Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Until Death Takes Me, or the World Ends: What the Hell Happened in Greenland?

We are continuing through our study of the North Atlantic Viking settlements. Today, I want to discuss the mysterious disappearance of the Greenland settlement. As I mentioned in our last post, the Norse settlers had abandoned Greenland by 1450. Fitzhugh and company explore a few different possibilities as to exactly why and how this happened. The disappearance of the Greenlanders is fascinating to me for a few different reasons. First, any disappearance of a group of peoples is wildly entertaining. The Norse in Greenland represent perhaps the furthest advancement of the Viking push across the globe. What is more, the abandonment seems to have been deliberate and organized. What would cause a substantial group of people to pick up and leave, never to resurface in history again?

We first must dispel a few of the rumors as to why the Norse left. These ideas may have contributed to the disappearance of the Norse communities but were not the sole reason of the abandonment. Most prominent among the false theories is that the Inuit (ancestors of the Eskimos) challenged and pushed out the Norse. There is no evidence in the archaeological records that any prolonged violence occurred between these two groups. In fact, the parties seemed to work well together, trading occasionally and sharing certain resources. Unlike their kin on the shores of North America, the Inuit may have even traded ideas with the Norse, picking up certain iron working ideas. There is some speculation that intermarriage and sexual relations took place but the evidence on that is pretty slim. 

The Inuit, however, may have indirectly driven out the northern Western Settlement. When conditions grew colder, the Inuit followed the seals and caribou south along the coast, perching the natives just outside the Norse settlements. While it is unlikely that the Inuit stormed the farms with knives and spears, as some historians had ascertained, they did offer competition on the northern hunting grounds. Anthropologists have determined that seal consisted a large part of the Greenlanders’ diet. Sharing such an important staple could have put a major dent in structured lives of the Norse. But this raises a number of questions. Why would it seem that even in the absence of major violence, the Inuit societies flourished, while the Norse slowly diminished? Did the Inuit have something the Norse did not? Perhaps sheer numbers were enough to shake the Norse loose. 

Another unfounded theory is that the Norse died off from malnutrition. They just couldn’t sustain life on the northern island that was TEEMING with edible marine life. An abundant amount of birds, eggs, seals, walrus, caribou, and fish surrounded them. And yet, the Norse saw themselves first and foremost as farmers, raising crops and cattle. Could this pride in maintaining their statuses as agriculturists keep them from survival? Certainly not. The excavations have not produced enough human remains to suggest that the entire settlement died at once. In fact, the bone samples provide ample evidence that the Greenland Norse were incredibly healthy, right up to the time of their disappearance. No malnutrition could be found, outside of a couple of isolated illnesses. 


 (Lynda D'Amico)

So if their neighbors didn’t push them out and they had the resources to stay healthy, perhaps it was the weather that got the Norse moving. The climate in the early Middle Ages was relatively mild, making places like Iceland and Greenland seem like really tight places to settle down. Around 1300, the Little Ice Age began and the weather worsened in the far reaching Norse Settlements. This climactic change certainly had an effect on Greenland’s agriculture and ultimately led to the abandonment of the more northern Western Settlement. The oddly named Eastern Settlement, which sat on the south-west corner of Greenland, struggled on with the help of a warmer ocean current keeping their neck of the woods livable. The worsening weather definitely had a part to play but was not the main reason the Eastern Settlement was left.

The culprit may reside in that most evil of all medieval villains: The Black Death. The plague decimated Medieval Europe, claiming between 30%-50% of a kingdom’s population. There is no evidence, written or physical, that the plague crossed the Atlantic to Greenland. If it did, we’d certainly have our answer ready. A small and fragile community who at its peak probably held 1200 people between the two main settlements could not have continued after losing 50% of its people. Sustainability would have been out of the question and the survivors would have had to pack up and head back to Iceland or the continent. If the plague did not reach Greenland, as most historians believe, it still could have destroyed Greenland economically. 

Another theory is based on a simple change in artistic taste. For first two hundred years of the Greenland colonies, Europe pined for ivory. The Norse found themselves with an abundance of walrus tusks in their backyard. With relations between Europe and Asia souring at the onset of the crusades, the European market was thrilled to find that ivory could be bought from those remote Greenlanders. The only downside was that merchants had to travel to Greenland through the dangerous and ice-filled North Atlantic waters. An easy price to pay for those tusks! However, once the Christians had taken Jerusalem, they found the market to elephant tusks re-opened. Soon, the demand for Greenland ivory began to wane. The dangerous journey didn’t seem worth it after all. And by the fifteenth century, ivory art had gone out of style on the continent and Greenland saw fewer and fewer European ships as the decades dragged on.

