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What happened to the Viking settlement of Greenland? New research shows cooling weather not a factor

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Hvalsey Church The ruins of a Norse church in the Eastern settlement. Hvalsey church is the location of the last written record of the Norse settlement in Greenland, a 1408 wedding. Photo/Wikipedia under a Creative Commons license

It has long been held to be a fact that the Viking settlement of Greenland must have been dictated by climate conditions. Weather must have been significantly warmer in Greenland in the late tenth century, when the Vikings arrived. Greenland must in fact, have been green! By the same logic the demise of the Norse settlement of Greenland in the 14th century would have been due to changing climate conditions, cooling weather and advancing glaciers which made the once green Greenland too cold for the Norse settlers.

Medieval warm period did not extend to Greenland
New research challenges these theories. According to a new study the “Medieval warm period”, a period of higher temperatures, which coincides with the Norse settlement of Greenland, from the mid-10th century to the 14th century, was not a global phenomenon. Some parts of the world, including Greenland, did not experience a warmer climate during this period.

Scientists led by Nicolas Young at Columbia University have concluded the climate in Greenland was already cold when the Norse arrived, no warmer than it was when the Norse colonies were abandoned some 400 years later.

The study, whose findings are published in the journal Scientific Advances, analysed isotopes in boulders in southwest Greenland and on neighbouring Baffin Island, which recent archaeological studies indicate might also have been occupied by Viking settlers. Analysing the isotopes allows the scientists to determine when the rocks were deposited by the glaciers, thus charting the advance and retreat of glaciers in the region with more precision than previously. This analysis showed that the glaciers had extended as far during the period of Norse settlement as they did later – thus indicating it was as cold at the beginning of Norse settlement as it was the settlement came to a close, a strong argument against the idea that changes in temperature were the determining factor in the fate of the Norse settlement.

The mystery of the Norse colonies on Greenland
Greenland was settled by Vikings from Iceland in the 10th century, beginning with the voyage of Erik the Red from Breiðafjörður bay in west Iceland in 985. The Norse settlement was concentrated in two main settlements. The larger settlement, Eystribyggð (e: Eastern settlement) was near the southern tip of Greenland and Vestribyggð (e: Western settlement), near Nuuk, some 6-700 km (370-430 miles) to the north. A smaller Miðbyggð (e: Middle settlement), slightly north of Eystribyggð has been discovered by archaeologists, but no written records exist about this settlement. 

Norse settlement of Greenland

The three Norse settlements in Greenland Østerbygen: Eastern settlement, Mellembygden: Middle settlement, Vesterbygden: Western settlement. Each dot represents a Each dot represents a Norse site, each of which holds between one and 60 individual ruins. Photo/Jette Arneborg et al, "Norse Greenland Dietary Economy ca. AD 980–ca. AD 1450"

The Norse settlers in Greenland lived by raising livestock and hunting. Among the goods exported from Greenland was walrus ivory, which was high in demand in Europe at the time, due to the drying up of supplies of elephant ivory as the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and North Africa, which disrupted traditional trade routes. The best known medieval artwork carved from walrus ivory are the Lewis chessmen, which some think were carved in Iceland.

However, between 1360 and 1460 these once thriving colonies vanished.

Why were the Norse colonies abandoned?
Historians have assumed the primary reason for the disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland was the onset of the “Little Ice Age”, a period of colder weather which succeeded the “Mediaeval War Period.” This created a very neat narrative of the Norse settlement of Greenland as it seemed to coincide with the period of warmer weather: Good weather drew the Vikings to Greenland, and cold weather either killed or drove their descendants out again. The new research suggests this narrative does not hold up.

However, other explanations have also been offered. These include clashes with the Inuit population, soil erosion due to overgrazing, and the effects of the Black Death. As the plague swept over Europe large areas of prime agricultural lands were left abandoned, including in Iceland and Scandinavia. The Norse inhabitants of Greenland could simply have returned to their lands of origin. Another explanation is the decline in demand for walrus ivory in the mid-13th century, as elephant ivory became available in Europe once again.

Most likely the real story behind the end of the Norse colony in Greenland is a complex interplay of all of these factors.

The Norse settlers of Greenland switched to eating seal meat
The new study also fits quite well with a 2012 study of human and animal bones found in Greenland, by a Danish-Canadian team of scientists, published in the Journal of the North Atlantic. This study found that hunger could not have been a factor in the demise of the Norse settlement of Greenland. The Norse settlers simply switched to a diet richer in seal meat. 

Eiríkur rauði

Eiríkur rauði The first Viking settler of Greenland as imagined by a 17th century artist. Photo/Wikipedia Creative commons license.

During the time of settlement only 20-30% of the diet of the settlers came from the sea, but by the 14th century seal meat made up 50-80% of the diet of the Norse settlers. At the same time sheep and goats replaced cattle, which had been more important during the age of settlement. By 1300 cattle had all but disappeared from Greenland.

The study also found that the bones of the Norse settlers of Greenland did not show signs of more disease than people at the time in Scandinava, indicating the population had not been viped out by epidemics.

The younger generation got fed up with a monotonous life at the edge of the world
If colder temperatures, hunger or sickness did not spell doom for the Norse settlements of Greenland, what did?

Nicolas Young and his colleagues speculate that socio economic factors were probably more important, pointing at the collapse of demand for walrus ivory, the most important export of the Norse settlement. With nothing of value to export, foreign merchants had little reason to visit Greenland: The settlement became increasingly isolated. At the same time the Norse settlers found it increasingly difficult to maintain their way of life and culture.

“The Norse could adapt, but how much they could adapt without giving up their identity was limited. Even though their diet became closer to that of the Inuit, the difference between the two groups was too great for the Norse to become Inuit,” Jette Arneborg, one of the authors of the 2012 study said in a University of Copenhagen news release in 2012.

The real reason for the disappearance of the Norse colony, she, and her study partners argue, was that young people got fed up with a monotonous diet and a monotonous life at the edge of the world. Neil Lynnerup, the leading author of the study argues:

“Nothing suggests that the Norse disappeared as a result of a natural disaster. If anything they might have become bored with eating seals out on the edge of the world. The skeletal evidence shows signs that they slowly left Greenland. For example, young women are underrepresented in the graves in the period toward the end of the Norse settlement. This indicates that the young in particular were leaving Greenland, and when the numbers of fertile women drops, the population cannot support itself.”

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