The year was A.D. 1000. A crew of Vikings traveled north along Greenland's western coast in an open, six-oared boat, headed to the edge of the world as they knew it. With little protection from wind and rain and the frigid saltwater spray, it must have been a miserable trip. Drowning and hypothermia would have been constant threats. Yet at the end of their 15-day voyage, described in a historical text, the Vikings would arrive at the beaches of what is now called Disko Bay, where the walruses haul themselves out of the water to mate and rest. The animals were easy targets, and their ivory tusks fetched a fortune in Europe. The grueling journey paid off handsomely.
For hundreds of years the Vikings, also known as the Norse, ruled this Arctic outpost. They established two thriving colonies that, at their height, included thousands of members. But then in the early to mid-1400s the colonies disappeared.
The classic explanation for their decline holds that settlers stubbornly clung to the European way of life, farming pasturelands for cows and sheep, even though it was not well suited to Greenland's cold climate and rocky terrain. Mounting archaeological evidence indicates that the reasons for the collapse of the Greenland Viking colonies were far more complex than that, however. For one thing, the Vikings there did in fact depart from European tradition to adapt to the unique challenges of Greenland, taking up walrus hunting, for example. These adaptations allowed the settlements to persevere through climate change that made their already hostile environment even harder to inhabit. Ultimately, though, even these new practices could not protect the Greenland Vikings from large-scale political and cultural shifts that marginalized them and may have posed a greater threat than climate change did.
The Vikings might never have settled Greenland had it not been for a series of murders committed by the famously fearsome Erik the Red, whose exploits were chronicled in the Icelandic Sagas. Erik and his father had been small landowners in Norway before they were exiled to Iceland for their involvement in some slayings, according to the sagas. Not one to learn a lesson the first time, Erik was exiled again a number of years later, when he killed several people during disputes with two different neighbors. But this time there was no other known land he could move to. And so Erik sailed west with little knowledge of what lay beyond the sea in front of him and found the landmass that came to be known as Greenland. After his exile ended, in 985, he returned to Iceland, where he and a group of settlers packed their belongings into 25 longships and set out for the new land. Only 14 of the ships survived the trip.
Exactly why other Vikings came to Greenland to settle is unclear. Historians and social scientists long thought it was a last resort: all of the good farmland in Iceland and the Faroe Islands was spoken for, they surmised, and the Vikings were desperate to find open space in which to raise livestock. Alternatively, the settlers may have fallen for a marketing ruse. Erik the Red is said to have called the rocky, ice-covered place Greenland to attract more settlers.
Whether it was sheer desperation that motivated them or visions of paradise, the Vikings began to flock to Greenland from Iceland and Europe in an initial wave of migration that took place by about the year 1000. They settled most of the best farmland and harbors. Those who arrived later had to build their farms in more marginal areas. A society started to take shape as these free farmers brought their families to claim any empty land where they could grow grass to feed their sheep and cows. The farms were concentrated in two areas on the island's western coast: the so-called Western Settlement, which was some 800 kilometers south of the walrus hunting grounds at Disko Bay, and the Eastern Settlement, which was another 500 kilometers south of the Western Settlement.
Ruins discovered at Vatnahverfi, located near the southernmost point of Greenland, have helped archaeologists piece together a picture of what these settlements were like. Vatnahverfi appears to have been one of the richer farming areas in the Eastern Settlement. The land there extends like fingers into the ocean. Beyond those narrow, stony beaches, grass carpets the earth, providing good pasture for the sheep today, as it did during Viking times. Piles of moss-covered stones are all that remains of the ancient buildings. Their arrangement shows that the farms were set up like others across Scandinavia and Iceland, with the main farm building at the center of the best pasture surrounded by less desirable grazing land and smaller buildings where people could live when they moved the herds to graze in different places around the farmland. An excavation team led by Konrad Smiarowski, a Ph.D. candidate at Hunter College, identified 47 farmsteads organized around eight farms in Vatnahverfi.
The Viking farms at the site spanned such large areas that they necessitated the construction of smaller structures known as shielings that served as temporary shelters for the herds and as work spaces where farmers could milk the cows, shear the sheep, and process dairy and meat products. Smiarowski's team has found 86 shielings in this region during the past 12 years. Together his findings and those of other teams suggest that the farming community at Vatnahverfi housed between 255 and 533 people.
The farms established the hierarchy that gave Greenland society its foundation, explains Thomas McGovern, an archaeologist who is also at Hunter and has been working at sites in Greenland and elsewhere in the North Atlantic since the 1970s. The elite Vikings who owned the land depended on keeping people there, adds Jette Arneborg of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The landowners thus housed the farming families and granted access to the pastures in exchange for a cut of the profits from the livestock products. The colonies thrived under this system, growing to around 3,000 residents at their peak in around 1200 to 1250, Arneborg says.
When climate conditions took a turn for the worse, as they did soon after the settlers arrived, the Greenland Vikings met the challenges head on. Supplying pigs and cattle with enough hay to get through the winter was proving difficult in Greenland, so the farmers switched to raising mostly sheep. In places where the grazing was especially bad, they kept goats—animals that can eat nearly anything. Milk from the sheep and goats replaced cow milk as a staple of their diet. They raised only a few pigs and cattle, mostly for feasting and consumption by the wealthy.
Because the farms were not productive enough to sustain all the settlers, people had to find entirely new sources of food. The garbage deposits left by the Greenlanders showed that they began hunting seals on a large scale soon after they arrived. The Vikings probably hunted seals in the open water of the fjords, using boats and nets to gather the animals into tight groups where they could be speared. They also started hunting caribou and walrus. Exploiting these animals would have required communal hunting by a substantial labor force, with tight coordination between a headman and the rest of the hunting party. The Vikings were in a good position to adopt this new practice, having worked in a similar arrangement on the farms. The organization of the farms provided a framework for managing hunting labor and food resources effectively. The communal hunts, as well as the shift in farming practices, became a unique adaptation to the environment of Greenland.
The Vikings did not create these strategies out of whole cloth. Their innovations seem to have arisen from the know-how that they brought with them from Iceland and Scandinavia. Ecologists call this body of expertise “traditional ecological knowledge,” the set of behaviors and technologies that people have honed for generations through contact with the environment. Seal hunting was practiced in the Baltic Sea and Iceland, but those seals belonged to a different species than the ones that were primarily hunted in Greenland. The Vikings may have also gained experience hunting walrus in Iceland. In both cases, the settlers had to adapt their previously known techniques to the unique circumstances they encountered in Greenland.
As the workers were trying to figure out how to fill their bellies, elite landowners were looking for ways to amplify their influence. One way to do this was by building churches and consecrating ground for cemeteries. Farms were spread across the landscape, so central meeting places were crucial for the social life of the settlements. “They had to be a community somehow,” Smiarowski says. The churches became a way to bring people together for weddings, funerals and regular services.
The churches also served another function. In 1123 the Catholic Church appointed a priest named Arnald to be the Bishop of Greenland. It was starting to look to Greenland as an economic resource.
As trade between Europe and Greenland increased, the independent settlers began to search for ways to leverage the relationship. They petitioned Haakon IV, the king of Norway, to make Greenland part of his realm. The Greenlanders would pay taxes to Norway, and the king would guarantee that a ship called the Greenland Carrier would travel to Greenland every year to buy and sell trade goods. These trade missions kept Greenland part of the European economy and culture. As a result, the Vikings “had the same dresses and the same kind of double-sided [hair] combs” that Europeans wore, Arneborg says.
Trading ships such as the Greenland Carrier may have also been transporting goods and people for the Catholic Church. In 1341 the Bishop of Bergen, Norway, sent a priest to Greenland to make a list of the churches there and the property they owned. The Vatican was fond of ivory ornaments, and the bishop may have been in charge of keeping supply lines open between Greenland and the Vatican, explains Mikkel Sørensen, an expert in the history and archaeology of the Greenland Inuit at the University of Copenhagen. Arneborg, for her part, believes that the church was more interested in the money from the ivory trade than the ivory itself. Either way the Norwegian kings controlled what was practically the only supply of ivory in Europe at the time. The relationship seems to have been very profitable for everybody for more than a century. Walrus ivory debris has been found at medieval workshop sites from Scandinavia to Ireland and Germany, showing that demand for it extended across Europe.
Dramatic changes were coming, however. Analyses of sediment cores from the seafloor northwest of Iceland show that around 1250 the climate began to enter a phase called the Little Ice Age. During this time temperatures dropped and weather systems became erratic. Storms grew more frequent and severe. The long ocean voyage between Iceland and Greenland would have become more treacherous and might have discouraged fortune seekers who did not want to risk losing their ships, McGovern surmises.
Although the Vikings' Greenland settlements lasted for about another 200 years, many scholars have viewed the onset of the Little Ice Age as the beginning of their end. Unwilling or unable to change with the times, these experts supposed, the colonies started to crumble.
But McGovern is not convinced that the bad weather was enough to do the settlements in. “By the time the 1250s roll around, the Greenlanders had been there for many years, and it hasn't all been warm and cozy,” he says, “so they've been through some bad times, and they know the storms come, and sometimes people drown.”
Contrary to assumptions that they were stuck in their ways, the Vikings seem to have dealt with these challenges pretty effectively. Bones found in garbage middens at medieval farms across Greenland indicate that they moved to focus even more strictly on raising sheep and goats, which are hardy enough to survive on smaller amounts of grass. Even so, small landowners struggled to feed their herds. They either had to become tenants of the big landowners or sell their land and find a new way to make a living. So they became tenants. And it worked, for a while anyway.
But the world was also changing in ways that did not involve the climate. It may have been the complex interplay of these shifts that doomed the Greenland Viking colonies.
Perhaps most important, world events began to erode their trade in walrus ivory. Ongoing wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East had helped make Greenland a major player in the ivory trade. The wars led to rampant piracy on the Mediterranean Sea, which stymied the transport of elephant ivory from Africa and Asia to Europe. As elephant ivory became rarer and more valuable in Europe, the 2,800-kilometer voyage to Greenland for walrus ivory became a more profitable option than the shorter but more dangerous routes to Africa and Asia. Yet when the wars in the Middle East subsided and trade with Africa and Asia reopened, Europe may have turned its attention away from Greenland, explains Søren Sindbæk, a professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University in Denmark.
At the same time, shifting fashions may have lowered demand for ivory and other luxury goods. Ivory went from being a rare and sought-after material for jewelry and other decorations to falling out of favor with the elites starting around 1200. This trend seems to have coincided with a change in the type of trade the European markets were interested in, McGovern notes. Trade shifted from high-prestige goods such as gold, furs and ivory to high-bulk, low-value goods such as the bales of dried fish and rolls of woolen cloth that Iceland produced. “The walrus ivory is only valuable if people say it is,” he says. In contrast, fish and wool are food and clothing that can provision armies.
This transition marked a fundamental change in the way the European economy worked. “Greenlanders were stuck in the old economy,” McGovern observes. “Icelanders are much more positioned to take advantage of the expanding trade in bulk goods, and that's what they do.”
The onslaught of the Black Death in Europe further challenged Greenland's economy. Between 1346 and 1353, roughly a third of Europe's population died of the plague. Norway was particularly hard hit, losing some 60 percent of its people. It sent no ships after 1369, preventing the Vikings from selling their furs and walrus ivory, demand for which was already declining.
