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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Mapping the Discovery of North America

    New scientific discoveries about an age-old piece of parchment may change ourideas about the discovery of America. Researchers from the University of Arizona,the U.S. Department of Energy’#146;s Brookhaven National Lab, and the SmithsonianInstitution have utilized carbon-dating technology to date a map of the newworld that was surfaced in the mid-1950’#146;s.

    In a study to be published in the journal Radiocarbon, scientists concludethat the so-called ‘Vinland Map’ dates to roughly 1434 A.D., 58 yearsbefore the famed Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

    ‘Many scholars have agreed that if the Vinland Map is authentic, it isthe first known cartographic representation of North America, and its date wouldbe key in establishing the history of European knowledge of the lands borderingthe western Atlantic Ocean,’ Brookhaven’#146;s Garmon Harbottle said.

    Harbottle acknowledges that the possibility of forgery is still existent, butif that is indeed true, ‘then the forger was surely one of the most skillfulcriminals ever to pursue that line of work.’

    The map is drawn in ink and measures 27.8 x 41.0 centimeters. Upon discovery,it accompanied a manuscript entitled ‘Tartar Relation.’ Both theseitems were purchased in 1958 by Paul A. Mellon, who subjected the map to anintensive six-year investigation.

    Housed in Yale University’#146;s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,the parchment map shows Europe (including Scandinavia),

    Northern Africa, Asia, and the Far East, all of which were known by 15th-centurytravelers.

    The difference is that the ‘Island of Vinland’ is present in thenorthwest Atlantic Ocean. Historians think that it is supposed to be part ofpresent-day Labrador, Newfoundland, or Baffin Island.

    Additionally, the map contains a caption reading, ‘By God’#146;s will,after a long voyage from the island of Greenland to the south toward the mostdistant remaining parts of the western ocean sea, sailing southward amidst theice, the companions Bjarni and Leif Eriksson discovered a new land, extremelyfertile and even having vines, which island they named Vinland.’

    A 1965 Yale Study proposed a connection of the map with the Catholic Church’#146;sCounsel of Basel, which convened roughly half a century prior to Columbus’#146;expedition. It is a possibility that the counsel sent out a ship to exploreland west of Europe at that time.

    Indeed, the carbon-dating seems to correlate with this hypothesis. The datewas found to be 1434 A.D. give or take 11 years. The unusually high precisionof this data was a stroke of luck, since the parchment’#146;s date fell in afavorable part of the carbon-14 dating calibration curve.

    The actual dating was conducted using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry of a 3-inchlong cutoff from the bottom edge of the parchment. Given the map’#146;s estimatedvalue of 20 million dollars, that tiny piece of paper was worth a close to 40,000dollars!

    There is still heated debate as to the authenticity of the map, however. Testson the chemical composition of the ink used to draw the map reveal questionableresults.

    The ink contains trace amounts of anatase, a particular form of titanium dioxide.Since anatase went into commercial production in the 20th century, some scientistsdoubt the map’#146;s authenticity.

    It is possible, however, that the titanium is only a result of contamination,caused by the chemical deterioration of the ink over the centuries. It may havealso simply been a component of the ink used in medieval times.

    Although it is a big step forward, the carbon-dating cannot be relied on asperfectly infallible. We still cannot be sure whether the map is an extremelyskilled ruse or a link to our past.

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