While it may have been chance that led them to find Greenland, the Norse settlers established a settlement that lasted for the best part of 5 centuries and, at its height, consisted of over 650 farms. Yet the Norse settlement in Greenland should serve as a warning of a society that fails to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

Definitely not the first human settlement in Greenland

Human habitation in Greenland stretches back to the Saqqaq culture more than 3 thousand years ago (2500 – 800 BCE). Inuit people have been living in Greenland since then, masterfully adapting to the extreme cold and weather conditions.

Peoples from Viking societies, however, were only made aware of Greenland's existence sometime in the late 10th century CE. According to the Landnámabók (the detailed story of Icelandic Norse settlement of Iceland complied 9th and 10th centuries), it was Gunnbjörn Ulfsson who first spotted Greenland, his ship blown off course traveling from Norway to Iceland sometime in the third quarter of the 10th century CE.

Shortly after this, in the 980s CE, a group of Norse explorers, led by Erik the Red, sailed westward from Iceland. According to the Saga of Erik the Red (a great story, even if it has little basis in historical accuracy), he found a land where the northern part was covered in ice, but the southern area had similar conditions to Iceland. 

After spending three years exploring the area, he returned to Iceland to try and enlist colonizers. In what surely must be one of history's more outlandish false advertising claims, he tried to drum up support for the settlement of this region he dubbed "Greenland."

Erik returned in 985 CE with 14 ships to establish two colonies on the southwest coast of Greenland: an eastern settlement at what is now Qaqortoq and a western settlement nearby modern-day Nuuk. These two settlements would last until at least the early 15th century CE.

Growth and economy of the Norse settlement

The Norse settlements soon grew, and historians have estimated, at its height, some 2,000 – 10,000 colonizers spread out over up to 650 farms. Regardless of the false advertising, many Norse settlers fled rural poverty in Scandinavia, or even Iceland, to join their compatriots in this far western outpost of European settlement.

Soon, the thriving Norse settlements developed a sophisticated local and export economy. Farmers kept goats, cattle, and sheep – imported from Scandinavia – for their milk and cheese whilst hunting provided caribou and seal meat. Whale, polar bears, and narwhals were hunted for their skin, hides, and ivory. This could also be used for garments and shoes or, in the case of polar bears, exported to ruling elites both in Scandinavia and further abroad. Henry III of England was gifted one, by King Haakon of Norway, in 1252 CE.

Despite the burgeoning economy and population, the Norse settlement in Greenland was still heavily dependent on Iceland and Norway. Building materials and wood had to be shipped as well as foodstuffs and religious and cultural items. Furthermore, there was a steady supply of ships, and people, flowing back and forth between Greenland, Iceland, and the Norse "homeland" in Scandinavia.

Vast numbers of Norsemen headed to Greenland in the 10th century, lured by promises of fertile lands and green hills. Photo: Dylan Shaw / Unsplash

Thule people and relations with the Norse

The Norse, however, were not the only people to reside in Greenland. Though Greenland appears to have little human settlement when the Norse arrived in c. 1000 CE, the Thule people (ancestors of the modern Inuit) began to migrate south from about the 12th century CE onwards. Originating in coastal Alaska, the Thule had slowly moved eastward over the preceding two centuries.

There appears to have been contact between the two peoples on Greenland, but little has been recorded of it. According to the sagas, these people – as well as the native indigenous living near the other Norse settlement of "Vinland" (modern-day Newfoundland, Canada) were referred to as skræling – a possible reference to their animal skin garments. 

Archaeological evidence has unearthed many Norse artifacts in Inuit settlements, but few Inuit artifacts in Norse settlements. There is still an ongoing debate about whether this represents a case of cultural resistance and snobbery by the Norse or the Norse being more interested in perishable items (like meats and fur) to trade for.

Indigenous beliefs and the establishment of a Catholic bishopric

Religion had already flourished in Greenland long before the Norse settlers arrived. Indigenous Inuit peoples practiced then, as now, a variety of spiritual beliefs. These are a form of shamanism based on animist principles, with the environment of Greenland playing a special and spiritual role. The Inuit believed they had to work in harmony with supernatural powers to survive the harshness of daily life in this unspoiled paradise.

