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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Crossing the Atlantic

11th Century

In the 11th century the Norse people of Scandinavia had already established a reputation in Europe for daring seamanship, but their most famous voyage would stand unmatched for four hundred years.

In lapstrake boats and with no navigational tools, a group of Norsemen caught the first glimpses from sea of North America. Probably not knowing that they were the first to see the continent from the sea, the Norse were equally unaware of the significance of their later settlement in what is now Newfoundland. There is no solid evidence as to why the Norse colonizers did not stay to exploit their discoveries  --  Canadian history may have taken an interesting turn if they had.

The telling of these trans-oceanic adventures was passed down orally through generations, and the stories written down a few hundred years afterward in what have become known as the Vinland sagas. In the intervening centuries, Europe remained unaware of the Norse discoveries and did not follow until John Cabot's journeys.

Myths abound as to others who may have crossed the Atlantic before the Norse. It was written in the ninth century that St. Brendan, a sixth century Irish monk, travelled around Europe's Northern Islands in a curragh (a small boat with a wicker frame, designed for use on lakes and rivers). One of the islands he supposedly visited was later called "St. Brendan's Isle" and placed on contemporary maps in the far western part of the Atlantic.

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