Greenland: The Lost Viking Colony
What Happened to the Norse Settlers of Greenland?
by J. M. Pressley
First published: April 29, 2009
What happened to the Norse settlers of Greenland? A millennium later, we can still only guess.
Most Americans are familiar with the fabled Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Established in 1587, it was the first intended permanent English settlement of the New World. The subsequent disappearance of its settlers is one of the enduring mysteries of North America. However, that was neither the first nor the most established European colony lost to history. Decades before Columbus sailed west, a centuries-old Norse enclave in Greenland simply vanished, leaving few clues as to its fate.
Greenland was the icy, westernmost frontier of Europe, manned by ever-adventurous Norsemen with a yearning for land. Erik the Red sailed there in 985 with the first group of Viking settlers from Iceland. They settled primarily in two spots: the more populous Eastern Settlement at the tip of the island, and the Western Settlement nestled in a coastal fjord some 300 miles to the northwest. The new Greelanders set about building their traditional farmsteads and eking a hardscrabble living from the land.
Life on Greenland remained largely unchanged for the Norse colonists for more than 400 years. They tended their farms, raised domestic livestock, and generally seemed to ignore the Inuit (who they called skraeling), who arrived slightly later in Greenland. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the colony consisted of nearly 300 farms and numerous churches with a population between 4,000 and 5,000 settlers. Yet Greenland was to become more isolated from Europe as trade restrictions and a cooling climate began to limit their contact with the continent. Finally, at some point in the fifteenth century, the end manifested itself.
Their end appears to have been gradual, even if the sporadic news makes it seem sudden. The last mention of the Western Settlement is around 1350. Ivar Barderson, a church emissary from the Eastern Settlement, made the journey northwest (near present-day Nuuk) only to encounter abandoned farmsteads and "some wild cattle and sheep." Further south, however, the Eastern Settlement was still surviving; the last news from Greenland is a wedding recorded in September of 1408 at the church in Hvalsey. After that, however, the colony goes silent.
So what did happen to all those settlers? Earlier theories focus on a complete breakdown in the food chain caused by the climate shift and overgrazing, the settlers' relationship with the Inuit (whether they were in conflict with them or eventually assimilated), a plague epidemic, migration to North America, and even perhaps massacre and kidnapping by pirates. All of these explanation fall short under scrutiny given the available evidence. While there is no shortage of theories, definitive answers are hard to come by even today.
Modern excavations have at least managed to tell us much about the Viking way of life on Greenland. Archaeologists have over 400 stone ruins, numerous middens (trash heaps), and roughly 350 sets of remains to help piece together the puzzle. What the evidence depicts is a harsh lifestyle marked by changes to which the settlers seemingly refused to adapt. In all likelihood, it was a combination of scenarios that led to the colony's demise. The most recent theories take multiple factors into account and indicate an increasingly desperate plight, as detailed below.
The first colonists arrived in Greenland to find a mild climate suitable for the pasture farming of their native lands. The colony flourished throughout the 1200s, though life there was by no means easy—the average lifespan among the remains examined on Greenland is from 30-35 years. The remains also confirm that the settlers lived through a dramatic cooling shift in the climate in the 1300s, the effects of which were first felt by the Western Settlement. Unlike the Inuit, who noticeably adapted to those changes, the settlers defiantly attempted to maintain their farming culture.
Meanwhile, the deforestation and overgrazing of sheep and goats continued to erode the limited topsoil. Whatever arable land wasn't lost to the advancing icecaps was literally blown away on the wind. Eventually, the settlers could no longer rely on their farms and livestock for subsistence. Analysis of the middens shows that their diet shifted over time; seafood and local game, including seal, went from approximately 20% of the settler's diet to near 80% as conditions worsened. On one farm excavation site, researchers discovered the bones of the family's hunting dog with butcher marks upon them, a clear sign of the desperate straits the colonists experienced.
Further examination of their remains points to an uptick in disease—and a disproportionate toll on the female and infant population. At the same time, the cooling climate and the impact of the Black Death on Norway and Iceland doomed the trade that could have provided them with a lifeline of supplies when the colony could no longer sustain itself. Their crops failed, their breeding livestock dwindled, and their wives and children died off; the colonists would seem to have succumbed inexorably to the elements.
And therein the lasting mystery lies. The overwhelming majority of the remains discovered in the settlements are graveyard burials. These are the product of an orderly, functioning society. Those colonists that must have remained at the end left no trace. Perhaps they did try to escape their deteriorating conditions in the treacherous North Atlantic waters. They may have returned quietly to their ancestral homelands—or met their doom at sea. Whatever their ultimate fate, the Vikings of Greenland have left us with abandoned ruins and abiding questions.