Lost Norse of Greenland Fueled the Medieval Ivory Trade, Ancient Walrus DNA Suggests

Lost Norse of Greenland Fueled the Medieval Ivory Trade, Ancient Walrus DNA Suggests

The Icelandic Sagas tell of Erik the Red: exiled for murder in the late 10th century he fled to southwest Greenland, establishing its first Norse settlement.

The colony took root, and by the mid-12th century there were two major settlements with a population of thousands. Greenland even gained its own bishop.

By the end of the 15th century, however, the Norse of Greenland had vanished -- leaving only abandoned ruins and an enduring mystery.

Reproduction of Brattahlíð Norse church in Greenland, Erik the Red's estate in the Eastern Settlement Viking colony. (claire rowland/ CC BY 2.0 )

Past theories as to why these communities collapsed include a change in climate and a hubristic adherence to failing farming techniques.

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Some have suggested that trading commodities -- most notably walrus tusks -- with Europe may have been vital to sustaining the Greenlanders. Ornate items including crucifixes and chess pieces were fashioned from walrus ivory by craftsmen of the age. However, the source of this ivory has never been empirically established.

Now, researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo have studied ancient DNA from offcuts of tusks and skulls, most found on the sites of former ivory workshops across Europe, in order to trace the origin of the animals used in the medieval trade.

A walrus rostrum (upper jaw bone) with tusks used in the study. It can be dated to c.1200-1400 AD based on the characteristics of a runic inscription in Old Norse. ( Musées du Mans )

In doing so they have discovered an evolutionary split in the walrus, and revealed that the Greenland colonies may have had a "near monopoly" on the supply of ivory to Western Europe for over two hundred years.

For the latest study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B , the research team analysed walrus samples found in several medieval trading centres -- Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig and Sigtuna -- mostly dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

The DNA showed that, during the last Ice Age, the Atlantic walrus divided into two ancestral lines, which researchers term "eastern" and "western." Walruses of the eastern lineage are widespread across much of the Arctic, including Scandinavia. Those of the western, however, are unique to the waters between western Greenland and Canada.

Population distribution, potential trade routes, and sample locations of Atlantic walrus in the northern Atlantic region. The range of modern Atlantic walrus ( dark grey ) and dispersal routes ( black arrows ). ( Star et al. 2018 )

Finds from the early years of the ivory trade were mostly from the eastern lineage. Yet as demand grew from the 12th century onwards, the research team discovered that Europe's ivory supply shifted almost exclusively to tusks from the western lineage.

They say that ivory from western linage walruses must have been supplied by the Norse Greenlanders -- by hunting and perhaps also by trade with the indigenous peoples of Arctic North America.

"The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe -- a near monopoly even," said Dr James H. Barrett, study co-author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

Walrus cows and yearlings (short tusks). Photo courtesy USFWS. ( Public Domain )

"The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.

"Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church," said Barrett.

He points out that the 11th to 13th centuries were a time of demographic and economic boom in Europe, with growing demand from urban centres and the elite served by transporting commodities from increasingly distant sources.

"The demands for luxury goods produced from ivory may have helped the far-flung Norse communities in Greenland survive for centuries," said Barrett.

Co-author Dr Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Oslo said: "We knew from the start that analysing ancient DNA would have the potential for new historical insights, but the findings proved to be particularly spectacular."

The new study tells us less about the end of the Greenland colonies, say Barrett and colleagues. However, they note that it is hard to find evidence of walrus ivory imports to Europe that date after 1400.

Elephant ivory eventually became the material of choice for Europe's artisans. "Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages," said Barrett.

The Jedburgh Comb, a comb found in Jedburgh Abbey. The comb was carved around 1100 from walrus ivory and this side is decorated with a griffin and a dragon. The comb only about 5 cm wide by 4.34 cm long, and is made from a single piece of walrus ivory. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Ivory exports from Greenland could have stalled for other reasons: over-hunting can cause walrus populations to abandon their coastal "haulouts"; the "Little Ice Age" -- a sustained period of lower temperatures -- began in the 14th century; the Black Death ravaged Europe.

Whatever caused the cessation of Europe's trade in walrus ivory, it must have been significant for the end of the Norse Greenlanders," said Barrett. "An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability."

