Archaeologists have discovered a fresh explanation for the disappearance of the Norse of Greenland, who flourished for centuries before disappearing.
In 1721, missionary Hans Egede sent a ship named The Hope from Norway to Greenland in search of Norse farmers whom Europeans had not heard from for two centuries in order to convert them to Protestantism. He discovered iceberg-studded fjords that gave way to lovely lowlands and glittering lakes that glistened behind the enormous ice sheet. But when he asked the Inuit hunters he encountered about the Norse, they showed him crumbling stone church walls, the only vestiges of the Norse's 500-year occupation. "What has been the fate of so many people, so long kept off from all contact with the civilized world?" Egede described the journey in writing. "Were they annihilated by a native invasion... or perished as a result of the inclemency of the climate and the sterility of the soil?"
Today, archaeologists continue to wonder. The disappearance of these Norse towns in the 15th century is the most puzzling chapter in the history of the Arctic. The colony's downfall has been attributed to everything from malicious Basque pirates to the Black Death. However, historians have traditionally assigned the majority of blame to the Norse, reasoning that they failed to adjust to a changing environment. During a warm time around 1000 C.E., the Norse inhabited Greenland from Iceland. But despite the onset of a period known as the Little Ice Age, they clung to livestock farming and church construction while wasting natural resources such as soil and lumber. The Inuit, who hunted seals and ate whales, persisted in the identical environment.
In the past decade, however, fresh digs throughout the North Atlantic have compelled archaeologists to reevaluate some of these long-held beliefs. The North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) has amassed exact new information regarding historical settlement patterns, diet, and terrain. The data indicate that the Greenland Norse focused less on cattle and more on trade, particularly with walrus ivory, and that they relied more on the sea than their meadows for nourishment. Climate certainly stressed the colony, but the dominant picture is not of an agricultural civilization short on food, but of a hunting culture short on labor and prone to maritime disasters and social instability.
Greenland Norse were not a "set in their ways" culture, according to historian Poul Holm of Trinity College in Dublin, who praises the new depiction. According to NABO archaeologist George Hambrecht of the University of Maryland, College Park, "the new tale is that they adapted, yet failed nevertheless."
Ironically, just as this new picture is developing, climate change once again poses a threat to Norse communities, or what remains of them. Organic relics such as clothing and animal bones, which have been kept for generations in the permafrost's extreme cold, are fast deteriorating as rising temperatures soften the soil. "It is dreadful. Just when we are able to make use of all this data, it disappears from under our feet "Holm argues.
In 1976, Thomas McGovern, then 26 years old and sporting a bushy beard, eagerly arrived on the grassy shore of a fjord in southern Greenland to begin his Ph.D. in archaeology. The core Norse chronology was already in place. In the ninth century, the advancements in maritime technology that allowed Scandinavian Vikings to invade northern and central Europe also allowed the Norse, as they became called in their later, peaceful incarnations, to travel to Iceland. Erik the Red led many ships to Greenland in 985 C.E., according to the unreliable Icelandic Sagas, which were composed centuries later. Eventually, the Norse constructed two villages, with hundreds of farms and over 3,000 inhabitants at their peak. According to radiocarbon dating, the Western Settlement on the island's western coast was abandoned by 1400, and by 1450, the Eastern Settlement on the island's southern point had also been abandoned.
In the 1980s, McGovern and others acquired data indicating that the colonies were doomed because to "fatal Norse conservatism in the face of variable resources," as McGovern, now at Hunter College in New York City, noted at the time. The Norse regarded themselves as farmers, he and others believed, caring to hay fields despite the short growing season and importing Icelandic dairy cows and lambs. The King's Mirror, a Norwegian royal book written in the 13th century, praises Greenland's agricultural potential: "where the ground is free of ice, the sun has sufficient strength to warm the soil, causing it to produce good, fragrant grass."
