21 November 2016

Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear? - Part I

This lengthy, interesting article from Science Magazine has been divided into two parts. I will post the final half of the article next week. NOTE: As always, I encourage the reader to click on the title link for the entire unabridged article.

I have a bulletin for the reader of this article - the archaeologists still do not know what happened to the Greenland Norse. This is just another theory from a group that frequently experiences problems with employment. They must continually come up with something new, otherwise, why would we need them at all?

First of all the Norse settled Greenland  in 985 AD, not 1000 CE as stated in this article. Of course, perhaps a 115-year error no longer means anything to the community of archaeologists. The author corrected the error later in his text, using the correct year for settlement as 985AD, but why use the year 1000CE at all, because it is wrong?

For those readers who might not know where CE - Current Epoch - came from, I will explain. CE is the politically correct means of denoting the age of a period in history to some in the current crop of archaeologists, so the socialists among them do not have to acknowledge the existence of God and the birth of Jesus Christ - AD - Ante Domini - Latin for Year of the Lord. I don't know what that crowd uses to denote BC - Before Christ, nor do I care.
Some left wing archaeologist, for something to do you know - that employment thing again - decided to try to change the term for the politically correct folks and other atheists. Most of the rest of us do not pay any attention  to that attempt.

But I digress - nobody will ever know what happened to the Greenland Norse, or why they abandoned their last settlement sometime in the 15th century - food scarcity, severe winter weather, nobody knows. The other two known settlements - Middle and Western - were abandoned centuries before the folks of the Eastern Settlement finally gave up and followed their compatriots south. The Mini- Ice Age, or Maunder Minimum had swept down over the North land and by the 15th century savage winters were the norm in the northern hemisphere. Since the Norse did not or could not adapt sufficiently to that onslaught to survive they had no choice but to flee while they still could.

So, take the content of this otherwise informative article with a grain a salt, because like all such articles it tries to further an agenda rather than just reporting the same old stale facts as they are currently known. A great deal of sleuthing has occurred on the various Greenland digs, and that data is very useful, but after all the data is quantified they are still left with a theory which will never be proven.

Archaeology does not know where the Norse went when they left Greenland for good. There is no documentation that they returned to Iceland or Norway. Did they even possess ships at that time capable of that arduous sea voyage across the North Atlantic? If they did have seaworthy ships the timber would have had to come from North America because Greenland never had any ship building timber of any kind, except for scattered stands of dwarf birch quickly consumed by their livestock.

One must always remember that not a single document written by the Norse Greenlandic people themselves is known to exist, so any contentions about them are just that, contentions. I challenge anybody who thinks otherwise to produce one shred of original Greenland Norse documentation.

As I have postulated in my Axe of Iron historical fiction novel series, I think they all went to North America, and they had been doing so for the entire 500-year history of their Greenland settlements. And, why not? North America was close to Greenland and they already knew all about it from a 500-year association. Archaeology may never admit to this theory, but it makes a great deal of sense, given that the Norse people of Greenland eventually had little to no association with Europe when they finally disappeared(Ed.)


Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?
By Eli KintischNov. 10, 2016 , 9:00 AM

In 1721, missionary Hans Egede sailed a ship called The Hope from Norway to Greenland, seeking Norse farmers whom Europeans hadn't heard from in 200 years in order to convert them to Protestantism. He explored iceberg-dotted fjords that gave way to gentle valleys, and silver lakes that shimmered below the massive ice cap. But when he asked the Inuit hunters he met about the Norse, they showed him crumbling stone church walls: the only remnants of 500 years of occupation. "What has been the fate of so many human beings, so long cut off from all intercourse with the more civilized world?" Egede wrote in an account of the journey. "Were they destroyed by an invasion of the natives … [or] perished by the inclemency of the climate, and the sterility of the soil?"

Archaeologists still wonder today. No chapter of Arctic history is more mysterious than the disappearance of these Norse settlements sometime in the 15th century. Theories for the colony's failure have included everything from sinister Basque pirates to the Black Plague. But historians have usually pinned most responsibility on the Norse themselves, arguing that they failed to adapt to a changing climate. The Norse settled Greenland from Iceland during a warm period around 1000 C.E. But even as a chilly era called the Little Ice Age set in, the story goes, they clung to raising livestock and church-building while squandering natural resources like soil and timber. Meanwhile, the seal-hunting, whale-eating Inuit survived in the very same environment.

Over the last decade, however, new excavations across the North Atlantic have forced archaeologists to revise some of these long-held views. An international research collective called the North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) has accumulated precise new data on ancient settlement patterns, diet, and landscape. The findings suggest that the Greenland Norse focused less on livestock and more on trade, especially in walrus ivory, and that for food they relied more on the sea than on their pastures. There's no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest.