The heyday of the walrus ivory trade saw the material used for exquisitely carved items during Europe's Romanesque art period. The church produced much of this, with major ivory workshops in ecclesiastical centres such as Canterbury, UK.

Ivory games were also popular. The Viking board game hnefatafl was often played with walrus ivory pieces, as was chess, with the famous Lewis chessmen among the most stunning examples of Norse carved ivory.

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The Lewis chessmen. (Ninox / CC BY NC 2.0 ) These artifacts provide one of the most stunning examples of Norse carved ivory.

Tusks were exported still attached to the walrus skull and snout, which formed a neat protective package that was broken up at workshops for ivory removal. These remains allowed the study to take place, as DNA extraction from carved artefacts would be far too damaging.

Co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo said: "Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland. Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland."

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Nansenfondet and the Research Council of Norway.

Over-hunting walruses contributed to the collapse of Norse Greenland, study suggests

The mysterious disappearance of Greenland’s Norse colonies sometime in the 15th century may have been down to the overexploitation of walrus populations for their tusks, according to a study of medieval artefacts from across Europe.

Founded by Erik the Red around 985AD after his exile from Iceland (or so the Sagas tell us), Norse communities in Greenland thrived for centuries—even gaining a bishop—before vanishing in the 1400s, leaving only ruins.

Latest research from the universities of Cambridge, Oslo and Trondheim has found that, for hundreds of years, almost all ivory traded across Europe came from walruses hunted in seas only accessible via Norse settlements in south-western Greenland.

Walrus ivory was a valuable medieval commodity, used to carve luxury items such as ornate crucifixes or pieces for games like chess and Viking favourite hnefatafl. The famous Lewis chessmen are made of walrus tusk.

However, the study also indicates that, as time wore on, the ivory came from smaller animals, often female with genetic and archaeological evidence suggesting they were sourced from ever farther north—meaning longer and more treacherous hunting voyages for less reward.

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Increasingly globalised trade saw elephant ivory flood European markets in the 13th century, and fashions changed. There is little evidence of walrus ivory imports to mainland Europe after 1400.

Dr. James H. Barrett, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, argues that the Norse abandonment of Greenland may have been precipitated by a “perfect storm” of depleted resources and volatile prices, exacerbated by climate change.

“Norse Greenlanders needed to trade with Europe for iron and timber, and had mainly walrus products to export in exchange,” said Barrett, lead author of the study published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

“We suspect that decreasing values of walrus ivory in Europe meant more and more tusks were harvested to keep the Greenland colonies economically viable.”

“Mass hunting can end the use of traditional haul-out sites by walruses. Our findings suggest that Norse hunters were forced to venture deeper into the Arctic Circle for increasingly meagre ivory harvests. This would have exacerbated the decline of walrus populations, and consequently those sustained by the walrus trade.”

Other theories for collapse of the colonies have included climate change—the “Little Ice Age”, a sustained period of lower temperatures, began in the 14th century—as well as unsustainable farming methods and even the Black Death.

“An overreliance on walrus ivory was not the only factor in Norse Greenland’s demise. However, if both the population and price of walrus started to tumble, it must have badly undermined the resilience of the settlements,” says co-author Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo. “Our study suggests the writing was on the wall.”

Analysis using carved artefacts would risk damage, so researchers examined pieces of “rostrum”: the walrus skull and snout to which tusks remained attached during shipment, creating a protective “package” that got broken up in the ivory workshops of medieval trading centres such as Dublin, Trondheim and Bergen.

In total, the team studied 67 rostra taken from sites across Europe, dating between the 11th and 15th century. Ancient DNA (25 samples) and stable isotopes (31 samples) extracted from samples of bone, as well as tusk socket size, provided clues to the animals’ sex and origins.

The stable isotope analysis was conducted by Cambridge’s Dorothy Garrod Laboratory for Isotopic Analysis, and the DNA analysis by Oslo’s Department of Biosciences.

The researchers also studied traces of “manufacturing techniques”—changing styles of butchery and skull preparation—to help place the walrus remains in history.

While impossible to determine exact provenance, the researchers detected a shift in European walrus finds around the 13th century to walruses from an evolutionary branch most prevalent in the waters around Baffin Bay.