Even tiny farms kept a few cows, a status symbol in Norway, based on skeletal evidence, and written records indicate that cheese, milk, and a yogurt known as skyr were crucial to the diet.
Archaeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., observed in 2000, "There were no activities more important to the Norse identity than agriculture."
In his 2005 best-selling book, Collapse, Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles popularized this viewpoint. Diamond argued that the Norse "harmed their environment," just as they had in Iceland, based on tests of dust that revealed erosion caused by tree felling, farming, and turf cutting. While foolishly constructing churches with expensive bronze bells, Greenland's Norse, according to Diamond, "refused to learn" Arctic hunting tactics from the Inuit, who hunted seals and fish throughout the year. At a few locations in the Western Settlement, he discovered gruesome signs of disaster: the bones of pet dogs with slashed marks, indicating starvation, and the remains of insects that feed on dead bodies, indicating that there were insufficient survivors to bury their loved ones. Diamond stated in 2008, "Every Norse ended up dead."
This theory dominated for decades. In the 1980s, McGovern and others discovered indications suggesting the Norse did not completely disregard Greenland's distinctive environment. Even Diamond had observed that 60 to 80 percent of the bones in tiny Norse farm middens were seal remains. (He assumed, however, that only poorer settlers consumed seal flesh.) According to written records, the Norse often rowed up to 1,500 kilometers to the walrus migration grounds around Disko Bay in western Greenland. They returned with a large number of walrus snouts, from which they extracted the ivory tusks and prepared them for commerce with Europe. The Norse paid tithes in ivory to the Norwegian king and the Catholic Church, and exchanged it with European merchants for goods such as iron, boat components, and timber. But McGovern rejected the walrus hunt as "a weird addition," he recalls, expressing the scientific consensus that farming was central.
Three decades later, at Tasilikulooq (TA-SEE-LEAK-U-LOCK), a contemporary Inuit farm with green fields bordered by lakes, a few of McGovern's students and others are investigating the ruins of a medium-sized farm that formerly held sheep, goats, horses, and a few cows. Two graduate students in rubber overalls remove 700-year-old earth from unidentified dug objects near a midden and downslope from a fallen house using a hose. The metal sieve reveals a brown button the size of a nickel. Brita Hope, an archaeologist from the University Museum of Bergen in Norway, says with a smile, "They found one more of those buttons" when word returns to the farmhouse where the nine-person crew is based for the month-long excavation. "We could make a coat," a student quips.
The material the button is composed of, walrus tooth, is much more significant than its purpose. Several walrus face bones have also been discovered at the farm, indicating that the occupants participated in the collective Disko Bay excursion, according to Konrad Smiarowski of City University of New York. These discoveries and others indicate that ivory, a product of Greenland's environment, was crucial to the Norse economic system.
One NABO excavation in Reykjavik, for instance, unearthed a tusk, radiocarbon-dated to approximately 900 C.E., that had been carefully removed from its cranium, possibly with a metal instrument. Members of NABO said in a 2015 report that the discovery demonstrates that the early Icelandic Norse were "experienced in handling walrus ivory," thus it follows that the Greenlanders were as well. Although historians have long assumed that the Norse inhabited Iceland and Greenland in pursuit of new farmland, several academics have recently proposed that the hunt for ivory was in fact the driving force behind the founding of both islands. Walruses were hunted to extinction in Iceland with the arrival of the Norse, most likely by the colonists.
Medieval Europe's high regard for the value of walrus ivory would have offered ample incentive for its pursuit in Greenland. The famous Lewis chess set, unearthed in Scotland in 1831, was made from ivory by craftsmen. Ivory was also utilized in luxury jewelry and clothes. According to tithing records studied in 2010 by University of Oslo archaeologist Christian Keller, a parcel of Greenland tusks weighing 802 kilograms was worth a small sum in 1327—roughly 780 cows or 60 tons of dried fish. According to historian Holm, the Norse discovered a marine habitat in the North Atlantic that was filled with walruses and other species.