View Full Version : Viking rodents reveal paths of historic human exploration

Jean M
01-26-2016, 11:20 AM
Viking rodents reveal paths of historic human exploration

When Portuguese explorer João Gonçalves Zarco’s ship struggled into the harbor at Madeira during a crashing storm in 1418, the only witnesses were the mice watching from the hills. Zarco believed this island off the coast of northwest Africa had never been discovered, but to today’s archeologists his rodent audience tells a different story — someone else got there first.

But just who remained a mystery until 2001. With no archeological records of settlements before the Portuguese, and inconclusive historical documents, researchers were at a loss. It turned out the key was hidden in the genes of the mice, Madeira’s earliest immigrants. The mice had colonized Madeira for the Vikings.

To scientists, mice are the unsung companions of human exploration. The small stowaways explored new worlds in step with the Vikings, the travelers in the ‘age of exploration,’ and beyond. They harbor a genetic fingerprint that can be used to track mouse movement, and indirectly, human movement, across the globe. Researchers have begun using this fingerprint to look at the effect ancient humans had on the environment and how disease-resistant populations arose.

“The mice are a kind of living artifact of those first colonizing humans,” says Jeremy Searle, evolutionary ecologist at Cornell University. House mice, which are native to northern India and Iran, started coexisting with people when ancient humans began to settle and store grain, he says. From there, it was a small step for the mice to sneak into the food stores of large ships and caravans when people started to travel on a large scale in the Iron Age. Although Searle is particularly recognized for tracking Viking mice, over the past few years he and other researchers have tracked mice across Europe, Australia, China, Russia and Japan.....

But ancient mouse bones have offered yet more confirmation of Searle’s theory that the Vikings were the first to Madeira. In 2014, a team of biologists in Spain radiocarbon dated a fossilized mouse skeleton they discovered on Madeira. The skeleton dates to 1031 — corroborating Searle’s prediction that mice arrived on Madeira in the era of Viking exploration.

02-07-2016, 08:50 AM
It's an interesting study but hardly anything new for historians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira). The existence of the islands was known in antiquity and there are fairly accurate maps from the 14th century (not Viking) They're not far from the Canary Islands which were even better known and populated. The real discoverers of Madeira were probably the Phoenicians (if not even Neolithic navigators, as I tend to believe). It's not by chance the Portuguese occupied the islands when they did (~1420) when the Reconquista was moving to North Africa and to prevent the Spaniards from getting them, as they did with the Canary Islands. See also this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conquest_of_the_Canary_Islands.