The Arctic Frontier

Norse colonists established settlements in southern Greenland, often siting their farmsteads on fjords.
(Map) J. You/Science; (Data) NABO and C. Madsen

Historian Poul Holm of Trinity College in Dublin lauds the new picture, which reveals that the Greenland Norse were "not a civilization stuck in their ways." To NABO archaeologist George Hambrecht of the University of Maryland in College Park, "The new story is that they adapted but they failed anyway."

Ironically, just as this new picture is emerging, climate change once again threatens Norse settlements—or what's left of them. Organic artifacts like clothing and animal bones, preserved for centuries in the deep freeze of the permafrost, are decaying rapidly as rising temperatures thaw the soil. "It's horrifying. Just at the time we can do something with all this data, it is disappearing under our feet," Holm says.

In 1976, a bushy-bearded Thomas McGovern, then 26, arrived for the first time on the grassy shore of a fjord in southern Greenland, eager to begin work on his Ph.D. in archaeology. The basic Norse timeline had already been established. In the ninth century, the advances in seafaring technology that enabled Scandinavian Vikings to raid northern and central Europe also opened the way for the Norse, as they came to be known in their later, peaceful incarnations, to journey west to Iceland. If the unreliable Icelandic Sagas, written centuries later, are to be believed, an enterprising Icelander named Erik the Red led several ships to Greenland around 985 C.E. The Norse eventually established two settlements, with hundreds of farms and more than 3000 settlers at their peak. But by 1400, the settlement on the island's western coast had been abandoned, according to radiocarbon dates, and by 1450 the inhabitants in the Eastern Settlement on the island's southern tip were gone as well.

Data gathered in the 1980s by McGovern and others suggested that the colonies were doomed by "fatal Norse conservatism in the face of fluctuating resources," as McGovern, now at Hunter College in New York City, wrote at the time. The Norse considered themselves farmers, he and others thought, tending hay fields despite the short growing season and bringing dairy cows and sheep from Iceland. A 13th century Norwegian royal treatise called The King's Mirror lauds Greenland's suitability for farming: The sun has "sufficient strength, where the ground is free from ice, to warm the soil so that the earth yields good and fragrant grass."

Timeline: Fighting the big chill

Environmental data show that Greenland's climate worsened during the Norse colonization. In response, the Norse turned from their struggling farms to the sea for food before finally abandoning their settlements.

Environmental data show that Greenland's climate worsened during the Norse colonization. In response, the Norse turned from their struggling farms to the sea for food before finally abandoning their settlements.

1450 Eastern Settlement ends.

900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500


Winter temperatures dropped below the long-term average by more than a degree halfway through the 5-century occupation, according to oxygen isotope data in cores taken from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

1°CLong-term average-1°C


Measurements of salt particles in ice cores suggest that storminess rose toward the end of the occupation, perhaps making voyages to hunt and trade walrus ivory even more dangerous.


Proportion of marine food in diet

As conditions for farming worsened, the Norse shifted to a more marine diet, as shown by carbon isotopes in bones found in archaeological sites in the Eastern and Western settlements.

J. You/ Science; Data:“Climatic signals in multiple highly resolved stable isotope records from Greenland,” Vinther et al, 3 November 2009; “Norse Greenland settlement,” Dugmore et al., 2007; “Human diet and subsistence patterns in Norse Greenland AD c.980–AD c.1450,” Arneborg et al. 2012

Bone samples suggest that even small farms kept a cow or two, a sign of status back in Norway, and written records mention dairy products including cheese, milk, and a yogurt called skyr as essential parts of the diet. "There were no activities more central to Norse identity than farming," archaeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., wrote in 2000.
Geographer Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, popularized this view in his 2005 bestseller, Collapse. The Norse "damaged their environment" as they had done in Iceland, Diamond asserted, based on analyses of dust that suggested erosion caused by felling trees, agriculture, and turf cutting. While foolishly building churches with costly bronze bells, Diamond said, Greenland's Norse "refused to learn" Arctic hunting techniques from the Inuit, who hunted seals and fish year-round. He noted grisly evidence of calamity at a few sites in the Western Settlement: bones of pet dogs with cut marks on them, suggesting hunger; and the remains of insects that feast on corpses, suggesting too few survivors to bury their loved ones. "Every one of [the Norse] ended up dead," Diamond said in 2008.

This narrative held sway for years. Yet McGovern and others had found hints back in the 1980s that the Norse didn't entirely ignore Greenland's unique ecology. Even Diamond had noted that bones of seals comprised 60% to 80% of the bones from trash heaps, called middens, found at small Norse farms. (He believed, though, that only the poorer settlers ate seal meat.) Written sources reported that the Norse routinely rowed up to 1500 kilometers to walrus migratory grounds near Disko Bay in western Greenland. They returned with countless walrus snouts, whose ivory tusks they removed and prepared for trade with Europe. The Norse paid tithe to the Norwegian king and to the Catholic Church in ivory, and traded it with European merchants for supplies like iron, boat parts, and wood. But McGovern dismissed the walrus hunt as "a curious adjunct," he recalls, echoing the scholarly consensus that farming was central.

End of Part I. Part II to be continued next week...

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