These animals must have been hunted by sailing northwest up the Greenland coast, and more recent specimens were smaller and often female. “If the original hunting grounds of the Greenland Norse, around Disko Bay, were overexploited, they may have journeyed as far north as Smith Sound to find sufficient herds of walrus,” said Barrett.

Norse artefacts have previously been found among the remains of 13th and 14th century Inuit settlements in this most northern of regions. One former Inuit camp on an islet off Ellesmere Island contained the rivets of a Norse boat—quite possibly a hunting trip that never returned.

“Ancestors of the Inuit occupied northern Greenland during the time of the Norse colonies. They probably encountered and traded with the Norse,” said Barrett. “That pieces of a Norse boat were found so far north hints of the risks these hunters might have ended up taking in their quest for ivory.”

Barrett points out that the Inuit of the region favoured female walruses when hunting, so the prevalence of females in Greenland’s later exports could imply a growing Norse reliance on Inuit supply.

He says that hunting season for the Norse would have been short, as seas were choked with ice for much of the year. “The brief window of summer would have barely been sufficient for rowing the many hundreds of miles north and back.”

The legend of Erik the Red itself may mask what Barrett calls “ecological globalisation”: the chasing of natural resources as supply dwindles. Recent research revealed that Greenland might have been settled only after Icelandic walruses were hunted to exhaustion.

Ultimately, having been highly prized for centuries, the marbled appearance of walrus ivory fell out of favour as West African trade routes opened up, and the homogenous finish of elephant ivory became de rigueur in the 13th century.

One account suggest that in the 1120s, Norse Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure their own bishopric from the King of Norway. By 1282, however, the Pope requests his Greenland tithes be converted from walrus tusk into silver or gold.

“Despite a significant drop in value, the rostra evidence implies that exploitation of walruses may have even increased during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries,” said Barrett.

“As the Greenlanders chased depleted walrus populations ever northwards for less and less return in trade, there must have come a point where it was unsustainable. We believe this ‘resource curse’ undermined the resilience of the Greenland colonies.”

Provided by: University of Cambridge

More information: James H. Barrett et al. Ecological globalisation, serial depletion and the medieval trade of walrus rostra. Quaternary Science Reviews (2019). DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.106122

Image: Church ruins from Norse Greenland’s Eastern Settlement.
Credit: James H. Barrett

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1 Recent examples include Jette Arneborg, ‘Det europæiske landnam: Nordboerne i Grønland’, in Hans Christian Gulløv, ed., Grønlands forhistorie, København: Gyldendal, 2004, pp. 221–78 (which accepts Roesdahl’s hypothesis on pp. 277–278) and Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, New York: Viking, 2005, pp. 178–276, 436–7.

2 Inge Bødkter Enghoff, ‘Hunting, fishing and animal husbandry at the Farm Beneath the Sand, Western Greenland’, Meddelelser om Grønland: Man and Society, 28, 2003, pp. 15, 30, 91. Many of the finds made during those excavations have not yet been analysed there will be further Danish reports on the topic.

3 See, e.g., Thomas H. McGovern, ‘The economics of extinction’, in T. M. Wrigley, M. J. Ingram, and G. Farmer, eds., Climate and history: studies in past climates and their impact on man, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 404–29 Kirsten Hastrup, ‘Sæters in Iceland, 900–1600’, Acta Borealia 6, 1, 1989, pp. 72–85.

4 See, e.g., Niels Lynnerup, ‘The Greenland Norse: a biological-anthropological study’, Meddelelser om Grønland 24, 1998, pp. 126–8.

5 Valkendorf’s expedition (which never took place) received a papal indulgence dated 17 June 1514 (Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 17, pp. 1260, 1263).

6 Roesdahl , Else , Hvalrostand, elfenben og nordboerne i Grønland , Odense : Odense Universitetsforlag , 1995 Google Scholar idem, ‘L’ivoire de morse et les colonies norroises du Groenland’, Proxima Thule: Revue d’Études Nordiques, 3, 1998, pp. 9–48.

7 For more on the taxonomic confusion involving northern marine species, see Kirsten A. Seaver, ‘“A very common and usuall trade”: the relationship between cartographic perceptions and fishing in the Davis Strait c.1500–1550’, British Library Journal, 22, 1, 1996, pp. 1–24, reproduced in Karen Severud Cook, ed., Images and icons of the New World: essays on American cartography, London: British Library Publications, 1996, pp. 1–26.

