Vikings left Greenland for cultural, social reasons?

Vikings from Norway, Iceland and Denmark began to colonize Greenland in the late 10th century. Those were the halcyon days of the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250 A.D.), when pastures were green and farmland fertile. The Norse brought cattle with them and started farms in hundreds of settlements on the southern fjords. They prospered at first, founding vibrant communities with dozens of churches.

The good times started cooling off in the 13th century as the fertile warmth was replaced by the frigid storms of the Little Ice Age. For years historians have thought that the colder temperatures had resulted in crop failure and the death of livestock which in turn decimated the Norse colony. Settlers died from famine and disease and whoever was left beat a hasty retreat.

An archaeological study by a team of Danish and Canadian researchers proffers a new reason for the demise of the Norse settlements in Greenland: they chose to leave in orderly fashion in order to sustain their cultural identity and live in the style to which they did not want to become unaccustomed. The bone evidence and material remains suggest that the Viking settlers were not starving or ill, that they left the island deliberately taking all their valuables with them. It wasn’t a matter of life or death. It was a matter of the life they wanted to live no longer being possible.

The Norse settlers had lived for two centuries eating primarily food they cultivated and beef they raised, only supplementing their diet with seafood. Their aim in moving to Greenland was to get some land of their own to farm and ranch. Building materials, wood, iron, were supplied by trade with their homelands. The plan worked as long as the warm period held.

With the onset of colder temperatures, the pastures couldn’t support the cattle over the long winters. For a few decades ranchers tried replacing the cattle with pigs, but by 1300 the pigs were gone too. Sheep and goats lasted longer, but ranching and farming as the Norse practiced them simply could not sustain life in the new climate. There is no evidence that they even tried to keep the cattle alive using a starvation diet, a practice that was thoroughly established by their ancestors in cold climes and remained in use until recently.

Seafood, which had supplied no more than 30% of their diet in the warm days, shot up to 80% in the 14th century. Most of that 80% was seal, a reliable supply of which could be secured during the animals’ yearly migration stops on the island. They also had to use seals and fish to feed whatever livestock they had left.

Trade shriveled up too. The market for walrus tusks and seal skins, the goods the Greenland colonists had to trade, bottomed out. Ships came less frequently until by the middle of the 14th century there was no regular trade between the Norse settlements of Greenland and the motherlands of Norway and Iceland. Without reliable trade they had to hope for a random ship to stop by to renew their supply of iron or wood.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, that was not what they meant at all. That was not it, at all.

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says [National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette] Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

The young people of childbearing age left first. Archaeologists found almost no skeletons of young women from the late period of Norse settlement. The documentary evidence supports that pattern. The wedding of Thorstein Olafsson, a lad from Iceland, and Sigrid Bj√∂rnsdottir, a local girl, was held on September 14th, 1408, in Greenland’s Hvalsey Church. We know this because when they moved to Iceland, they had to prove to the local bishop that they had been married in a proper sanctioned church ceremony. Those documents are the last records we have of the Norse settlers in Greenland.

Everyone else left shortly thereafter. The fact that no precious objects have been unearthed anywhere in the archaeological record of Norse Greenland indicates that they moved, packing all their treasures, rather than being devastated by disease, natural disaster or starvation. The bone evidence confirms that there was no more illness and hunger among the late Nordic population of Greenland than among comparable populations in Scandinavia.

10 thoughts on “Vikings left Greenland for cultural, social reasons?

  1. This is a fascinating counter argument to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. In that work, he speculates the Norse culture (e.g. a supposed aversion to eating seafood) prevented the population from survivnig like the indeginous people. This interpretation attributes an opposite effect of the culture based on science rather than legend.

    1. Isotope analysis of the teeth proves that the Norse Greenlanders did indeed buckle down and eat seafood when their other options dried up. I imagine even the most fervently-held cultural norms can’t help but bend in the face of hunger.

      I haven’t read Collapse. Does Jenn recall correctly that Diamond noted the Norse settlers might have chosen to return to Scandinavia?

  2. “The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.”

    That pretty much summarises how I read the Norse Greenland element of Collapse. Also, Jared Diamond – if I recall correctly – said that whether they returned to Scandinavia or died out was, at the time of writing, uncertain.

    1. Ya, the question of whether they died out or went home has been up in the air a long time. Collapse was first published in 2004 and a revised new edition released in 2011, so the latest information about the Norse settlers’ diets probably would not have been available to Diamond.

  3. Did they have the means to leave Greenland? Without supplies of wood, iron, and other materials, it seems unlikely that they would have had any seaworthy boats. Then there is the question of whether there should have been historical evidence of such a migration. If people did leave, one might expect that they would have carried messages on behalf of those staying behind to church and other authorities. Is it possible that some did try to leave but were lost at sea?

    1. There is evidence of migration. I mentioned in the post that the young married couple needed to produce documentary proof of their marriage on Greenland when they moved to Iceland. As for raw materials, Scandinavian ships did still turn up on occasion. It was just the regular trade that died.

  4. The particular event you are referring to occurred in the early 1400s when there was a still a significant population remaining and the ship in question seems to have arrived by chance (interestingly, the crew stayed for a considerable time). It seems that such events were very rare, even at that time. If on subsequent occasions, ships had arrived and the crew had found the settlements to have died out, I would have thought that this would have been a newsworthy event and been widely reported on their return.

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