The Norse of Greenland: end of saga

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The lost Viking colony in Greenland

Despite its name, Greenland in fact is almost 80 square meters covered with snow. It was Erik Thorvaldsson or better known as Erik the Red – a Viking leader – who coined the name Greenland, according to The Saga of Erik the Red, because he thought that “people would be attracted to go there if it had a favourable name”. This largest ground on earth was drawn into the Viking Age and settled by Norse Vikings in the late 980s CE. The Norse presence there lasting into the 15th century CE. Despite its ice-riddled geography, they managed to carve out a living for themselves in these challenging lands along the south-western coast, founding both the so-called the Eastern and the Western Settlement. The eastern Settlement, in what is now the community of Qassiarsuk, was comparatively fertile. It was where the Norse set up stock farms with the domestic animals they had brought along on their ships. The Western Settlement was around Greenland’s modern-day capital city: Nuuk, where the environment was a bit too unfavourable for a proper economy but offered plenty of land as well as marine hunting. The Western Settlement also became the launching pad for expeditions to North America (Vinland), where Leif Erikson, Erik the Red’s son, founded a Viking settlement in Newfoundland.

With a mostly arctic climate displaying mean temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius in the warmest months, Greenland is not exactly ideal for growing such staples as grain, and there are few trees. To survive these conditions, the Norse combined stock farming – grazing livestock – with the hunting of such creatures as seals and caribou, while also undertaking hunting trips further north to the northern hunting grounds to hack down walruses, narwhals, and even polar bears. Also strengthened by the export of the arctic commodities of skins, hides and ivory. There is evidence for around 500 farms in the Eastern Settlement, whereas the Western Settlement counted around 100.

This is a 21st-century reproduction of Thjodhild’s church on Erik the Red’s estate

The Norse community in Greenland is estimated to have averaged around 1,400 people, with a peak of over 2,000 individuals around 1200 CE. Erik the Red, who obviously had first pick, built his farm at Brattahlíð (in the Eastern Settlement) in what is still an absolute prime farming location in Greenland. After the more uniform settlement period, farms diversified: larger, high-status farms championed longhouses and the buildings were fairly scattered, while smaller farms were more centralised and kept their houses, cowsheds, stables, and barns so closely clustered together one could move from one into the next without having to go outside – a response to climate change. Farms of all sizes seem to have been self-sufficient, though, making beneficial use of hunting opportunities rather than relying solely on their livestock.

Besides neighbourhood hunts and trips to the coast to hunt migratory seals in spring and autumn, both individual farms and groups of farmers organised summer hunting trips way up north to Disko Bay where walruses, narwhals, and polar bears could be found. Here, they acquired precious skins, hides, and ivory. These were used in the local society itself to make garments and shoes but also as a form of currency, but they also formed the most important export commodities. Walrus ivory, in particular, did exceptionally well on the Northern European markets, and during the settlement period, Greenlanders would sail to Europe with their goods on their own private ships. However, when, from 1261 CE on, Greenland became subjected to Norway’s power it was the Norwegian merchants who took over. At first, this ensured traffic continued between Norway and Greenland, but from the late 14th century CE onwards, the numbers of Norwegian ships sailing to Greenland diminished severely, only to cease entirely in the late 15th century CE.

Erik the Red

The Norse were not the only one people both persistent and skilled enough to adapt to Greenland’s harsh conditions; already in the 8th century CE the late Dorset Palaeo Eskimos had made their way to the Greenlandic side of the Nares Strait/Smith Sound region which lies between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Around 1200 CE, the Thule culture people (the ancestors of the Inuit) joined in too. Artefacts from these cultures have been found in Viking contexts, and vice versa, which probably indicates they traded with each other, but to what extent is hard to figure out. It seems the commodities purchased from the Dorset and Thule cultures did well abroad and were mostly exported by the Vikings. The Thule people expanded further across Greenland, reaching the Scoresby Sound on the east coast by c. 1300 CE and moving further south and southwest later in the 14th century.

The Vikings’ Western Settlement was reached by the mid-14th century, roughly coinciding with the last signs of the Norse in that region; this would later spark theories of the Thule people having had a hand in the Norse’s demise, but this has by now been dismissed. During the 14th and 15th centuries CE, something went terribly wrong for the Norse Greenlanders. The last written evidence of them holds back from 1424 CE when a Greenlandic priest wrote a letter in which he proved to have been present at the wedding of a young couple in Hvalsey fjord (in the Eastern Settlement) in 1408 CE, after which a deafening silence sets in. Remains of burials show signs of life until around 1450 CE for the Eastern Settlement, while the written- and the archaeological record suggests the Western Settlement collapsed into ghost-town status already a century before, in the mid-14th century CE.

Around this time, the drift ice around Greenland had become so fiercely frustrating that no one succeeded in reaching the island until the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede made land at the former Western Settlement in 1721 CE. Here, he found only Inuit and no Norsemen. Early theories to clarify their disappearance circled around imagined conflict with the Inuit, Greenland’s isolation from the alleged safety blanket that was Europe, and even inbreeding supposedly ruining the originally fine physical specimens that were the Vikings but have since been discarded for lack of evidence.

Climate change became the most long-lived single clarification which attributes the Little Ice Age impacting Greenland from the 14th century CE (until c. 1850 CE). Glaciers expanded, temperatures dropped, and the wind picked up, which, considering the already extended state of vegetation, helped lead to erosion while rising sea levels also eaten away the precious grassland. Sea ice would also have lunged in and out of Greenland’s shores, affecting both trade and hunting. Even in the snugly sheltered fjords of southern Greenland which are normally boosted by warm sea currents, the effect was felt. Skeletons show the Norse were directly impacted by this change in climate and a shift to a more marine diet is visible, too. Overall, the Little Ice Age must have had a fair impact on the Norse Greenlanders.

However, the story cannot have been that simple; the Little Ice Age was not a state of constant freezing but came in waves, and the Inuit were fine throughout all of it. The archaeological record shows that the inhabitants of at least some farms died or starved rather than emigrating. Some may have emigrated with more lands being available in Europe in general due to depopulation. Researchers agree, though, that rather than there having been one single culprit, the Viking Saga in Greenland must have ended through a combination of factors such as these.

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