Archaeologists believe that declining trade and a fear of losing their cultural identity drove the descendants of Greenland’s Viking colonists back to their ancestral homes in the late 15th century, rather than starvation and disease.
The Medieval Warm Period allowed the Norse settlements in the far north to thrive between the 10th and 13th centuries, and it had been assumed that the cooling of the climate had brought crop failure and famine, dooming the Scandinavian colony by the 15th century. But a Danish-Canadian team of scientists has offered a different explanation.
Isotope analyses on the many human and animal bones found in the Greenland settlements shows that, as the climate froze, the settlers quickly adapted by switching from a livestock-based diet to seafood. Rather than herding cattle, their efforts focused on hunting seals off the coasts of Greenland. The analysis showed that when the settlements began in the early 11th century, only 20-30% of the settlers’ diet came from the sea. By the 14th century, up to 80% of their diet was seal meat. While they rarely ate meat from their declining livestock herds, they did not starve because of the abundance of seals.
Neither is there any evidence of epidemic diseases which culled the settlers and livestock. Niels Lynnerup, anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Copenhagen, said: “We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries.”
The scientists suspect a combination of other causes triggered the abandonment of the Greenland settlements in the 15th century. The demand for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony’s staple export, dried up, as did regular ship traffic from Norway and Iceland, which affected supplies of timber and iron tools for construction. Jette Arneborg, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, said: “It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island. Without trade, they couldn’t survive in the long run.”
It is also believed the settlers were concerned about losing their Norse identity. They saw themselves as farmers rather than hunters, and their social status depended on land and livestock. Arneborg said: “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots.”
This ultimately led to the settlements’ decline and, as is usual with human migration, it was young people of child-bearing age who led the Norse exodus out of Greenland. Archaeologists found very few skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period; it was mainly the old who were left behind.
Greenland’s written records detail the wedding of one such young couple, Icelander Thorstein Olafsson and Greenlander Sigrid Björnsdottir, who were married in a church on Hvalsey Fjord on 14 Sep 1408. Their wedding feast largely comprised seal meat and it was one of the last Viking festivals recorded in the colony. The couple left the island shortly after their wedding.
Lynnerup said: “Perhaps they were just sick and tired of living at the ends of the earth and having almost nothing but seals to eat.”