8 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 10, p. 30, letter to Ægidius Correnbitter in Bruges from Bishop Hákon in Bergen, 29 September 1338 Henrik Ludvigsson’s will, 8 May 1346, in Diplomatarium Suecanum, vol. 5, p. 4074.

9 Jordanes, The gothic history of Jordanes, trans. and with commentary by Charles Christopher Mierow, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915, p. 56 Tacitus, Germania, trans. and with commentary by J. B. Rives, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, pp. 31–3, 36–7, 40–1, 318–20 Elspeth M. Veale, The English fur trade in the later Middle Ages, Oxford: Clarendon Press,1968, pp. 62–5 Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Studies in Muslim iconography: the unicorn’, Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art, 1950, p. 121.

10 MacGregor , Arthur , The small finds in craft, industry and everyday life: bone, antler, ivory and horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman Period , London : Croom-Helm , 1985 Google Scholar , pp. 38–9 Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires du Moyen Age, Fribourg: Office du Livre, 1978, pp. 14–15.

11 Derek Wilson and Peter Ayerst, White gold: the story of African ivory, London: Heinemann, 1976, pp. 18–21, 23–5, 42 Mark Horton, ‘Beyond Europe: the supply of exotic raw materials into the medieval world from sub-Saharan Africa’, in Medieval Europe 1992: exchange and trade, Preprinted Papers 5 (Conference on Medieval Archaeology in Europe 21–24 September 1992 at the University of York), York, 1992, pp. 197–204.

12 Wilson and Ayerst, White gold, pp. 26–7 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 12–14, 119.

13 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 15, 131, 173.

14 MacGregor, The small finds, pp. 38–9 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, pp. 14–15.

15 Ayerst and Wilson, White Gold, pp. 26–27.

16 Håkon A. Andersen, Kunsthåndverket i middelalderen: fra Trondheims skattkammer, [Trondheim], 1997, pp. 9, 12, 33, 40 Martin Blindheim, Middelalderkunst fra Norge i andre land – Norwegian medieval art abroad, [Oslo: Universitetets Oldsaksamling], 1972, pp. 9, 17.

17 Andersen, Kunsthåndverket, p. 34

18 Roesdahl, Hvalrostand, p. 31.

19 Blindheim, Middelalderkunst, p. 17.

20 Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 5, nos. 562, 652, 1086 vol. 6, nos. 101, 147, 159, 164, 208, 273, 467.

21 Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, p. 15.

22 Harms , Robert W. , River of wealth, river of sorrow: the central Zaire basin in the era of the slave and ivory trade, 1500–1891 , New Haven, CT : Yale University Press , 1981 , pp. 39–41, 48–9.Google Scholar

23 Crone , G. R. , The Voyages of Cadamosto and other documents on western Africa in the second half of the fifteenth century , London : Hakluyt Society , 1937 , pp. 46 ff.Google Scholar Peter Russell, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’: a life, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 312–13.

24 Concerning northern European artisanal use of walrus tusks during the Middle Ages, see Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires, p. 15.

25 Ettinghausen, ‘Studies’, pp. 117–31 Zygmunt Abramowitcz, ‘The expressions “fish-tooth” and “lion-fish” in Turkish and Persian’, Folia Orientalia 12, 1970, pp. 25–32.

26 Martin Waldseemüller, Carta marina navigatoria, 1516, facsimile in The British Library, Maps *920 (536) Seaver, ‘“A very common and usuall trade”’, pp. 13–14 Lars Hamre, Erkebiskop Erik Valkendorf: trekk av hans liv og virke, Oslo: [Universitetsforlaget], 1943, p. 39 Valentin Kiparsky, ‘L’Histoire du morse’, Annales Academiae Scientiarium Fennicae, series B, 73, 1952, pp. 46–8 Albrecht Dürer, Head of a walrus, British Museum Department of Print and Drawings, BM.5261–167 John Rowlands, The age of Dürer and Holbein: German drawings 1400–1550, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 102–3.

