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Rise and fall of Norse settlements in Greenland (s.c.nordic texts)
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Rise and fall of Norse settlements in Greenland



From: Neil Savage <savage@tle.enet.dec.com>
Subject: Rise and fall of Norse settlements in Greenland
Newsgroups: soc.culture.nordic
Date: 5 DEC 96 12:33:05 EST
Message-ID: <5870v2$efu$1@nntpd.lkg.dec.com>
Organization: Digital Equipment Corporation

[ The following account was taken from an article by John and Mary Gribbin, entitled "Climate and history: the Westviking's saga" that appears in the magazine New Scientist, pp 52-55, 20 January 1990. ]


The story of the Viking voyagers has been embroidered down the centuries, but large chunks of what seem to be genuine history are to be found in the sagas, the oral histories of those days, written down and preserved centuries later. The Landnam Saga tells of the first settlements in Iceland, and the Greenlander Saga tells of the first voyages and settlements farther west.

...

The sagas tell that Norse voyagers were blown off course and reached Iceland by mistake in the 850s. The first attempt at a Norse settlement there, led by a farmer, Floki Vilgerdason, took place in the 860s. As we know from the record in the ice cores, Floki's band of adventurous farmers arrived in the lands of the North Atlantic at the end of a run of cold decades in the middle of the little optimum [a period of relative climatic warmth - TT]. He lost his cattle in a severe winter, and came home to Scandinavia with tales of "a fjord filled up by ice." as the Landnam Saga records. As so, the saga continues, "he called the country Iceland".

Ironically, this is just about the last mention of sea ice near Iceland for 300 years. In the 870s, the North Atlantic was warming up, and other settlers following Floki's wake found Iceland much more hospitable. They established a thriving colony, in spite of the island's name.

Over the next couple of centuries, in the warmth of the little optimum, some Norse travelers voyaged to the Mediterranean, trading with Italy and the Arab world. Others, following the great river systems, moved far into continental Europe, where they helped to found the state that became Russia. Some even followed the rivers south and east as far as Byzantium. From 900 to 1100, if Europe belonged to anyone, it belonged to the Norse. They very nearly established permanent colonies in America, as well.

Floki and the farmers who followed him had not been Vikings in the true sense of the word, although they must have been rather tougher that the average farmer in Europe today. But the next stage in the sagas of the Westvikings fully lives up to their bloodthirsty image.

In 960, back in Norway, a rather nasty character called Thorvald Asvaldsson killed a man and was forced to flee to Iceland, taking his family with him. A hundred years after Floki's ill-fated voyage, the settlement was well established, and the good land in the south of the island was all occupied. Thorvald had to make do with poor land in the north. But his son, Erik, married into a good family and set himself up on a better farm. He seemed set for a secure life in Iceland when a violent streak to match that of his father surfaced.

Outdoing Thorvald, Erik killed two men. In 982, he was banished from Iceland for three years, to give him time to cool down. The sagas refer to him as "Erik the Red", and it is tempting to see this as an indication of his violent temper; it may just be that he had red hair.

Erik, with a shipload of followers, headed west. He had decided to use his period of exile to explore a region that he had heard of in vague stories: islands to the west of Iceland that had only been seen by lost voyagers, more anxious to return home than to explore. The land he reached was mostly rough and rugged. But there was a deep fjord on the southwestern coast, well protected from the sea, warmed by the Gulf Stream, and with adequate land for farming nearby. Conditions were rather like those he had left behind in Iceland, and Erik called the new country Greenland.

...

Researchers now know, from the ice thermometer, that Erik arrived in Greenland near the end of a particularly warm period of the little optimum, and that the coastal region where he landed must have been green and fertile, by the standards of Icelanders at that time.

...

Once they had settled in Greenland, it was probably inevitable that the Norse would also reach the mainland of North America. In fact it was Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, who led the first expeditions to explore the new land. They established at least two settlements, and, for a time, provided valuable timber for the settlers in Greenland. Leif became both rich and famous from his travels, earning the name "Leif the Lucky". But the luck of the Westvikings was about to change.

