As It Happens

Ancient sheep poop suggests settlers were on the Faroe Islands 300 years before the Vikings

The Vikings have long been considered the first people to have set foot on the famously remote Faroe Islands — until now.

Geologist says the sheep would have been an immediate source of food and warmth

Sheep graze on the Faroe Islands. Researchers discovered molecules of sheep poop in sediments at the bottom of a Faroe Islands lake. They used radiocarbon dating to trace the fecal matter back to 550 CE, which would have been 300 years before the first Vikings arrived. (William D’Andrea/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

The Vikings have long been considered the first people to have set foot on the famously remote Faroe Islands, sitting in the frigid North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway. But new research has raised a tantalizing possibility — that people were there 300 years before the Vikings.

These early inhabitants left the most humble of clues, ancient sheep poop, which geologists have discovered at the bottom of a lake.

"I'm just curious about who these people are and what they were doing,"  lead author Lorelei Curtin, a University of Wyoming geologist, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The findings were published in the Communications Earth & Environment Journal last week. 

Curtin was inspired by medieval tales of Irish monks who fled to far away islands and were never named, along with another study from 2013, in which archaeologists discovered six burnt barley grains under the floorboards of a Viking longhouse on the southern Faroe island of Sandoy.

The grains were between 300 and 500 years older than the Norse occupation of the Faroes.

In 2015, Curtin and her colleagues set off to sample lake sediments across the Faroes. They were further north, in Lake Eiði, when they discovered the DNA of sheep feces.

Through radiocarbon dating, the researchers traced the fecal matter in question to 550 CE. 

Lorelei Curtin is a geologist and lead author of the study about early inhabitants on the Faroe Islands. (Kevin Krajick)

In both studies, the barley and sheep poop were not native to the islands. 

"Sheep … arrived on the Faroes with their human friends," Curtin said. "The Vikings didn't arrive until 800 or 850 [CE]."

Curtin cannot use her data to explain who exactly were these early inhabitants and why they settled on the Faroes, but she has deduced a theory.

"They weren't from Scandinavia, mostly because the Vikings at that point hadn't adopted sailing technology … so they couldn't really cross oceans. So we think that these people might have actually been from the British Islands," she said.

To her, the documents written by Irish monks suggest these people were Celts.

"It might have been … social or political pressures from back home [that] were kind of forcing them to seek out a new place to live. There are some indications based on pollen in lake sediment records that they might have started to grow crops at that point, but it's still not very clear what exactly they were doing on the Faroes," she said.

Curtin says there is also no evidence of Indigenous people on the Faroe Islands or in nearby Iceland. However, there were Indigenous people in Greenland at that time.

Green hills line the seaside on the Faroe Islands. Early inhabitants brought sheep with them as a source of food and warmth, according to geologist Lorelei Curtin. (Jostein Bakke/University of Bergen)

After sailing the open ocean and looking for islands, Curtin says the early people would have brought the sheep as an immediate source of meat, for food, as well as wool, for warmth.

To this day, sheep continue to be used in these ways and are part of tradition on the Faroe Islands. The rugged landscape is covered in sheep. And the word Faroe even means sheep in Old Norse. 

But the new study indicates that the first sheep were destructive. They grazed down plants and eroded the soil into lakes.

Traces of plant DNA reveal woody vegetation such as willow, birch and juniper that grew across the islands until sheep arrived. Now, these plants grow in places where Faroe Islanders completely exclude the animal.

"I'm particularly interested in, you know, how do people impact the landscape? And how do these early settlers impact the landscapes that we see today?" Curtin said 

The geologist continues to gather more evidence and explore more lakes across the islands.

"We're working on developing similar records from other lakes … to really look at how spread out they [the early inhabitants] were." 

Written and produced by Mehek Mazhar.

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