According to a peer-reviewed study just published in the respected scientific journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Vikings were forced to abandon their communities in Greenland in the 15th century partly due to rises in the sea level. 

With obvious echoes around the world today, this phenomenon is one that has not been explored thoroughly before, and the reasons for their disappearance have long remained a mystery.

Seven eminent scientists, including five based at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, contributed to the research article, Sea-level rise in Southwest Greenland as a contributor to Viking abandonment.

The Vikings in Greenland

The Norse exodus in the mid-1400s ended half a millennium of Viking occupation of Greenland, which began in 985, and the subsequent arrival of 14 boats under the command of Erik the Red. The settlers formed three communities on the southwestern tip of the island. 

These Norse Greenlanders came under the rule of Norway from 1261, which in turn was effectively subject to Denmark in 1380, and the Kalmar Union from 1397. 

Not long afterward, descendants of the original Viking settlers began to abandon their homes. Scientists and historians have put forward several theories as to why.

With less land to be farmed, the Vikings probably changed their diet from land- to sea-based. Photo: Lay yathang / Shutterstock

The era of the Viking occupation of Greenland coincides with a transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age and the advance of the Greenland Ice Sheet. 

The scientists who contributed to the current study used geophysical modeling to demonstrate a sea-level rise of around three meters. The shoreline would have retreated by hundreds of meters and, it is thought, encompassed the entire Eastern Settlement, one of the three first set up in the late 900s.

The process would have contributed to other social and economic factors in forcing the Norse to abandon Greenland.

Evidence of the Vikings in Greenland comes from the Book of Icelanders kept at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, the Saga of Erik the Red, father of Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer who landed in North America, and archaeological discoveries of bones and ruins. 

Along with records of a wedding ceremony in the Eastern Settlement in the early 1400s, radiocarbon dating showing another five decades of Norse activity is where the evidence stops. 

Medieval climate change

The current research published in PNAS also refers to a previous work by H. C. Gulløv, Grønlands forhistorie, from 2004, in which the respected historian and author of many works on Arctic history outlines that a farm at Brattahlid in the Eastern Settlement would have lost around 50 hectares of land, while evidence shows another 200 hectares being swallowed up by the rising water. 

With famine a constant threat, these would have been significant losses – an area calculated by scientists to be just over 200 square kilometers. 

The Eastern Settlement extended from Cape Farewell to Sermesoq, encompassing some 500 sites containing around 2,000 inhabitants. The temperature would have cooled significantly in the time from the first Viking arrival to two or three centuries later.

The knock-on effects of this climate change a millennium ago would have been compounded by other factors, such as supply and demand of goods overseas – partly the end of ivory exports – and little or only negative interaction with the Inuit peoples further north. Soil erosion has also been cited as another explanation.

With less land to be farmed, the Vikings probably changed their diet from land- to sea-based. Excavations carried out a century ago by Paul Nørlund on behalf of the Danish National Museum offered evidence of malnourishment, as outlined in his seminal book, Buried Norsemen at Herjolfsnes.

While no genes from the Paleo-Inuit have been found in today’s Greenlanders, we know that ancestors of the Inuit, the Thule people who migrated eastwards from Alaska and northern Canada in the early 1300s. 

They were the first to introduce dog sledding and toggling harpoons used in whaling to Greenland, both of which helped these hardy folk to survive to this day.

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