The Rise and Fall of Norse Culture in Greenland

Summer on the Greenland coast c. 1000

Greenland’s history is a history of human civilization under severe Arctic conditions: presently, an ice sheet covers about 80 percent of the island, reducing human activity mainly to the coasts.

Early Paleo-Eskimo cultures

Greenland’s prehistory is a tale of repeated loops of Paleo-Eskimo immigration from the northern islands of North America. Because of Greenland’s climate and remoteness, survival there was challenging. For centuries, one culture replaced another as groups died out and were replaced by new settlers. Archaeology can only approximate dates for the civilizations that thrived before Greenland’s Norse exploration in the early-10th century.

Greenland’s earliest known cultures are the Saqqaq culture (2500 BCE–800 BCE) and the Independence I culture in northern Greenland (2400 BCE–1300 BCE). The practitioners of these two cultures are deemed to have descended from different groups that came to Greenland from Canada’s north. Around 800 BCE, the so-called Independence II culture began in the region where the Independence I culture had previously existed; researchers initially thought that Independence II was succeeded by the Early Dorset culture (700 BCE–1 CE), but some Independence II artifacts date from as late as the 1st century BCE. Recent research proposes that in Greenland, the Dorset culture may be better recognized as a continuation of Independence II civilization; the two cultures have therefore been deemed “Greenlandic Dorset.” Rare artifacts linked with early Dorset culture in Greenland have been discovered as far north as the Dove Bugt region on the eastern coast and Inglefield Land on the west coast.

Norse settlement

Europeans became conscious of Greenland’s existence, apparently in the early 10th century, when Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, voyaging from Norway to Iceland, was blown off track by a storm and saw some islands off Greenland. During the 980CE, adventurers led by Erik the Red sailed from Iceland and entered the southwest coast of Greenland, discovered the region uninhabited, and finally settled there. Erik named the island Greenland. Both the Book of Icelanders and the Saga of Eric the Red state that Erik said that it would inspire people to go there that the land had a decent name.”

The Norse instituted settlements along Greenland’s amazing fjords. It is indeed possible that the bottom of the southern fjords was covered by high-grown shrubs and enveloped by mountains covered with brush and grass, as the Qinngua Valley presents is. If the presumption is correct, the Norse probably netted the landscape by felling trees to use as construction material and fuel and leaving their goats and sheep to graze there in winter and summer. The reoccurring soil erosion could have been an essential factor in the colonies’ demise, as the land was entirely stripped of its raw natural cover.

The Norse lived in three distinct locations in south-western Greenland: the smaller Western Settlement, the larger Eastern Settlement, and the still tinier Middle Settlement. Estimations put the towns’ combined population at their height between 1,000 and 9000, trending toward the lower figure. Archeologists have discovered the ruins of approximately 615 farms: 95 in the Western Settlement, 500 in the Eastern Settlement, and 20 in the Middle.

Nose Economy

The Norse Greenlander’s economy depended on a mixture of pastoral farming with fishing and hunting. Farmers kept sheep, cattle, and goats – shipped into the island – for their cheese, milk, and butter, while most of the ate meat came from hunted seals and caribou. Both groups of farmers and individual farmers organized adventurous summer trips to the more northerly Disko Bay area, where they hunted narwhals, walruses, and polar bears for their hides, skins, and ivory. Besides being used to make shoes and garments, these resources also functioned as a form of money, as well as making up the most valuable export commodities.

Norse failure

Many theories explain why the Norse towns in Greenland deflated after surviving for some 450–500 years (985 CE to 1450 CE–1500 CE). Among the factors that have been proposed as adding to the demise of the Greenland colony are:

  • Gradual climate change
  • Cumulative environmental damage
  • Loss of contact and support from Europe
  • Conflicts with Inuit peoples
  • Opening of opportunities elsewhere after the plague had left many farmsteads abandoned in Iceland and Norway
  • Cultural traditionalism and failure to adapt to an increasingly severe natural environment
  • The loss in ivory value in medieval Europe (due to the influx of ivory from African elephants and Russian walrus), forcing hunters to overkill the walrus populations and jeopardize their own survival.

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