The tragedy of the Vikings. Why they didn't take root in Greenland

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The tragedy of the Vikings. Why they didn't take root in Greenland
The tragedy of the Vikings. Why they didn't take root in Greenland

Viking settlements in Greenland lasted 450 years, until the middle of the 15th century. According to one version, they fell into decay, because the economy of a small Arctic colony was destroyed by external circumstances. Scientists recently found another confirmation of this by analyzing the DNA of walruses.

Norman campaign west

In 984, a small landowner known for his violent disposition, Eric the Red, was expelled from Iceland for murder. He could not return to his native Norway - he was also persecuted there. In search of a better life, the Viking set sail across the Atlantic and discovered Greenland.

Four hundred people followed him there. They founded two large settlements - West and East. During its heyday, about three thousand people lived there. The Normans, as Latin historians called the Vikings, established trade with Norway, made sure that their own bishop was appointed to them.

In 1721, missionary Hans Egede sailed to Greenland to establish contacts with settlers and convert them to Catholicism. By that time, there had been no connection with them for two or three centuries. The expedition found only the ruins of the Eastern Settlement, not a single European was found. Why did the Vikings leave the island? There is still no definite answer to this question.

Scientists believe that Europeans were able to discover and populate Greenland thanks to the unusually warm climate that reigned in the Northern Hemisphere at the beginning of the second millennium - this period is called the Medieval climatic anomaly. The lowered level of the oceans contributed to sea travel. The fjords of the south of the island were free of ice, the land was covered with meadows. Hence the name - Green land, "green land". According to another point of view, this is such a "marketing ploy" by Eric the Red, who sought to lure people to a new place.

Experts from the Northwestern University of the United States analyzed the content of the 18O isotope in the skeletons of lake organisms in southern Greenland over the past three thousand years and confirmed that between 900 and 1500 the average annual temperature was 1.5 degrees higher than in the previous historical period. In the summer, the air warmed up to ten degrees Celsius.

The Vikings carefully chose the land for pastures, built their traditional farms and dwellings in the middle of them. The relatively warm summer made it possible to maintain a habitual way of life.

Between 1340 and 1450, the temperature dropped and the Little Ice Age began. The settlers were unable to adapt to the new conditions (or perhaps did not want to) and left Greenland. This is the generally accepted version. However, the discoveries of recent years have shown that everything was much more complicated.


Viking settlements in Greenland

Victims of globalization

The settlers needed building materials and iron, which were imported from Norway in exchange for walrus tusk. This product was very much appreciated in the Middle Ages, ornaments for temples, expensive things, such as chess from the Isle of Lewis, were carved from bone.

In Iceland, the Normans exterminated the walrus long ago and were looking for new habitats so as not to lose profits. Perhaps Eric the Red was sent west for this very purpose. Each summer, both settlements sent young men to Disko Bay, far north of the Western Settlement. The trip there on several boats took from 15 to 27 days, but the risk of a long trip was more than enough. The Viking trade flourished, competing successfully with the supply of walrus bone from Russia and ivory from Africa, where the war was going on at the time. But at the turn of the XII-XIII centuries, the situation changed. Ivory from the Black Continent flowed like a river, prices fell, and walrus tusk went out of fashion.

First of all, "greening" will affect the south of the island, where, over time, full-fledged coniferous forests may appear, scientists say.

Scientists from Cambridge found evidence of this with the participation of colleagues from different countries. After examining DNA and stable isotopes from the nasal parts of the skulls (rostrum) of walruses found at the sites of the 11th-15th century markets in Dublin, Trondheim and Bergen, the researchers found that all but one of the samples came from Greenland.

Over time, the proportion of small individuals, mainly females, increased. This means, the authors of the work conclude, that there were not enough large male walruses to meet the demand, and the Vikings opened the hunt for females, probably following the example of the Innuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic, who settled Greenland later than the Europeans.

When the competition with ivory intensified, supplies from Greenland not only did not decrease, on the contrary, they increased at the expense of females. Scientists believe that the settlers tried to compensate for the losses in this way. Having depleted the resources of Disko Bay, they hunted further north. But since such expeditions in the Arctic are very dangerous, walrus hunting gradually fell into decay. The economy was undermined, and people left the northernmost settlement - the West. Historians find no evidence of Greenlandic walrus tusk trade after 1327.

Under the yoke of circumstances

The northern settlement lasted until the middle of the 15th century, and not only the climatic factor played an important role in its death, according to the authors of the article in the journal Human ecology, including archaeologist Tom McGovern from the City University of New York, who has been studying Viking settlements in Greenland for almost half a century.

The traditional view is that the Vikings themselves are to blame for the failed colonization of Greenland. They brought in livestock, crops and technologies unsuitable for the island. They had to clear the land of willows and shrubs, which intensified soil erosion, reducing the grazing area. But McGovern and his colleagues believe that these explanations are not enough.

Scientists have restored the life of the Normans in Greenland over the centuries and have discovered many facts of adaptation to changing conditions. For example, on small farms, pigs were abandoned, and goats were raised more. They hunted reindeer, collected eggs from field birds. Since the XIV century, seals have been hunted, according to archaeologists. At that time, the settlers' diet consisted of 80 percent of seafood.

Life on the island was hard. No forest - you cannot build ships and repair old boats. There were not enough people, manual labor prevailed, every now and then teeth had to be used as a working tool. Due to the cold snap, which many associate with the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia, the summer period has decreased and storms have intensified. The coastline has changed due to rising ocean levels. There was nothing to feed the cattle. In addition, there was more ice near the coast, which reduced the number of seals that lived there. Difficult ice conditions also impeded production during the migration period.

Yet the Norman settlers manured and expanded pastures to conserve livestock, built irrigation facilities, set up storage facilities, and moved farms to more suitable locations. In the XIV century, a temple was built in the Eastern settlement, which indicates the strengthening of ties with the homeland. In general, everything indicates that people did not consider life in Greenland as something temporary, they thoroughly mastered the island, adapted to its harsh nature, and sought the status of a colony. What, then, is the cause of the decline?

There were suggestions that the Vikings in Greenland were wiped out by a plague brought from Europe. However, archaeologists find no confirmation of this. There is a version that the descendants of the settlers, who were replaced by about 15 generations, degenerated due to closely related marriages. The article by Goering and Kozhukhova discusses the hypothesis of vitamin D deficiency, a problem common to all northern peoples. The indigenous population compensates for it with an abundance of fatty fish in the diet, but the Vikings adhered to the European diet, which affected health, in particular, the prevalence of rickets. Another likely cause is conflicts with Inuit who are much more prepared for the Arctic. And finally, a drought, traces of which were discovered by scientists at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (USA), analyzing the sediments of a lake in southern Greenland.

Now scientists are more and more inclined to believe that a combination of historical, cultural and natural factors led to the collapse, which the descendants of the Vikings could not resist all at once. There was no mass emigration from the island, otherwise the evidence would have been preserved in the archives. This means that the settlers either left for many decades, on ships arriving every year from Europe, or gradually died out.

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