Lesson #17: The Disappearance of Greenland’s Vikings
Over a thousand years ago, the Viking Eric the Red sailed to Greenland around 985
A.D., while in temporary exile from his Iceland home for homicide. He returned to
Iceland with fabulous tales of pastures and valuable wild animals in a land he named
Twenty-five boats with some 500 people are said to have returned with him, eventually
building two settlements on the big island, with typical Norse long houses and enclosed
barns, etc. made out of fitted stone, many of which still stand today and some of
which are actually still in use.
The exact details are lost to history, but the outlines of this story has been proven
true by archeologists this century who have excavated Viking remains at two sites
on Greenland's west coast. It needs to be born in mind that the period of Norse settlement
was prior to the "Little Ice Age" which set in around the beginning of the fourteenth
century, and that in the days of the first Scandinavian settlements, the climate
was much warmer even than it is today, (grapes grew in England in those days) and
Greenland most likely really was green. The climate was milder and crops could be
grown as well as the abundant animal life hunted.
Greenland's two outposts together, called the Eastern Settlement and the Western
Settlement, had about 2,500 inhabitants at their peak. For more than 400 years they
lived primarily on meat and milk from sheep, goats and cows. Interestingly, for those
of us who envision Vikings constantly quaffing ale and mead and whatnot, they had
no beer or ale and had to trade for it; what grain was available was far too precious
for fermenting and had to be used for food. For wood and iron implements they traded
polar bear and caribou skins and walrus hides and tusks. The Greenlanders launched
at least one expedition to North America, landing in modern-day Newfoundland and
setting up a short-lived colony.
But for a variety of reasons, probably including the devastation of the Black Plague
in Europe and a waning interest in Greenland's luxury products, the settlements lost
touch with the old country. Recent studies of ice cores from Greenland show that
the 15th century, when the colonies probably died out, was a period of climate deterioration
across the Atlantic. When the "Little Ice Age" set in around the beginning of 1300,
the ice floes from the Arctic pressed in, the sailing season in the northern hemisphere
became much shorter, and the seas became more unnavigable and dangerous. Trade and
communication with Greenland dropped away. But these researchers say their explanation
must be more nuanced than simply: "it got cold and they died." For starters, that
wouldn't explain why the Eskimos survived these lean years. It has been proven that
human beings, including White men, can if necessary survive and even thrive on an
all-meat, high-protein diet, as witness the latest Atkins Diet craze.
But beyond this, for reasons which have always remained mysterious, people in Europe
seem simply to have FORGOTTEN about Greenland. Various Popes used to agitate their
Norwegian bishops to send out priests to the colonies, but it seems volunteers to
go off to the far reaches of the earth were kind of scarce and Norwegian church prelates
seem to have grown quite adept and avoiding or obfuscating the subject. One gets
the impression they just couldn't be bothered. At one stage Greenland falcons were
very fashionable among the nobility, but the fashion seems to have changed, and as
far as Europe was concerned Greenland seems to have fallen off the edge of the earth.
The last known record of the Greenland Vikings was in 1408, when a traveler reported
a wedding there. Several centuries later, in 1721, Hans Egede, a Norwegian-born missionary,
sought out the colonies. To his surprise, they were gone; this seems to have been
the first time anyone noticed that they were gone. It is a mystery that remains unsolved
to this day. There is one fascinating story, though, which I have to quote from memory,
since it's been years since I've read this.
Greenland was actually re-discovered, independently, by the English sailors John
and Sebastian Cabot in the late 15th century, and sometime in the sixteenth century
the great Elizabethan sailor and first Arctic explorer Martin Frobisher first arrived.
Frobisher recorded in his log that as he and his men came ashore on the rocky beach,
they found a dead White man lying there face down, wearing only furs, who had apparently
only just died of unknown causes. They buried him and went on to find an empty settlement
of stone huts. Did Frobisher and the modern world just miss the last of the Greenlanders
by a few hours?
Researchers and history buffs have offered many possible explanations for the disappearance
of the Greenland Vikings, including raids by Eskimos or European pirates, assimilation
into Eskimo communities and starvation. Modern DNA testing shows no apparently genetic
Norse strain in modern Greenland Inuit, though. Neither do the settlement remains
show any signs of fire or violence or destruction, although these would not necessarily
From the Greenlanders' point of view, one day the ships just—stopped coming. Archaeological
excavations which have been carried out in recent years on grave tumuli which still
dot the rocky hillsides show evidence of physical degeneration due to poor nutrition
and inbreeding. The last Greenlanders seem to have been dwarf-like people, sick and
often deformed, who dressed in uncured skins, had no metal tools, and could not have
fought off the Eskimos.
Ever want a chill down your spine? Envision what life in the Greenland settlements
must have been like during the last fifty years or so before the end—completely isolated
at the end of the world, always cold and probably starving, always looking to the
east over the icy water for the ships that never came.