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'Vikings beat Columbus to discover US'

TOMORROW Americans will be enjoying their annual Columbus Day public holiday but a professor has poured cold water on celebrations by coming up with new evidence that the Vikings beat the Italian navigator across the Atlantic, and deep into what is now the United States, by more than a century.

Robert A Hall, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Cornell University, has established that Scandinavian seafarers reached present-day Minnesota, 2,000 miles west of Newfoundland, in 1362.

Professor Hall bases his conclusions on study of a runestone discovered in 1898 by a farmer called Olof Ohman near Kensington, in the central lakes area of Minnesota state. Ohman found the Kensington Runestone, as it has become known, attached to the roots of a tree. The inscription on the stone, which weighs 200 pounds, reads: "Eight Goths and 22 Northmen on discovery voyage from Vinland over the west we had camp and finished one day after we came home found 10 men red with blood and dead AVM [Ave Maria] save from evil have 10 men by the sea to look after our ship 14 days' journey from this island year 1362".

Academic opinion since Ohman's find has see-sawed. In 1938 Minnesota's Stonehenge - thousands go and see it every year - was declared genuine by the Smithsonian Institute. Then in the 1950s academic opinion tilted towards the conclusion that Ohman was a clever forger.

In the more obscure recesses of academia the runestone debate has been as intense as the debate today over the guilt or innocence of O J Simpson.

Professor Hall believes he has now settled the matter. His findings, reached after more than 25 years of investigation, are published in a new book, The Kensington Runestone: Authentic and Important.

Reached at home in Ithaca, New York state, yesterday, Professor Hall said he had two reasons to believe the runestone was the real thing.

"Very detailed study of the inscription definitely shows the language is medieval. There are no Anglicisms, no anachronisms, no modernisms at all. It's medieval and only medieval. Secondly, we now know a great deal about the story of the discovery. To me there is no question that the stone was embedded very tightly in the roots of the tree and definitely found in what archeologists call a 'sealed stratum'."

Professor Hall simply does not believe that Ohman, who only had nine months of formal education, could have had any knowledge of what he calls "medieval graffiti". "It would have required at least three or four professors from Scandinavia at that time to carry out so convincing a forgery," he said.

As to how the Norse Americans made it to Kensington, Professor Hall believes they travelled from Greenland into Hudson Bay (the "sea" of the runestone inscription that was "14 days' journey" away), then south into the Nelson River and through Lake Winnipeg to the Red River, whose tributaries wind down to the spot where they carved their message for posterity.