New threats also met the Greenland Vikings on their home turf: invaders from the north. When Erik the Red settled his farm, it seemed that no other people lived in Greenland. It is possible that a group known as the Paleoeskimos, or the Dorset people, did dwell there, but they would have resided far to the north of Disko Bay, out of sight in uncharted territory, as far as the Vikings were concerned. Later, in the 1300s, an Inuit group known to scholars as the Thule began making its way down the coast in skin-covered boats called umiaks toward the Vikings' walrus hunting grounds.
The Thule specialized in whaling, and their umiaks organized Thule society in the same way that farms organized the Vikings. Each umiak could seat about 15 people, with the owner of the boat taking the role of leader, Sørensen explains. They were probably on whaling voyages when they first met the Vikings at the Disko Bay hunting grounds. A 14th-century document called Description of Greenland indicates that the encounter was not a peaceful one: the Vikings met the Thule with their typical diplomacy, meaning that they fought them.
Yet for all their fierceness, the Vikings may have found themselves on the losing end of that battle. By roughly 1350 they left the Western Settlement, which was closer than the Eastern Settlement to the hunting grounds at Disko Bay. Why they abandoned the 80 farms there, and the easier access to walrus, is open for debate. But according to McGovern, all the references the sagas make to the Inuit in Greenland involve combat. One likely reason the Vikings vacated that area, then, is that they could not defend themselves against the invading Thule.
The worsening climate, the changing politics and fashion, the spread of plague and the arrival of invaders together formed a set of problems that the Vikings had not seen before. They found themselves in a situation that went beyond their traditional ecological knowledge. As a result, the Greenlanders faced difficult decisions about what to do to keep their society going. Would they double down on the tried-and-true strategies, such as communal hunting, that allowed their ancestors to survive the Arctic climate? Or would they develop novel adaptations to the new challenges they encountered? According to Arneborg and McGovern, the archaeological evidence suggests that the Greenlanders refocused their efforts on keeping the hunts going and doing what had worked so well when the colonies were first settled, and they kept doing so right up to the end.
Wealthy landowners even continued upgrading their churches almost until the colonies were abandoned, which might have been part of the problem. “If you invest in buildings, in a church, it fixes you to a location,” says Marten Scheffer, an applied mathematician at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Scheffer has devoted a large part of his career to mathematical models of the causes of societal collapse. When a society gets close to a tipping point, he says, it becomes slower to recover from adversities, even small ones. Whatever gives that society resilience—food, wealth, technology—becomes scarce, hampering adaptation. But another thing that slows down recovery is what Scheffer calls “sunk-cost effects”—buildings and equipment that allow the society to get what it needs from the environment. In the case of the Vikings, this not only would have meant the boats and equipment for hunting seals and walrus but also would have included the parts of their culture that linked them to Europe, such as new churches. The effort that has gone into making buildings and equipment factors into how likely people are to leave them behind even when it would make economic sense to do so. “They tend to stay too long in the same place,” Scheffer says, and “in the end, they leave. It takes quite a long time, and then they leave massively.” He thinks this may have been what happened to the Vikings.
Could the colonies have made different choices that might have allowed them to hang on? Some experts have suggested that the Vikings should have adopted a more Inuit-like way of life. After all, the Inuit peoples managed just fine and live in Greenland to this day. Yet that argument overlooks the reason that the Vikings came there in the first place. If they had wanted to make their fortunes selling walrus tusks to the European market, the Inuit vision of becoming captain of one's own umiak may not have held the same appeal for them. “They were on the fringe of the whole European system, so it was very important to be connected back by trading,” Sørensen says. “They wanted to be real Europeans up there. It's very much the question of identity.”
By the mid-1400s the choices may have been stark. Even the landowners with the largest farms and the best churches would have had to ask themselves, if they were faced with death by starvation or combat, why not pack up the farm, get on a ship and sail back to Europe? The answer may be that their prospects there might have been even worse: they would have been returning to a Europe that was part of a new economic system with no place for seal and walrus hunters. The Vikings may have conquered Greenland, but in the end, forces in the world beyond its icy shores conquered them.