In 1408, a letter from the Norse colonies in Greenland brought word to Iceland of a wedding. There was no hint whatsoever in the letter of any actual or perceived threat to the men and women living there. After that, no further European contact with the colonists occurred until 1721, when a Norwegian missionary went to Greenland and found nothing but ruins. Archeological data later determined that the Greenland settlers vanished during the advent of the Little Ice Age in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It has long been assumed that the answer to the riddle of their disappearance was simple: the Norse came to Greenland during a medieval warm period, and when the weather got colder they simply couldn’t cope and died. But as recently reported in the Spring 2011 issue of Folio: The Magazine of the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, it’s been suggest the answer is something more complicated, more unexpected, and holds an important lesson for our own survival in an ever-changing world.
Viking Norsemen first arrived in Greenland in the 980s, led by Eric the Red who was cast out from Iceland for committing manslaughter. Eric brought back tales of rich, green pastures, and by 1300, Norse colonies in Greenland had developed into a highly organized community with its own legal code, bishop, churches, monasteries, and even a modest cathedral. Due to its being situated (at least from Europe’s perspective) on the very edge of the known world and on the far side of a long and perilous ocean voyage, the colonies never had a population of more than about five thousand Norsemen. There were no towns, only individual farmsteads and micro-villages spread out along the southwestern coastal areas in two main settlements designated Eastern and Western (the Eastern settlement alone covered nearly 3,300 square miles). Given the scarcity of wood–and thus of large sea-going ships–in Greenland, the only explanation for the disappearance of the colonists is that they all died. There was simply no way for them to have emigrated en masse…
So what killed them? The archaeological record tells us the colonists were facing substantial challenges long before their eventual demise–challenges even greater than the growing cold. For one thing, they depended upon trade with mainland Europe for most of their wood and iron. In exchange they’d send back luxury items–walrus ivory and polar bear belts, sometimes even live polar bears and prized gyrfalcons–painstakingly acquired at great risk on the annual Nordseta hunting voyages to the frozen wastes far to the north of their settlements. But with the opening of trade routes to the Middle East that came with the Crusades, elephant ivory from Africa and walrus tusks from Russia became more easily and affordably available to Europeans. In the mid-fourteenth century, demand for these sorts of luxury items declined significantly as a result of the Black Plague. Once drift ice started clogging the fjords and the seas grew stormier with the dropping temperatures, the risks of the already rare trade voyages to Greenland outweighed any possible benefits.
Another factor: new neighbors! When the Vikings first settled Greenland, the only other folks living there were an indigenous Arctic people called the Tuniit, who only occupied the farthest northwestern tip of the land mass and never, so far as we know, had any meaningful contact with the Norse. By the mid-thirteenth century, however, the Tuniit had been all but wholly displaced by the Inuit who crossed over from Canada and moved south to occupy lands directly adjacent to the Norse settlements. Even if there were no direct hostilities between the two groups, the Inuit were now in direct competition with the Norse for Greenland’s scarce resources.
In such unforgiving conditions and living as widely dispersed as they did, the only way the Norse could have adapted to survive in Greenland in the first place was through highly organized interdependence. All evidence points to the fact that they developed just such a system. Everything from the construction of buildings to fishing, hay harvesting, and hunting seal and caribou, was organized on a colony-wide scale and was strictly regulated to preserve existing resources. Marine mammals were an increasingly important source of sustenance for the colonists, eventually becoming the mainstay of their diet. As the weather grew colder, local populations of seals declined and increasing manpower had to be devoted to following migratory seals along the coasts. Sometimes lasting two months or more, these sea hunts were exceedingly dangerous (many hunters must have died on the voyages) and they necessarily reduced the workforce available for other communal activities.
The Inuit were far more successful at seal hunting given their use of kayaks and harpoons and the fact that they were a migratory people who could follow the herds without being tied to any permanent settlements. And while it is true the Norsemen’s rejection of such methods and tools might appear to be a failure to adapt, it must be remembered that Inuits were solitary hunters in their one-man kayaks, typically providing food only for their own families. Such a model would have been unthinkable to the Greenlandic Norse, who had adapted to the harsh realities of their new home by developing such a strong interdependence that all forms of harvesting and hunting were a communal effort. As Professor Thomas McGovern, Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, puts it, “As a survival strategy, anything that takes you out of the community is probably absolute suicide.” McGovern is part of a consortium of forty institutions in fourteen countries that make up the North Atlantic Biocultural Organization (NABO), which is studying the historical interaction of human populations with the environment and climate in the North Atlantic. Among the many contributing factors to the Norse Greenlanders’ decline, McGovern posits that a major loss of life during the seal hunts could have been the tipping point that finally destroyed the settlements. He and his colleagues in NABO see the situation as having been one in which successful adaptation to earlier climate change set the Norse up for their eventual doom; an overdependence on cooperation led to a loss of innovation. As McGovern puts it, “Every society faces trade-offs, and what we have to avoid is being locked into a single pathway no matter how well it serves our needs.”
For more on McGovern’s research and the efforts of NABO, see “…And Then They Were Gone: Uncovering the Fate of Greenland’s 15th-Century Lost Norse Colonies,” Folio: The Magazine of the Graduate Center, The City University of New York, Spring 2001: 7-11, from which the above quotes are taken.