It is refreshing to come across scientists researching a question without the corrupting need to scare the public or to confirm some personal, professional or moral fear of the future. In this case I refer to a wonderful Smithsonian article on the question: Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish? Newly discovered evidence is upending our understanding of how early settlers made a life on the island — and why they suddenly disappeared.
Some excerpts below give the flavor of this persistent effort by researchers unrewarded by the availability of huge grants that now flow to the once-lowly climatologists. The whole article is fascinating to anyone with curiosity.
The Mystery of Greenland Vikings
But the documents are most remarkable—and baffling—for what they don’t contain: any hint of hardship or imminent catastrophe for the Viking settlers in Greenland, who’d been living at the very edge of the known world ever since a renegade Icelander named Erik the Red arrived in a fleet of 14 longships in 985. For those letters were the last anyone ever heard from the Norse Greenlanders.
They vanished from history.
Europeans didn’t return to Greenland until the early 18th century. When they did, they found the ruins of the Viking settlements but no trace of the inhabitants. The fate of Greenland’s Vikings—who never numbered more than 2,500—has intrigued and confounded generations of archaeologists.
Those tough seafaring warriors came to one of the world’s most formidable environments and made it their home. And they didn’t just get by: They built manor houses and hundreds of farms; they imported stained glass; they raised sheep, goats and cattle; they traded furs, walrus-tusk ivory, live polar bears and other exotic arctic goods with Europe. “These guys were really out on the frontier,” says Andrew Dugmore, a geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “They’re not just there for a few years. They’re there for generations—for centuries.”
So what happened to them?
The Conventional Wisdom
Thomas McGovern used to think he knew. An archaeologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York, McGovern has spent more than 40 years piecing together the history of the Norse settlements in Greenland. With his heavy white beard and thick build, he could pass for a Viking chieftain, albeit a bespectacled one. Over Skype, here’s how he summarized what had until recently been the consensus view, which he helped establish: “Dumb Norsemen go into the north outside the range of their economy, mess up the environment and then they all die when it gets cold.”
Accordingly, the Vikings were not just dumb, they also had dumb luck: They discovered Greenland during a time known as the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 900 to 1300. Sea ice decreased during those centuries, so sailing from Scandinavia to Greenland became less hazardous. Longer growing seasons made it feasible to graze cattle, sheep and goats in the meadows along sheltered fjords on Greenland’s southwest coast. In short, the Vikings simply transplanted their medieval European lifestyle to an uninhabited new land, theirs for the taking.
But eventually, the conventional narrative continues, they had problems. Overgrazing led to soil erosion. A lack of wood—Greenland has very few trees, mostly scrubby birch and willow in the southernmost fjords—prevented them from building new ships or repairing old ones. But the greatest challenge—and the coup de grâce—came when the climate began to cool, triggered by an event on the far side of the world.
In 1257, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok erupted. Geologists rank it as the most powerful eruption of the last 7,000 years. Climate scientists have found its ashy signature in ice cores drilled in Antarctica and in Greenland’s vast ice sheet, which covers some 80 percent of the country. Sulfur ejected from the volcano into the stratosphere reflected solar energy back into space, cooling Earth’s climate. “It had a global impact,” McGovern says. “Europeans had a long period of famine”—like Scotland’s infamous “seven ill years” in the 1690s, but worse. “The onset was somewhere just after 1300 and continued into the 1320s, 1340s. It was pretty grim. A lot of people starving to death.”
Amid that calamity, so the story goes, Greenland’s Vikings—numbering 5,000 at their peak—never gave up their old ways. They failed to learn from the Inuit, who arrived in northern Greenland a century or two after the Vikings landed in the south. They kept their livestock, and when their animals starved, so did they. The more flexible Inuit, with a culture focused on hunting marine mammals, thrived.
New Evidence Overturns Past Conceptions
But over the last decade a radically different picture of Viking life in Greenland has started to emerge from the remains of the old settlements, and it has received scant coverage outside of academia. “It’s a good thing they can’t make you give your PhD back once you’ve got it,” McGovern jokes. He and the small community of scholars who study the Norse experience in Greenland no longer believe that the Vikings were ever so numerous, or heedlessly despoiled their new home, or failed to adapt when confronted with challenges that threatened them with annihilation.
“It’s a very different story from my dissertation,” says McGovern. “It’s scarier. You can do a lot of things right—you can be highly adaptive; you can be very flexible; you can be resilient—and you go extinct anyway.” And according to other archaeologists, the plot thickens even more: It may be that Greenland’s Vikings didn’t vanish, at least not all of them.
A New Understanding How Vikings Lived on Greenland
The Vikings established two outposts in Greenland: one along the fjords of the southwest coast, known historically as the Eastern Settlement, where Gardar is located, and a smaller colony about 240 miles north, called the Western Settlement. Nearly every summer for the last several years, Konrad Smiarowski has returned to various sites in the Eastern Settlement to understand how the Vikings managed to live here for so many centuries, and what happened to them in the end.
