The Greenland Vikings thrived for around 350 years. But when emissary Ivar Bårdsson checked in on them in 1340 he found a ghost town: not a single member of the settlement remained and the cattle were roaming free.
Why were the Vikings in Greenland?
The Vikings were famous explorers, and, just over a thousand years ago, they settled in Greenland. Back then, the conditions were much the same as they were used to back home. The Vikings made a good show of life in Greenland for several centuries. They farmed, fished, and built churches. But then something went drastically wrong.
What happened to the Lost Vikings?
The Greenland Vikings’ fate has long been a mystery, but modern archaeology has shed light on what may have happened. Turns out, a cross between climate change and poor choices brought about catastrophe for the Vikings in Greenland – sound familiar?
I think this is such a fascinating story, and so relevant. The Greenland Vikings – like us – were facing big changes and they needed to adapt. Perhaps it was their failure to change that ultimately killed them.
Archaeologists picking through the ruins unearthed a tale of starvation and death in the abandoned settlement.
The bones of a newborn calf and a hunting dog, discovered in a kitchen and covered in knife marks, show that the people were so starved and desperate that they butchered the very animals that would have been vital to the future of a thriving community.
Fossilised flies are another clue. In the early days, the cold-loving, carrion-eating flies lived in the larder. Later, these flies moved into the living spaces and bedrooms – proving to today’s clever scientists that the famished Vikings died in their beds.
Adapt or die: what doomed the Vikings in Greenland
A combination of factors caused these once thriving people to die out and vanish:
- The weather was good at first, but it got gradually colder. Greenland was hit by a small ice age (we know this from the Vikings’ tooth enamel). Despite this, the Vikings refused to adopt the unfashionable animal skins that their neighbouring Inuits wore. Yep, that’s right. Bad fashion had a hand in killing the stubborn Greenland Vikings.
- Hay crops began to fail (fossilised beetles tell us as much), leaving the cattle to starve. The Vikings had also over-grazed the land, letting their cattle diminish the ground cover and native plants. Harsh winds blew away the delicate layer of soil and the land was no longer fertile. Soil erosion affects many countries today.
- Despite these setbacks, they kept trying to raise cattle and sheep as they had always done. With nearly 700 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see that they should have let go of their traditions and adapted to the new conditions loooooong before the shhh hit the fan. But they were stuck in their ways.
- Perhaps most stupidly of all, the hungry Vikings refused to learn from their hunting, fishing neighbours, the Inuits. Inuits had been in Greenland for less time, but they used their superb survival skills to ride out the global cooling. Archaeologists believe that the Church banned the Vikings from hobnobbing with the heathen Inuits.
The Vikings went hungry, while the Inuit had more food than they could eat.– The Lost Vikings
What can we learn from the Greenland Vikings?
These people had an environmentally expensive way of life. While fish, seal, walrus, polar bear and whale (the staple diet of the Inuit) were abundant, the Vikings were watching their cattle stocks dwindle on barren grassland, and doing nothing about it.
They quickly chopped down what little woodland they had (mostly to build grand churches), which meant they had to import wood – at great cost – from back home. They also sent expensive tithes back to the church, and buried one of their bishops with a mountain of gold that might have been better spent on oh… say… food.
According to recent archaeological evidence, they did eat wild foods. But it seems that they adapted too late. While the Vikings were getting sick and dying young, the Inuit were thriving. From what we can tell, the Vikings’ fundamental beliefs stopped them from integrating with their well-fed neighbours and getting the low-down on survival in Greenland – Inuit style.
Now, I’m not saying we should all don caribou suits and become hunter gatherers (though I know lots of you will totally be into that).
But we do know we need to change. The word from the experts is that we need to eat a lot less meat, cut down our commutes, shop organic, and stop with the plastic already. A few of our firmly-held beliefs and traditions are downright threatening to our way of life.
Modern farming methods deplete soil nutrients (and the nutrients in our food) and contribute to the loss of native plants and insects. Large cattle stocks also produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Deforestation leads to soil erosion. Like the Vikings, we need to change how we eat, to produce sustainable food that nourishes us without depleting the environment around us and creating tons of waste.
It’s time to change. Adapt or die; don’t be a Greenland Viking.
- The Lost Vikings (video)
- What Environmental Data Can Tell Us About the Greenland Vikings
- Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?