Life's Little Mysteries

What's the farthest place the Vikings reached?

A Viking longboat sails through calm ocean waters to their destinations for trade goods.
A Viking longboat sails through the water, possibly in a journey to a new land. (Image credit: Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images via Getty Images)

In less than 300 years, the Vikings raided and explored land in at least four continents, spreading out in every direction from Scandinavia to invade and trade with civilizations across Europe and beyond. But just how far did the Vikings get, and why were they so adventurous?

Fundamentally, the Vikings' biggest motivations were power and wealth. "The Vikings were very aware of what was happening in England and on the continent at the time," said Alexandra Sanmark, a professor of medieval archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. "They knew there was wealth to be had, and they had been trading with these people for a long time. Then it seemed to dawn on them that they didn't have to trade anymore. They could just take."

Initially, organized fleets of young men during the Viking Age (A.D. 793 to 1066) would sail from Scandinavia during the summer months for a campaign of raids and return in autumn with their spoils, Sanmark said. Over time, these conquerors began to settle in the new territories, gradually bringing families to create permanent settlements and stopover points on important routes.

"There were some periods when the Vikings controlled huge areas of land, but except for King Cnut's North Sea Empire, it was not an empire," said Ellen Nӕss, an archaeologist at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway. "Archaeologists call it a pirate kingdom — there were many separate warlords or leaders who sometimes worked together as huge armies, and other times in smaller independent groups, as benefited both parties. It was nothing to do with national pride; it was all personal power and personal wealth."

The earliest westward expeditions would have taken raiders to northern Scotland, where they quickly overtook the native population and established Viking settlements, Sanmark said. From there, further short voyages to the nearby Hebrides and Faroe Islands were possible, ultimately enabling the Vikings to island-hop as far as Iceland by 870.

Related: What's the earliest evidence of humans in the Americas?

Perhaps most impressively, around 1000, they made their first voyages across the Atlantic to southwest Greenland, before finally reaching L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, a staggering 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometers) from Norway. But while this achievement was a testament to the Vikings' exceptional skills as sailors and navigators, evidence suggests that they didn't stay long at their North American settlement.

"Greenland was undoubtedly important for the Vikings to travel back and forth to Newfoundland," Nӕss told Live Science. "One important resource they found at Greenland was the walrus that they hunted for the valuable ivory teeth and hide." An April 2023 study in the journal Antiquity found that these explorers even brought large trees from North America for construction in their Greenland settlements.

"We do not know for sure why the settlement at Newfoundland ceased, but it was far away from the 'homeland' and the resources were more or less the same as they found at home, so there was no real motivation to go further," Nӕss said.

However, their eastward expansion had a completely different character. Sticking with convenient water travel, Viking warriors crossed the Baltic Sea and traveled along inland rivers in Eastern Europe and Russia, passing through modern-day Kyiv, Ukraine, and Novgorod, Russia, during the 900s and all the way down to Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire and Baghdad around 1000.

"There was a massive difference in the type of civilization, and I'm sure they would have been mightily impressed seeing the buildings, the clothing and artifacts, and the Arabic coinage," Sanmark told Live Science. "Here, the Vikings focused on trading rather than raiding, and they settled into the local population and became very powerful.

In fact, the Vikings probably went even further east than archaeologists can conclusively prove. "We can trace them through burials, settlements or written sources, but when that stops, we can only see what they brought back to Scandinavia," Sanmark continued." In Sweden, there's silk from China, but we don't know how far they went to get this material. But they definitely had connections all the way to China and India; there's no question about that."

Lesser-known is the Vikings' southward expansion, around the northern coast of Francia (now France), the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and, finally, along the north coast of Africa in the early 11th century. However, because of the challenging arid conditions and lack of waterways, they never attempted to cross the Sahara and expand further into Africa.

The Viking Age came to a gradual end around the mid-11th century, with political development from contact with other cultures and the spread of Christianity leading to a shift in social attitudes. But during their 300-year heyday, the Vikings certainly made their mark on the world.

"In terms of distance, the settlement in Newfoundland is probably the furthest they reached," Nӕss said. "But culturally, Baghdad was perhaps an even greater journey into the unknown for the Vikings."

Victoria Atkinson
Live Science Contributor

Victoria Atkinson is a freelance science journalist, specializing in chemistry and its interface with the natural and human-made worlds. Currently based in York (UK), she formerly worked as a science content developer at the University of Oxford, and later as a member of the Chemistry World editorial team. Since becoming a freelancer, Victoria has expanded her focus to explore topics from across the sciences and has also worked with Chemistry Review, Neon Squid Publishing and the Open University, amongst others. She has a DPhil in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford.