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'Planet Money': How The Vikings Kicked Off Globalization

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here's something that President Trump and Joe Biden agree on - globalization has left some American workers behind. They do not agree on how to fix the problem. Cardiff Garcia and Stacey Vanek Smith, who host Planet Money's Indicator podcast, started wondering when and where did globalization start?

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: The year is 986 and the Norse sagas tale of a Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who was sailing west from Norway.

VALERIE HANSEN: He wanted to spend the winter with his father.

GARCIA: That is Yale historian Valerie Hansen.

HANSEN: And his father he thought was in Iceland. So he went to Iceland.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: But Bjarni's father had gone to Greenland with other Norse explorers. So Bjarni keeps sailing west until he spots a new land southwest of Greenland.

HANSEN: And that place is called Vinland. And we're not absolutely sure to this day where it was.

VANEK SMITH: Bjarni and his men return to Greenland and tell the other Norse settlers what they have seen.

GARCIA: And around the year 1000, Leif Erikson follows that same path from Greenland back to Vinland, becoming the first European to set foot in the Americas.

VANEK SMITH: And the first encounter between the Norse and Indigenous peoples in the Americas comes a few years later when Leif's brother Thorvald brings his own crew to Vinland.

GARCIA: When they arrive, the Vikings under Thorvald come across nine Indigenous men sleeping, and then they do something horrible.

HANSEN: The Norse kill eight of the nine men, and then the ninth man escapes. And he comes back with some friends, and they then attack the Norse. And they shoot Thorvald, and he dies of an arrow wound.

GARCIA: Thorvald's men go back to Greenland, and several years after that, the Vikings returned again to Vinland under the command of Thorfinn Karlsefni.

VANEK SMITH: And this time, the Vikings not only make contact with the Indigenous peoples, but they also trade goods with them. And this is the first recorded instance of Europeans trading with people in the Americas.

GARCIA: Here is where we have to say that we don't actually know just how true these stories are, but we do know that the stories are at least based on actual history. Valerie says that this trading network was one of the many trading networks that were being established simultaneously at that moment in history around the year 1000.

VANEK SMITH: To the west of the Atlantic Ocean, there were trading networks linking North and South America.

HANSEN: There is a trading center called Cahokia Mounds in East St. Louis. And at Cahokia, archaeologists have found goods from the northeast, from the Great Lakes, from California. There's some evidence of ties to even the Maya.

VANEK SMITH: And to the east of the Atlantic Ocean, Valerie says...

HANSEN: There are trade networks all through Europe. They're connected to Africa. There's a trade route from East Africa that goes up to Baghdad. And then that trade route goes around India and Southeast Asia and gets to China.

GARCIA: So by making it across the Atlantic and connecting east to west, the Vikings had closed the global loop, as Valerie says, when they established that trade with Indigenous peoples in North America. And even if it wasn't a huge amount of trade, it was the first time in history that hypothetically an item that was traded almost anywhere in the world could have made it to almost any other part of the world. And that is how the Vikings launched globalization - or at least an early version of it.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "THE CANYON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.