show the Dorset people used European carpentry techniques. The scientists found iron-stained holes made by square nails and special joints well known to the Vikings.
The Dorset people also appeared to have had access to wood from temperate regions, such as fir, which the Vikings could have brought back from the "Vinland" mentioned in the Icelandic sagas, which historians believe is the Gulf of St Lawrence.
The contact was probably strong enough for one culture to influence the technological development of the other, Ms Sutherland said. "Some of the stuff might clearly be identified as Norse. Some might be the Norse stuff modified by the Dorset, and some might be a combination of the two technologies. The Vikings must have viewed eastern North America as a place to obtain wood [and] walrus ivory."
As for intermarriage, Ms Sutherland said: "I think it is possible, but I stress only a possibility. This new evidence has only just come to light. We're not anywhere near the stage of looking at intermarriage." A mini-ice age in about 1500 put paid to the more permanent Viking settlements in Greenland. The Dorset people also mysteriously disappeared at about the same time as the Vikings lost their North Atlantic strongholds.
Nevertheless, the evidence emerging supports the view that the Vikings were true transatlantic traders. Ms Sutherland said: "The Vikings were the first to rediscover North America ... It was really the beginning of globalisation."