By the end of the 12th century, the little climatic optimum was past its peak. Temperatures declined by about two degrees from the relative warmth of the past few centuries to, typically, two or three degrees below freezing. When the ice came back to Greenland in full force, the Norse colonists were doomed, but not because life in that part of the world became impossible. They failed to survive because they did not adapt to the changing conditions around them.

In round terms, the Greenland colonies survived for 500 years, from 1000 to 1500, so they were far from being complete failures.

...

When the North Atlantic region cooled by about 2°C in the 13th and 14th centuries, the colonies in Greenland were affected in many adverse ways. Sea ice spread southward, making voyages to Iceland more difficult and dangerous. With the ice, the Iniut came south, into more direct conflict with the Norse. And on the farms, summer was now too short and wet to provide enough hay to see the cattle through the winter. Even the seals seemed to have changed their migratory habits, perhaps because of changes in ocean currents, removing another essential resource.

In the face of this, the Norse carried on their traditional way of life as best they could, for as long as they could. ... The Greenlander's last bishop died in 1378, and was never replaced; there was no deliberate contact with the colonies at all after 1408, although occasional ships would put in to trade or seek shelter. Archaeological studies have now shown how the the surviving members of the shrinking community carried on farming and raising cattle. The eloquent testimony of skeletons from the graveyard shows that as conditions became harsher and food more scarce, the average height of the Greenlanders declined from about 177 centimeters in Erik's day to about 164 centimeters by the 1440s.

Europeans maintained intermittent contact with the colonies during the 15th century. The last bodies laid to rest in the graveyard, preserved by the even more severe weather that followed, were dressed in styles from Europe from about 1500. Early in the 16th century, the last colonist died. In 1540, ships driven to Greenland by severe weather found no one left alive, and one dead man frozen where he had fallen.

[The article ends with several paragraphs that discuss the lesson: "adapt or die." - TT]


Viking teeth recount sad Greenland Tale

[ From Science News, November 12, 1994, Vol. 146, No. 19, Pg 310 Author: R. Monastersky ]

Although 500-year-old corpses can't describe their deaths, geochemists have found a way to pull vital clues directly from the mouths of ancient Norsemen whose colony in Greenland thrived for centuries before disappearing mysteriously in the late 1400's. Studies of oxygen locked within the enamel of the Viking teeth reveal that Greenland's once balmy climate turned frigid, sealing the colony's fate.

Henry C. Fricke of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his colleagues are the first researchers to decipher information about past climates using isotopic evidence from human bodies. While geochemists often use oxygen isotopes to reconstruct conditions, they typically analyze oxygen from non-biological materials such as seafloor sediments, soil, or ancient ice.

"People are interested in humans and their relationship to climate change. If this technique works, it tells what kind of climate the humans lived under because the evidence comes directly from humans," comments Paul Koch of Princeton University.

Fricke and his colleagues tried the technique because previous studies on modern animals had shown that tooth enamel records the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in precipitation consumed by the animals during their formative years. That isotopic ratio, in turn, indicates the local temperature.

Fricke and his coworkers looked at 29 teeth uncovered at three archaeological sites in Greenland and one in Denmark. to test the technique, they documented that the isotopic ratios varied as expected with latitude. Next, the researchers looked at how ratios changed over time in souther Greenland. By comparing teeth from the year 1100 with those from 1450, they found that mean annual temperatures dropped by about 1.5C, which would have had significant effects, says Fricke. They reported their findings late last month at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle.

The tooth study corroborates other evidence linking climate to demise of the Norsemen on Greenland. The colony had flourished during the first few centuries of this millennium, but a cooling in the 1300s and an increase in icebergs hampered shipping between Greenland and Iceland, ultimately cutting off contact with Greenland. Historians believe that the colder temperatures brought food and fuel shortages. When ships again reached Greenland in the late 1400s, no living colonists remained, says Fricke.

Climate may not have worked alone, however. As the region cooled, northern Inuit moved into the Europeans' territory. Anthropologists have wondered whether conflict with the Inuit helped extinguish the Norse colony.



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