27 Olaus Magnus, Carta marina, Venice, 1539, facsimile in The British Library, Maps 184.e.1, plate B Karl Ahlenius, Olaus Magnus och hans framställning af Nordens Geografi, Uppsala, 1895, pp. 39–44 Kirsten A. Seaver, ‘Olaus Magnus and the “Compass” on Hvitsark’, Journal of Navigation, 54, pp. 235–54. Konrad Gesner, Historia Animalium, Frankfurt-am-Main: J. Saur, 1598, vol. 4 (‘Fischbuch’).

28 Seaver , Kirsten A. , Maps, myths, and men: the story of the Vinland Map , Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press , 2004 , p. 29.Google Scholar

29 E.g., Gwyn Jones, Norse Atlantic saga, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 277.

30 Claus Andreasen, ‘Nordbosager fra Vesterbygden på Grønland’, Hikuin, 6, 1980, pp. 135–46 Ingrid Sørensen, ‘Pollenundersøgelser i møddingen på Niaqussat’, Grønland, 8, 1982, pp. 296–304 Kirsten A. Seaver, The frozen echo: Greenland and the exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 21–22.

31 H. S. Møller, K. G. Jensen, A. Kuijpers, S. Aagaard-Sørensen, M.-S. Seidenkrantz, M. Prins, R. Endler, and N. Mikkelsen, ‘Late-Holocene environment and climatic changes in Ameralik Fjord, southwest Greenland: evidence from the sedimentary record’, The Holocene, 16, 5, 2006, p. 686.

32 ‘Grænlendinga tháttr’, in Gudni Jónsson, ed., Îslendinga sögur, Reykjavík: Islenzka Bókmenntafélag, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 391–411. Einar also brought a young polar bear and perhaps other gifts as well, but only walrus ivory could be depended on as a source of Church income.

33 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 395 Ólafur Halldórsson, Grænland í miðaldarítum, Reykjavík: Sögufélag, 1978, pp. 103–16, 401–5) Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 63. The first Icelandic tithing law dates from 1096 (Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 1, no. 22).

34 MacGregor, The small finds, pp. 982–5.

35 Gelsinger , Bruce E. , Icelandic enterprise: commerce and economy in the Middle Ages , Columbia, SC : University of South Carolina Press , 1981 , pp. 124–5Google Scholar , citing The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

36 ‘Egil’s saga’, in Viðar Hreinsson, ed., The complete sagas of Icelanders, Reykjavik: Leifur Eirksson Publishing, 1997, vol. 1, pp. 50–1.

37 Janet Bately, ed., The Old English Orosius, London: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1980, pp. 14–16.

38 Helle , Knut , Bergen bys historie , Bergen : Universitetsforlaget , 1982 , vol. 1, pp. 114–15.Google Scholar

39 Pär Hansson, ed., Novgorod–Örebro–Lübeck after 700 years, 1295–1995: seminar i Örebro 4–5 mars 1995, Örebro (Sweden): Örebro Kommuns Bildningsförval, 1995, pp. 30–1.

40 Jordanes, Gothic history, pp. 55–6 Veale, English fur trade, pp. 63–6 Lloyd , T. H. , England and the German Hanse 1157–1611 , Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , 1991 , p. 79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Helle, Bergen, pp. 317, 321–5.

42 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 19, nos. 459, 465.

43 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 3, p. 48 vol. 5, p. 48 Helle, Bergen, p. 305 Konstantin Höhlbaum, ed., Hansisches Urkundenbuch, Halle: Verein für hansische Geschichte, 1879 and 1882–86, vol. 2, pp. 117–19 vol. 3, p. xv R. Keyser and P. A. Munch, Norges gamle Love indtil 1387, Christiania: Grøndahl, 1882–86, vol. 3, p. xv.

44 Grethe Authén Blom, Norge i union på 1300-tallet: kongedømme, politikk, administrasjon og forvaltning 1319–1380, Trondheim: Tapir, 1992, vol. 1, pp. 35, 42–43.

45 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 7, nos. 103–4.

46 Peter Andreas Munch, Pavelige nuntiers regnskabe, Christiania,1864, pp. 25, 29. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 80–2.

47 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 10, no. 30, letter to Ægidius Correnbitter in Bruges from Bishop Hákon in Bergen, 29 September 1338.

