Why did the Norse leave Greenland?
The Vikings occupied Greenland from AD 985 to the mid-15th century. The end of Norse occupation coincided with a transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age Various reasons have been put forward for their disappearance.
Why did the Norse leave Greenland?
In the context of the Norse settlements in Greenland, archaeologists propose two main hypotheses for their disappearance: either the entire population perished in Greenland, or the Norse migrated back to mainland Europe. The latter seems more likely due to the absence of valuable items left in Greenland, which suggests that if the settlers had returned to Europe, they would have taken these items with them. The drop in population would have been catastrophic for the small settlements, which peaked at around 2,500 people.
The Norse settlements faced various stresses, including a changing climate, before their abandonment in the 15th century. The settlers lived in harsh, barely survivable environments, and small changes in temperature, precipitation, or sea level could have significant impacts. The onset of the Little Ice Age, characterized by widespread cooling and erratic weather patterns from around 1300 to 1850, played a role. The Norse tried to adapt to the changing climate, but worsening conditions led to a decline in crop and meat production, making them increasingly reliant on marine resources for food.
The changing climate was not the sole cause of the downfall of Greenland’s pioneers, as they persisted for about two centuries after the climate started to cool. However, it posed an additional obstacle that may have contributed to their eventual abandonment. The stresses from climate changes, coupled with economic challenges such as the plummeting value of ivory, ultimately made survival untenable.
Did the Norse fail to adapt to the deteriorating climate?
Originally it was believed that the Viking settlements dwindled because of a reluctance on behalf of the Norse to adapt their way of life as the climate grew colder. This belief was partly fostered by the derogatory term, O.N. skrælingi, plural skrælingjar, that the Norse used to refer to the Thule people, the proto-Inuit group in Greenland. 1 The idea was that the Norse would not wish to emulate a people that they despised. However, a Danish-Canadian research team has demonstrated the Norse society did not die out due to an inability to adapt to the Greenlandic diet: an isotopic analysis of their bones shows they ate plenty of seals. 2
“Our analysis shows that the Norse in Greenland ate lots of food from the sea, especially seals,” says Jan Heinemeier, Institute of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University. “Even though the Norse are traditionally thought of as farmers, they adapted quickly to the Arctic environment and the unique hunting opportunities. During the period they were in Greenland, the Norse ate gradually more seals. By the 14th century, seals made up between 50 and 80 per cent of their diet.” 3
Did drought conditions cause the settlement to fail?
In the early 15th century, Norse settlements in southern Greenland were abandoned, and conventional wisdom attributed it to declining temperatures. However, a study focused on the Eastern Settlement challenges this notion 4. Using lake sediment analysis near a former Norse farm, the researchers find no significant temperature changes during the settlement period. Instead, they identify a persistent drying trend, peaking in the 16th century. This drier climate likely led to reduced grass production crucial for livestock overwintering and coincided with a shift in the Norse diet. The study concludes that increasingly dry conditions, rather than minor temperature changes, played a more significant role in undermining the viability of the Eastern Settlement. The Norse settlers, who relied on livestock and agriculture, faced considerable stress from the challenging environment, and the abandonment of the settlements may have resulted from a combination of factors, including climate change, management issues, economic collapse, or social stratification. Traditional explanations citing temperature decline as the primary factor are challenged by this research, emphasizing the importance of considering hydroclimate dynamics in understanding historical environmental changes in the region.
Did rising sea levels cause the settlement to fail?
Research published in April 2023 examines the disappearance of Greenland Vikings in the 15th century and explores potential factors contributing to their abandonment of the region 5. Archaeological evidence suggests a combination of environmental and socioeconomic factors, including the shift from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age, may have led to the departure of the Norse from Greenland. The research emphasizes the impact of a readvance of the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Little Ice Age on sea levels near the ice margin. The study states: “The pattern of sea-level rise and flooding predicted by our model yields insight into key issues of abandonment during Viking occupation in the Eastern Settlement. For example, Viking sites within our computed flood zone, whether farms, shielings, or otherwise, would have certainly been abandoned. As noted earlier, we predict that a total of 204 km2of land within the Eastern Settlement would have flooded during the period of occupation.” 6
Did excessive hunting of the walrus for ivory destroy the economy of Greenland?
Research published in 2019 examined what profound economic and environmental impacts early ecological globalisation may have had for human settlements and animal populations by investigating the medieval trade of walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) ivory. 7
Walrus hunting played an important role in the economy of the Norse settlement in Greenland. The findings of the research states: “Combining inferences from typology, aDNA and isotopes, three key observations are merited. First, almost all medieval European finds of walrus rostra most likely derived from the activities of the Norse settlement in Greenland”. 8
Barrett, the lead author of the study said:
“Norse Greenlanders needed to trade with Europe for iron and timber, and had mainly walrus products to export in exchange. We suspect that decreasing values of walrus ivory in Europe meant more and more tusks were harvested to keep the Greenland colonies economically viable.”
“Mass hunting can end the use of traditional haul-out sites by walruses. Our findings suggest that Norse hunters were forced to venture deeper into the Arctic Circle for increasingly meagre ivory harvests. This would have exacerbated the decline of walrus populations, and consequently those sustained by the walrus trade.” 9
1, The Old Norse term is often translated as ‘wretch’ ‘wretches’ – in modern Icelandic skrælingi means ‘barbarian’.
2, The results of this research is published in Erle Nelson, D. et al, “An Isotopic Analysis of the Diet of the Greenland Norse” Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 3 (2012)
3, Greenland’s Viking settlers gorged on seals, Medievalists.net
4, Zhao, B. et al, (2022), “Prolonged drying trend coincident with the demise of Norse settlement in southern Greenland“, Science Advances, vol 8, pp 1-8
5, Borreggine, M. et al, 2023, “Sea-level rise in Southwest Greenland as a contributor to Viking abandonment“, PNAS2023 Vol. 120 No. 17 e2209615120, pp 1-7
6, ibid p. 4
7, Barrett, J. H. et al, (2019) “Ecological globalisation, serial depletion and the medieval trade of walrus rostra“, Quaternary Science Reviews 229 (2020) 106122
8, ibid, p. 12