Vanished Vikings

For half a millennium, followers of Erik the Red thrived in Greenland and sailed to North America. Then they mysteriously disappeared. Why?

By Sarah Richardson|Wednesday, March 01, 2000
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY


About a millennium ago, legends tell us, a Viking named Leif Eriksson sailed to the shores of North America, arriving hundreds of years ahead of Christopher Columbus. Even though archaeologists have yet to uncover any physical evidence of Eriksson's visit, the presumption that a Viking band traveled that far has gained credibility in recent years. Excavations in Greenland indicate that Vikings flourished there for hundreds of years, trading with the European continent and probably Native American tribes, before inexplicably disappearing. That is a longer and more complicated story than a single bold voyage by an explorer like Eriksson, but it is still the sort of tale on which great legends have been built.

A central figure in this historical drama was Eriksson's father, Erik the Red, who grew up in Iceland after his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was exiled from Norway around 965 for "some killings." When Erik was a child, Iceland already boasted a well-established colony of Vikings who had fled a land squeeze in Norway and the iron rule of King Harald Fairhair. In 980, Erik the Red headed even farther west when he was banished from Iceland--for murder. He set sail for land that was visible west of Iceland. Three years later, he returned to Iceland and convinced hundreds of others to join him in settling this new country. Some 25 boats set out for what Erik the Red had dubbed Greenland. Only 14 ships survived the seas, but about 450 new colonists set foot ashore.

The land they saw before them was bare, uninhabited, and inhospitable, but Erik the Red's advertisements were not entirely false. A thin green carpet of arctic heath promised support for grazing farm animals. Farms sprang up quickly and, later, churches. One colony, simply called the Eastern Settlement, sat in the toe of Greenland; the Western Settlement lay close to what is now Nuuk, Greenland's capital.

Despite what would have been at best harsh living conditions, the Greenland Vikings' outposts began to thrive. It was at least a week's hard sail to the Norwegian coast, but the number of colonists multiplied. Archaeologists estimate that at one point perhaps 3,000 Vikings lived on the island. Then something went wrong, and all of them vanished. The mystery of their fate was rekindled in 1721 when a Danish-Norwegian missionary who set out to convert Eskimos decided to look for traces of the old Viking settlers. His findings began an inquiry that has intensified over time. Despite significant progress unearthing ancient settlements, archaeologists still haven't found an answer. Was it plague, cold, hunger, conflict with Eskimos, or sheer hardship that finished off these stalwart pioneers? Life in Greenland

Settling Greenland posed a formidable challenge. There are no trees large enough to produce timber for shelter or fuel. The only wood is small brush and driftwood. The Vikings settled inland, on fjords resembling those of their homeland. There they built homes of driftwood, stone, and sod. For adequate insulation, the walls of some buildings were made six to 10 feet thick.

At one of the most well-excavated Western Settlement sites, called the "farm beneath the sand," archaeologists have turned up detailed evidence of the Viking way of life in Greenland. Caribou hunters who noticed timbers poking out of sandy soil discovered the site in 1990. They contacted the Greenland National Museum and Archives, and archaeologists set to work meticulously removing 1,000 tons of sand by hand to get a close look at the site. One structure is the remains of a great hall once lined with benches. Archaeologists estimate that to create a structure of that size with walls of sod required stripping more than 1,000 square meters of turf.

Shelter, food, and clothing were, of course, essential to survival. The summer was too short to farm grain crops, so settlers probably went without beer or bread. Although they farmed domesticated animals imported from Europe--goats, sheep, cattle--the settlers ate them sparingly, relying instead on secondary products, such as milk and cheese. In the early days, the Greenlanders' lives differed little from those of their compatriots in Scandinavia. They netted fish and hunted seal and caribou. They wove clothing from wool and linen, sometimes adding the fur of the arctic hare. Some materials used to make their clothing were exotic, such as bison hair that likely came from trade with Native Americans.

For about two centuries, Greenland's Vikings had the country to themselves. Yet life was by no means easy, and they relied on a fragile trade with Scandinavia to survive. In exchange for iron, timber, and grain from Europe, they traded pelts of bear and arctic fox as well as narwhale tusks and rope made of walrus hide. Whalebone, too, was traded to Europeans for use in stiffening clothes. According to one account, the Greenlanders even traded live polar bears. They may also have ventured to North America for timber. The remains of Viking structures at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland testify to a short-lived presence there. Unlike southern Greenland in the tenth century, North America was already populated, and newcomers may not have been welcome. The Settlements Go Extinct

At some point during the fourteenth century, Greenland's climate grew colder. With the climate change, glaciers began creeping over the land, bringing with them a runoff of sand, silt, and gravel. That runoff slowly robbed the settlers of valuable pastureland. To make matters worse, says Danish archaeologist Jette Arneborg, the Black Death had decimated Norway, wiping out nearly two thirds of the population. The plague hit Iceland, too, killing some 30 percent. Although there is still no evidence the sickness reached Greenland, archaeologists believe it left its mark by curtailing the flourishing trade.

The Greenlanders adapted. Recent evidence shows that their diet shifted from land-based foods to marine products. Researchers measured this shift by examining the ratio of two forms of carbon--a common form with 12 neutrons and a rare form with 13--in the bones of 27 settlers from different time periods. The count reveals variations in the way forms of carbon are deposited and metabolized in food chains in the ocean and on land. Like their kin in Norway, the Vikings in Greenland had always exploited marine life but, by the close of the fourteenth century, the proportion of their food taken from the sea had risen to 80 percent.

Between 1100 and 1200 A.D., as the colder weather arrived, so did the Thules. These Native Americans, migrants from the area surrounding the Bering Strait began trickling eastward from Ellesmere Island, just northwest of Greenland. Some researchers have speculated that Greenland Vikings may have met and intermingled with them, but researchers examining skulls found at Viking sites have found no traces of Native American morphology. Others theorize that the Vikings clashed with the Thules, as recounted in Native American legends. It's more likely that an uneasy trade between the two groups sprang up and, as living conditions grew harsher for the Vikings, the better-adapted Thules thrived.

The Western Settlement was abandoned by 1350 and the Eastern Settlement by 1500. Among the last written records of the Vikings in Greenland is a record of a Christian wedding ceremony at Hvalsey Church in the Eastern Settlement. Celebrating youth, optimism, and prosperity, it is wistful proof of the dreams Vikings had in settling this barren and young new world. When asked what became of them, Arneborg says she thinks they struggled mightily to adapt to the increasingly difficult conditions. But as the weather worsened and life became even harsher, some may have returned to Iceland. And it's easy to imagine that, as trade dwindled, the settlements may have become so depopulated the colonists simply were unable to replace themselves. "The southern part of Greenland can be terrible," says Arneborg. "Storms show up in a minute. I would never be able to do it.".







For more about ongoing research in Greenland, see the Danish Polar Center's Web site www.dpc.dk or the National Museum of Denmark's Web site www.natmus.min.dk/arg/CultHistGreenl/ norse/al_norse.htm.

 
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