Viking game pieces carved out of walrus tusk. (British Museum)

In truth, a combination of all of these theories can be attributed to the failure of the Norse settlements in Greenland. Yet, one has to wonder if extinction could be avoided. The colder climate didn’t seem to bother their northerly Inuit neighbors. The other European kingdoms recovered in time from the plague, which didn’t even seem to reach Greenland! Was there a stubbornness and a refusal to change? The Norse seemed so set on their traditional agricultural ways that they seemingly refused to adapt. Learning to harpoon seals from the Inuit in the place of their clumsy netting and clubbing could have done wonders for their economy. When the rest of the North Atlantic communities turned to fisheries rather than farms, the Greenland Norse could have dominated the global economy. And yet, they allowed English and Icelandic fishing boats to push as far west as the coast of Newfoundland. In retrospect, a hubris seems to hang over the Western and Eastern settlements that all but doomed the Norse.

So where did they go?

A ludicrous but possible theory holds that the Norse simply crossed the Davis Strait and resumed a life in North America. There is absolutely no evidence that the Vikings had a homestead in anywhere other than L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. And why would the Greenlanders think they could survive the pressures of North American life in the fifteenth century when they had given up on it nearly 500 years earlier? Having made many trips to the Canadian Arctic, the Viking descendants knew what lay in wait for them across the bay: endless timber, plenty of wild game, wild grapes and rice, and natives with whom they were familiar. Could they have developed decent relationships with the Thule Inuit, centuries after their ancestors had clashed? I highly doubt it. And this theory will remain a conspiracy until evidence is uncovered that the Norse somehow made a life for themselves in the west, which would be utterly incredible. This would imply that not only did Europeans successfully live on the continent at the same time Columbus and his predecessors were killing everyone with their fancy germs but also that they had disappeared into oblivion, either through intermarriage with natives or wiped out by rival neighbors. Again, there is no evidence as to an American Norse settlement outside of the short-lived L’anse aux Meadows from approximately 1000-1003. There is no evidence…yet! 

The theory of the indirect effects of The Black Death provides the simplest answer, especially when one considers the land that opened up in Iceland. After so many people died, their farmsteads and lands were left unattended. Surely, some of the Greenlanders at the edge of the world took notice and said, “Fuck it, I’m going home.” Understanding how important lineage was to the Icelanders, I bet a few of the Greenland Norse could trace their families back to certain lands in Iceland, causing little strife as they piled back in and filled out the population in the mid-fifteenth century. 

Wouldn’t a migration like this be noted? A movement of hundreds of “refugees” either to Iceland or to Norway or Denmark would have surely been noted in the later sagas or the royal annals. And yet no such report exists. The leading theory suggests that it was a slow and steady migration to Iceland, such that it would go unnoticed. Still, even if the rate was supremely slow, perhaps 10 people per year, one would think that the pencil-wielding nerds in Iceland would have scribbled down such hot gossip as the Greenlanders giving up on their settlement. Maybe they snuck in under the distraction of the plague itself. No one really paid attention because everyone they knew and loved had just died a gruesome death. Who cares if a bunch of backwoods relatives just moved in next door?!

And yet, when the reality hit that the ancestors of the Danish and Norwegians had set foot on North American soil centuries before any other Europeans, a craze swept through the nations. Several attempts were made to contact their distant Greenland relatives in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sailors sent by the Scandinavian kings searched in vain upon the shores where they believed the old settlements had been. They had no idea that the sites had been abandoned. They wanted to claim Greenland as part of a larger Dano-Norwegian commonwealth, or at least make contact with their brave cousins who had accomplished the unthinkable. The migration from Greenland to Iceland (or wherever) either went completely unnoticed by the wider world or was forgotten entirely as a moot point in North Atlantic society. 

This ignorance of the abandoned Greenland settlements is a little troubling. Not much time seems to have passed between the last Icelandic documentation of a ship coming from Greenland in 1410, and when Pope Alexander recommended a bishop be reinstated at the end of the fifteenth century. Mystery surrounded the Norse Greenlanders the Norse and Danish tried to make contact. Not until 1721, when Denmark wanted to re-incorporate Greenland back into its realm, was it confirmed by Hans Egede found the old abandoned farm houses crumbling, overrun by animals, or in use by the Inuit. Greenland was no doubt remote; but even in the 15th century, they maintained fashion and trends enjoyed by the continent. How did we lose track of an entire group of people? 

"Where's all the people?!" - Hans Egede (Kanneggard and Skeel)

If the Norse refused to change and adapt to these conditions, this theory is highly unlikely. Still, the disappearance of the Norse is eerie. The abandonment was deliberate, with the occupants taking their valuables. In order for their emigration to go unnoticed, it must have been a very slow and steady process. Yet no mention is made of it, and it only seems like Greenland fell off the map for a brief 80 years during the 15th century. The mystery may be solved with a simple oath from medieval period that tells us how pride could very well have been their demise: 

Until Death Takes Me, or the World Ends.

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