What Happened to the Greenland Norse?
CULTURE | October 1, 2019
For four centuries the Norse Vikings had a colony on Greenland that had regular contact with Europe.
One day it vanished.
Erik the Red
The story begins in about the year 960 when a ten-year-old boy from Rogaland in the southwest tip of Norway was exiled to Iceland with his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson. Thorvald was guilty of manslaughter and his son Erik the Red, so-called by the color of his hair, went with his father and the rest of the family to Iceland’s Hornstrandir region.
Erik by most accounts was, like his father, tempestuous. Both were landholders and the head of clans. But Erik fell afoul of his neighbors in disputes which led to feuds and murders. He ended up exiled on two occasions. On the second in 982, he opted to leave Iceland rather than face potentially lethal blood feuds.
Erik the Red had heard of land that was discovered about century before by Gunnbjørn Ulfsson. It was some 900 nautical miles away through the open North Atlantic Ocean. Whatever one might say of Erik the Red he was an expert navigator. He brought his ships to the shores of remote and icy Greenland.
He explored, claimed areas for his own, and when he returned to Iceland upon the expiration of his three-year exile, convinced some 500 settlers to follow him across the sea. An early marketing genius, he called this remote, extreme land Greenland to make it seem more attractive. The land near the sea did have a smattering of skinny birch trees and was filled with grass. But the vast majority of the land was covered in ice. Only 14 of the 25 ships that left with him made to their destination. But this voyage was the genesis of the Viking colonies on Greenland.
The Norse had two main settlements on the southwestern Greenland shore about its fjords, Eystribyggð the largest and easternmost colony and Vestribyggð the smaller western settlement. There was also a smaller middle settlement called Miðbyggð of which there is only a scant archaeological record. Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, helped introduce Christianity to Greenland and also led the Norse voyages of discovery that brought them to North America.
The Norse settlements never grew large, but they did relatively flourish.
The Colony Grows
The Norse engaged in farming and husbandry based on cattle, sheep, and goats. They also lived off of the abundant sea life including seals, fish, and whale. Even though they were on the edge of the known world, they maintained ties to Iceland and Norway and engaged in a prosperous trade of walrus ivory, seals, wool and other products for iron and wood since it seems that the Norse deforested the fragile land.
As a testament to the growth of the colony, in 1126 the Roman Catholic Church established a diocese in Greenland that fell under the auspices of Norway. The Greenland colonies reached their peak in the 13th century. Estimates vary wildly as to population size, but some propose a population high of 2,000 to 10,000 persons between all three settlements.
In the 14th century, the Norse colony fell into decline as the western and middle settlements were abandoned. The last written record of the colony are letters that record the marriage of Sigrid Bjornsdottir to Thorstein Olafsson on September 16, 1408. There was seemingly no hint of trouble in those records.
After that, the colony vanished. Europeans did not return to Greenland until the 18th century when they found ruins of the Norse colony but nothing else.
There have been several theories as to what happened to the Norse of Greenland. The most traditional view was that the Norse ruined the environment through overgrazing and deforestation. This degraded the environment. Then in 1257 a volcano in Indonesia exploded in a major eruption that called global cooling in the so-called “Little Ice Age” between 1300 and 1850. This final ecological disaster made the colony untenable.
Recent archaeological research has shown a more complex explanation for the end of the Norse colonies probably due to variety of factors. Environmental degradation does come into play also compounded by the Little Ice Age -- but the Norse managed to hang on for a hundred years after the onset of colder temperatures. They simply began to have a higher proportion of seal in their diet as opposed to domesticated animals. One study shows that at the beginning of the colony, the Norse’s diet was composed of 30% seal meat. By the 1300s seal meat made up over half of the diet.
The Coup de Gras
These pressures, however, were also intensified as the Black Death swept through Europe. While Greenland seemed to have been spared, Norway one of Greenland’s primary trading partners, lost half of its population. In addition, demand for walrus ivory grew less as a trade for African elephant ivory grew. Less trade and less contact with Europe was the result.
The population dwindled. While no evidence exists that the Norse suffered attacks from the Inuit with whom they had contact and named the Skraelings, they did not adapt their more nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Archaeology has also revealed that there were less young people in Greenland graves as time went by. Some experts believe that the sheer monotony and prospect of a life on the edge of ice eating seal meat was a real incentive that helped bring about the end of this curiously lost colony.
In the end, it is unknown if the populace simply died or abandoned the colony to return to Europe. Since the Black Death had depopulated prime agricultural lands in their homeland, returning made sense. To stay meant increasing isolation and to abandon the Norse’s traditional agricultural way of life and thus their identity.
Tags: Greenland Norse
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Joseph A. Williams