12 January 2013

Greenland Is Still Too Cold for the Vikings

Around the time the Vikings disappear from the island’s archaeological record, temperature appears to have plunged. _Source
The Vikings had things very nice in Greenland for a few hundred years, during the medieval warm period -- a warm period just as warm or warmer than modern times. It was so warm during that time, that the Vikings were able to grow barley, for beer.
We know that the little ice age cooled the Greenland climate to a point where the Viking's traditional foods and livestock were more difficult to grow. But were there other reasons why the Vikings packed up and went back to Iceland?
When settlement began in the early 11th century, only between 20 and 30 percent of their diet came from the sea. But seal hunting played a growing role in the ensuing centuries. "They ate more and more seal meat, with the animals constituting up to 80 percent of their diet in the 14th century," explains team member Jan Heinemeier, a dating expert from the University of Aarhus, in Denmark.

His fellow team member Niels Lynnerup, an anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Copenhagen, confirms that the Vikings of Greenland had plenty to eat even as the climate grew colder. "Perhaps they were just sick and tired of living at the ends of the earth and having almost nothing but seals to eat," he says.

The bone analyses show that they rarely ate meat from their own herds of livestock. The climate had become harsher on the island starting in the mid-13th century. Summer temperatures fell, violent storms raged around the houses and the winters were bone-chillingly cold. For the cattle that had been brought to Greenland, there was less and less to eat in the pastures and meadows along the fjords.

On the smaller farms, cattle were gradually replaced with sheep and goats, which were easier to rear. The isotope analyses show that pigs, valued for their meat, were fed fish and seal remains for a while longer but had disappeared from the island by around 1300...

...if it wasn't starvation or disease, what triggered the abandonment of the Greenland settlements in the second half of the 15th century? The scientists suspect that a combination of causes made life there unbearable for the Scandinavian immigrants. For instance, there was hardly any demand anymore for walrus tusks and seal skins, the colony's most important export items. What's more, by the mid-14th century, regular ship traffic with Norway and Iceland had ceased.

As a result, Greenland's residents were increasingly isolated from their mother countries. Although they urgently needed building lumber and iron tools, they could now only get their hands on them sporadically. "It became more and more difficult for the Greenlanders to attract merchants from Europe to the island," speculates Jette Arneborg, an archeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. "But, without trade, they couldn't survive in the long run." _Spiegel.de
The Spiegel article above cites archaelogical research that suggests that the abandonment of Greenland was more of a tactical retreat than a "dieoff." The young women had long since been packed off for greener pastures, there were no more babies, and toward the end of the colony, it was apparently only the die-hard old cobbers who remained.

It is only relatively recently that the glacial ice has melted back to allow a better examination of crops and wild forage and forest that grew on the edge of Viking settlements. In other words, Greenland is just now recovering from the icy ravages of the deep freeze conditions of the Little Ice Age.

In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.

...In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.

However, the Greenlanders didn't leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. "If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago," says Lynnerup. _Spiegel.de
Lately, it is beginning to warm up again on Greenland -- although cattle and barley growers have been slow to jump at the opportunity to put in new herds and crops there.

Perhaps Greenland is still just too cold -- even for the Vikings and Vikings at heart.

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Blogger Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

From what I read cod was a major source of protein for the Vikings. In part, because it could be dried and stored for long periods of time. The Little Ice Age cooled ocean water to where cod moved farther South, out of range to where the Viking could fish for them.

Sunday, 13 January, 2013  
Blogger Matt M said...

I think the Vikings went home for beer.

Monday, 14 January, 2013  

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