“Probably about 50 percent of all bones at this site will be seal bones,” Smiarowski says as we stand by the drainage ditch in a light rain. He speaks from experience: Seal bones have been abundant at every site he has studied, and his findings have been pivotal in reassessing how the Norse adapted to life in Greenland. The ubiquity of seal bones is evidence that the Norse began hunting the animals “from the very beginning,” Smiarowski says. “We see harp and hooded seal bones from the earliest layers at all sites.”
A seal-based diet would have been a drastic shift from beef-and-dairy-centric Scandinavian fare. But a study of human skeletal remains from both the Eastern and Western settlements showed that the Vikings quickly adopted a new diet. Over time, the food we eat leaves a chemical stamp on our bones—marine-based diets mark us with different ratios of certain chemical elements than terrestrial foods do. Five years ago, researchers based in Scandinavia and Scotland analyzed the skeletons of 118 individuals from the earliest periods of settlement to the latest. The results perfectly complement Smiarowski’s fieldwork: Over time, people ate an increasingly marine diet, he says.
Judging from the bones Smiarowski has uncovered, most of the seafood consisted of seals—few fish bones have been found. Yet it appears the Norse were careful: They limited their hunting of the local harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, a species that raises its young on beaches, making it easy prey. (The harbor seal is critically endangered in Greenland today due to overhunting.) “They could have wiped them out, and they didn’t,” Smiarowski says. Instead, they pursued the more abundant—and more difficult to catch—harp seal, Phoca groenlandica, which migrates up the west coast of Greenland every spring on the way from Canada. Those hunts, he says, must have been well-organized communal affairs, with the meat distributed to the entire settlement—seal bones have been found at homestead sites even far inland. The regular arrival of the seals in the spring, just when the Vikings’ winter stores of cheese and meat were running low, would have been keenly anticipated.
The Vikings Were Players in the Ivory Trade
The Norse harnessed their organizational energy for an even more important task: annual walrus hunts. Smiarowski, McGovern and other archaeologists now suspect that the Vikings first traveled to Greenland not in search of new land to farm—a motive mentioned in some of the old sagas—but to acquire walrus-tusk ivory, one of medieval Europe’s most valuable trade items. Who, they ask, would risk crossing hundreds of miles of arctic seas just to farm in conditions far worse than those at home? As a low-bulk, high-value item, ivory would have been an irresistible lure for seafaring traders.
After hunting walruses to extinction in Iceland, the Norse must have sought them out in Greenland. They found large herds in Disko Bay, about 600 miles north of the Eastern Settlement and 300 miles north of the Western Settlement. “The sagas would have us believe that it was Erik the Red who went out and explored [Greenland],” says Jette Arneborg, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who, like McGovern, has studied the Norse settlements for decades. “But the initiative might have been from elite farmers in Iceland who wanted to keep up the ivory trade—it might have been in an attempt to continue this trade that they went farther west.”
How profitable was the ivory trade? Every six years, the Norse in Greenland and Iceland paid a tithe to the Norwegian king. A document from 1327, recording the shipment of a single boatload of tusks to Bergen, Norway, shows that that boatload, with tusks from 260 walruses, was worth more than all the woolen cloth sent to the king by nearly 4,000 Icelandic farms for one six-year period.
Archaeologists once assumed that the Norse in Greenland were primarily farmers who did some hunting on the side. Now it seems clear that the reverse was true. They were ivory hunters first and foremost, their farms only a means to an end. Why else would ivory fragments be so prevalent among the excavated sites? And why else would the Vikings send so many able-bodied men on hunting expeditions to the far north at the height of the farming season? “There was a huge potential for ivory export,” says Smiarowski, “and they set up farms to support that.” Ivory drew them to Greenland, ivory kept them there, and their attachment to that toothy trove may be what eventually doomed them.
A New Theory Why Viking Greenland Settlements Failed
For all their intrepidness, though, the Norse were far from self-sufficient, and imported grains, iron, wine and other essentials. Ivory was their currency. “Norse society in Greenland couldn’t survive without trade with Europe,” says Arneborg, “and that’s from day one.”
Then, in the 13th century, after three centuries, their world changed profoundly. First, the climate cooled because of the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Sea ice increased, and so did ocean storms—ice cores from that period contain more salt from oceanic winds that blew over the ice sheet. Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market. “The fashion for ivory began to wane,” says Dugmore, “and there was also the competition with elephant ivory, which was much better quality.” And finally, the Black Death devastated Europe. There is no evidence that the plague ever reached Greenland, but half the population of Norway—which was Greenland’s lifeline to the civilized world—perished.
The Norse probably could have survived any one of those calamities separately. After all, they remained in Greenland for at least a century after the climate changed, so the onset of colder conditions alone wasn’t enough to undo them. Moreover, they were still building new churches—like the one at Hvalsey—in the 14th century. But all three blows must have left them reeling. With nothing to exchange for European goods—and with fewer Europeans left—their way of life would have been impossible to maintain. The Greenland Vikings were essentially victims of globalization and a pandemic.
So there is a climate angle to the story of Greenland Vikings. Unlike climate alarmists, these scientists looked deeper and found a more complicated truth. Of course, even this explanation is provisional, because we are talking about science, after all.