Compared to other European areas, the Christianization of Scandinavia occurred relatively late, peaking in the high medieval period. In 1126 CE, the Roman Catholic Church established a diocese in what is now Igaliku. This was part of the archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim in Norway), and archaeologists have found at least five churches scattered throughout the eastern and western Norse settlements. There would be a Bishop in Greenland until 1378 CE.

The era of Norse settlement in Greenland approximately matches a period in history that includes the start of regional cooling in the North Atlantic. Therefore, some experts believe that colonization was only possible in the first place due to the relatively warm period prior to the cooling. Photo: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Baby, it's cold outside - decline and fall of the Norse settlements

At the peak of Norse settlement in Greenland, there was a population of somewhere between 2,000 – 10,000 people spread across two settlements and some 650 farms. However, archaeological and historical evidence has shown that the settlement had ceased to exist by the early 15th century. Why the Norse settlements collapsed is one of history's greatest unsolved mysteries, but historians and academics have put forward a few interesting theories.

From an environmental point of view, the arrival of Norse settlers was, climatically, perfect timing. Evidence compiled by scientists from an analysis of deep core ice in Greenland shows that the rough span of the Norse settlement (approximately 1000 – 1400 CE) saw a relatively mild period of temperatures. 

This is the so-called "Medieval Warm Period" and saw Greenland, now notoriously famous for its cold weather, experience slightly milder average temperatures. This allowed settlements to flourish as pastoral farming and rearing livestock could occur. From the 14th century, however, a period of regional cooling began. This "Little Ice Age" hit Greenland particularly intensely. Winters lengthened, making it increasingly hard to farm.

The Norse, unlike the Inuit, appear to have not properly adapted to their environment. As the Thule people migrated southward from the 12th century onwards, there are Norse records of contact, trade, and even hostility between the two groups of people. The Thule, however, mastered kayak navigation to the point where they had expanded their winter settlements to bordering Norse settlements. These people may indeed have hunted the Norse livestock. This may have resulted in either diminishing food supplies for the Norse or armed conflict for resources between the two peoples.

The emergence of bubonic plague (the so-called "Black Death") may have indirectly impacted the Norse settlement. From 1402 to 1404 CE, it reached Iceland and had a devastating impact, killing as much as 50% of the population. The Norse settlements relied heavily on the free flow of imported goods and people from Iceland. The plague's impact on Iceland's population no doubt had an economic and social impact on the number of voyages to the Norse settlements. Also, with both Iceland and Norway decimated by the plague, this presented increased economic opportunities for Norse settlers to return.

"Discovered" again?

The last glimpse we have of the Norse settlement of Greenland occurs in 1408 CE. On Sunday, September 16 of that year, one Sigrid Bjornsdottir wed Thorstein Olaffson at a church in the beautiful surroundings of Hvalsey, in the eastern settlement. Their marriage was recorded for posterity with three letters from this period, and then later written down by medieval Icelandic scholars.

This marriage, however, was the last glimmer of joy in what was becoming a society that was unraveling. There had been no Bishop sent to Greenland for more than two decades since the death of the previous one in 1378 CE. The following year, an Inuit attack on the eastern settlement resulted in the death of 18 Norse men – a large proportion of manpower in a relatively small society.  Historians believe that the Norse settlement in Greenland ceased to exist around the first half of the 15th century.

More than two centuries later, in the early 1720s CE, a Norwegian cleric, Hans Egede, petitioned King Frederick IV of Denmark to travel to Greenland to re-establish contact and proselytize the Protestant faith. The Bergen Greenland Company was established, and Egede got his wish. However, a mutiny by soldiers, the difficulty of converting local Inuit, the constant warring with Dutch whalers, and a smallpox pandemic all proved difficult for this new Danish-Norwegian royal "colony." Egede's lasting presence was the founding of the nation's capital he called Godthåb (Good Hope), which is now known as Nuuk.

Though the Norse settlement of Greenland ultimately failed, the local Inuit people, as they have for hundreds of years, survived life in this harsh but beautiful North Atlantic island country.

For more information on some of the archaeological and scientific theories for the collapse of the Norse settlement in Greenland, read an article featured in the AAAS Science Journal here.

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