Were the Vikings Smoking Pot While Exploring Newfoundland? Were the Vikings getting high on cannabis in Newfoundland? Articles like this (and there are many more) seemed to have emerged in the media while we were away. Between those two articles that I picked out as examples it is the former one that holds the most information. Among other things, Owen Jarus (who wrote that article) says that the researchers examining an archaeological layer in a bog dated to the Early Medieval at L'anse aux Meadows found evidence of several species not native to Newfoundland, but to Europe, like certain insects as well as "pollen from Juglans (walnuts) and from Humulus (cannabis)". He refers to "new research, published today (July 15) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science". He later cites one of the authors of the original study, Paul Ledger, so it seems that he's checked the original source, looked at the primary research. Also, he informs that cannabis plants can be used in different manners, as "for making clothes or for medicinal-recreational purposes while they explored North America". Different opinions on the results, voiced by other "Viking researchers not affiliated with the research team" are mentioned as well.
So... how is it that my bullshit detector was activated?
Be suspicious - always
Yes, I noticed that the title is a little bit too sensational. Yes, the website has, among "Trending" (whatever), "Climate Change", "Archaeology" and "Tardigrades" also the category "Aliens?" (?) (tardigrades are sort of cute, though). This is enough to be more than suspicious. But even though the likelihood that the article is deliberately misleading is very high, it doesn't have to be. We should make sure that it is before calling bullshit.
Knowing a few things about botany, it did not take me long to detect the bullshit. As mentioned above, the livescience article states that the "layer also held pollen [...] from Humulus (cannabis)". Wow, I thought, that's new. I thought Humulus was the genus of hops, the stuff we love to have in our beer. The cannabis plant is a sister species to hops? I thought it had its own genus? But look, the word "cannabis" leads to another article by livescience, "Marijuana: Facts About Cannabis". Certainly, the apparently close relationship between those two plants will be clarified there? ...Nope. Not a word on hops or Humulus. But according to this informational background article, the genus of cannabis actually is Cannabis, not Humulus. What now?!
Let's check wikipedia. According to this all-knowing friend, there might be three species within the genus of Cannabis which is part of the family Cannabaceae. Interestingly enough, Humulus is also part of the cannabis family (Cannabaceae). The Encyclopedia of Life agrees on this.
For those not familiar with the biological terms: Living organisms are put into different categories by biologists on the basis of genetic, morphological and behavioural differences. A natural category is species. "A biological species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another in nature and produce fertile offspring" (source). The next category is that of genus ; for example, the two species Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica belong to the same genus, Cannabis. They are closer related to each other than both of them are to Humulus, hops. However, they are all in the same category called family (cannabis family or Cannabaceae, to be precise) because they are all closer related to each other than, for example, to the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), which belongs to a different family (Solanaceae).
So... why are we talking about cannabis anyway? Is the term being mentioned in the original research article, and how is the question of Canadian Pothead Vikings addressed there?
Check the sources
Any good news article should link to its sources. The livescience article doesn't, it only links to other livescience articles. But it mentions the journal the original paper was published in as well as one of the authors. So a quick search on the internet lead me to the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, where I can find a pdf version of the original research paper. After just a quick first browsing through the paper, I notice something interesting: the word "cannabis" is mentioned only once: "[...] exotics such as Juglans (Walnut) and Humulus type (hops or cannabis) are also present." (my highlighting) So, it's only a type of pollen which could be either hops or cannabis. Later, in the Discussion part of the paper, they are even talking abould "Humulus lupulus type", getting somewhat more explicit about the hops ("Humulus lupulus" being the scientific species name of hops). There is no more mention about cannabis.
So what is the paper actually about? Well... the archaeologists did some fieldwork in a peat bog 30 meter east of the Norse ruins at L'anse aux Meadows. There they found a new cultural layer with well preserved "ecofacts", charcoal, leaves and twigs, other charred plant remains and insects. They collected and analysed some of it. They found remnants of plants typical for the site and also some atypical ones, among others the Juglans pollen and Humulus-type pollen, as well as some beetle species previously unknown to Canada. They also did a re-analysis of previously collected radiocarbon data of the site (and also had their own samples dated). The interesting result here is that the site seems to have been occupied around 200 years longer than previously thought - even though it might not have been a continuous occupation. Whether the newly discovered cultural layer in the bog was formed by Norse or indigenous people cannot be answered with certainty, however, since the exotic pollen could also have been brought in with the wind, and the identification of another probably Eurasian plant species (Rumex aquaticus) might not be correct because Rumex species tend to hybridize, which makes identification difficult.
But... what about chilling out at the Viking markets, smoking weed and feeling all authentic? Well, sorry, but... no. At least not on the basis of this paper. It was never about Viking Age people smoking cannabis in the first place. That's only what the media made of it, because of one insignificant mention in the paper.
Some articles had it right. Sadly, people aren't necessarily interested in that and another article (besides this one here) hat to clarify the situation, but I doubt enough people care about that, too. But as we have seen here, it is not that difficult to spot bullshit media, even though its claims seem to be based on actual scientific research. So keep your eyes open for the truth, always, try to come up with the most uncomfortable (but reasonable) questions to the people making a claim, and never forget to be critical about your own convictions from time to time as well.