Completing the circle

Matthew replica

Matthew replica

We’re staying near Bonavista, possibly where John Cabot landed his ship, the Matthew, in “New Founde Lande” on June 24, 1497. There’s a plaque in the cottage commemorating “the 500th anniversary” with celebrations held in 1997. However, the human presence here is much longer than that celebration suggests.

Newfoundland is famous for its dramatic, detailed, and precise record of life on earth. This includes two of the most important GSSPs, or Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points, one of which we saw at Green Point. Its record of human life is becoming more fleshed out as well.

Recreated long house

Recreated long house

This shows that the cultures of Newfoundland are intertwined over many millennia, just as the mixed forest, slips into tuckamore, then tundra, building upon and shaping each other. That’s true everywhere of course, but the connections seem more evident here, and are notable for a relatively small, non-urbanized population.

For example, Newfoundland was one of England’s oldest colonies, reflecting Cabot’s voyage in 1497. However, in the 17th-century it was more French than English. Those French were largely Normans, Bretons, and in the western area we first visited, Basque. The English kept the French place names, but chose to pronounce them in the English, or sometimes the uniquely Newfoundland way.


English and French records show that during this time Mi’kmaq families were active along the Western coast. They incorporated the island of Newfoundland along with Cape Breton into their domain of islands. I was surprised to learn that in discussions of cultural eras, they’re often now grouped with the European period, due to the timing, their close interaction with the Europeans, and the fact that many were Roman Catholic.

The long history of Newfoundland with its connected cultures can be seen at L’Anse aux Meadows, a site at the far north end of the Northern Peninsula. It was discovered only in 1960. The settlement probably supported Leif Erikson’s attempt to establish the colony of Vinland, 500 years before Cabot’s voyage. This makes it the best evidence for first contact between peoples of Europe and America and the most famous site of a Viking settlement in North America outside of Greenland.

World Heritage Convention symbol at L'Anse Aux Meadows

World Heritage Convention symbol at L’Anse Aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows might have been presented as the beginning before the beginning–the voyage that was 500 years before what we had earlier celebrated as the first one. Instead, the site today rightly talks about those who came to greet the Vikings, who they were and where they came from.

Tracing back, it shows how early modern humans left Africa 100,000 or more years ago. Some dispersed across Asia then moved into North America and eventually Newfoundland from the west. Others went north into Europe, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually from the east.

L’Anse aux Meadows thus represents many things. But one of the most significant is the reconnection of these streams of humanity. The metaphor of “completing the circle” symbolizes the completion of human migration around the world. The Vikings and the Dorset or Late Palaeo-Eskimos were the front people in this re-encounter.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its story aptly reflects the World Heritage Convention symbol, with its emphasis on global connection.

2 thoughts on “Completing the circle

  1. I am told by a French authority (ahem) that the French have the word “micmac” to describe a big mess or hullaballoo. Surely this came from the Mi’kmaq Indians way back when.

    Very interesting history lesson.


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