48 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 5, no. 152 Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 44–90 Finnur Jónsson, ‘Grønlands gamle topografi efter kilderne: Østerbygden og Vesterbygden’, Meddelelser om Grønland, 20, 1899, p. 278 idem, ed., Det gamle Grønlands beskrivelse af Ivar Bárðarson: udgiven efter håndskrifterne, Copenhagen: Levin and Munksgaard, 1930, pp. 9, 32.

49 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 17B, p. 283 Gustav Storm, ed., Islandske Annaler indtil 1578, Oslo: Kjeldeskriftfondet, 1977 (reprint of 1888 edition), p. 229 Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 140–1.

50 For a documented overview of this development, see Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 61–112. Concerning Bishop Alf’s death, see Storm, Islandske Annaler, pp. 282, 354, 414.

51 Diplomatarium Norvegicum, vol. 3, p. 477 vol. 18, no. 33. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 146.

52 Björn Thorsteinsson, ‘Henry VIII and Iceland’, Saga-Book 15, 1959, pp. 67–101, esp. pp. 68–9 Seaver, Frozen echo, p. 170.

53 E.g., Thomas McGovern, ‘Bones, buildings, and boundaries: palæoeconomic approaches to Norse Greenland’, in Christopher D. Morris and D. James Rackham, eds., Norse and later settlement and subsistence in the North Atlantic, Glasgow: University of Glasgow, Department of Archaeology, 1992, pp. 192–230, esp. pp. 195–96 Thomas McGovern and G. F. Bigelow, ‘Archaeozoology of the Norse site О17a Narssaq District, Southwest Greenland’, Acta Borealia 1, 1984, pp. 85–101, esp. pp. 96–97

54 Poul-Erik Philbert, ‘Man er hvad man spiser’, Polarfronten, 2, 2002, pp. 12–13 Inge Bødker Enghoff, ‘Hunting, fishing and animal husbandry at The Farm Beneath the Sand, Western Greenland: an archaeozoological analysis of a Norse farm in the Western Settlement,’ Meddelelser om Grønland: Man and Society, 28, 2003, pp. 47–50. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 54–60.

55 Maps of these fishing banks are found in Charles Drever, ‘Cod fishing at Greenland’, London, c.1972, typescript held in the British Library, x.313/380. See also Seaver, Maps, pp. 60–86.

56 For a documented account of this complex development, see Seaver, Frozen echo, esp. ch. 9.

57 Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 3, nos. 597 (1409), 630–2 (1414) vol. 4, no. 376 (1424). According to Finn Magnusen, Bishop Odd Einarsson of Skálholt made verified transcripts of both the original affidavit and the two subsequent confirmations.

58 For a documented discussion of this topic, see Seaver, Frozen echo, esp. chs. 7, 8, and 9 and Appendix A and B.

59 See especially the ‘Cantino’ planisphere of 1502 and the Ruysch world map of 1507/8.

60 See, for example, Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 16, no. 8, and cargo lists in E. M. Carus-Wilson, The overseas trade of Bristol, London: Merlin Press, 1967, pp. 252–3. See also Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 192–5.

61 Bent Fredskild, ‘Palaeobotanical investigations of some peat bog deposits of Norse age at Quagssiarssuk, South Greenland’, Meddelelser om Grønland, 204, 5, 1978, pp. 1–41 idem, ‘Agriculture in a marginal area: south Greenland from the Norse landnam (A.D. 985) to the present (1985)’, in Hilary H. Birks, H. J. B. Birks, Peter Emil Kaland, and Dagfinn Moe, eds., The cultural landscape: past, present and future, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 381–94.

62 Ingvi Thorsteinsson, ‘The environmental effects of farming in south Greenland in the Middle Ages and the twentieth century’, in Ingi Sigurðsson and Jón Skaptason, Aspects of Arctic and sub-Arctic history: proceedings of the International Congress on the History of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region, Reykjavík, 18–21 June 1998, Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2000, pp. 258–63.

63 Jette Arneborg, Jan Heinemeier, Niels Lynnerup, Henrik L. Nielsen, Niels Rud, and Árny E. Sveinbjörnsdóttir, ‘Change of diet of the Greenland Vikings determined from stable carbon isotope analysis and 14C dating of their bones’, Radiocarbon, 41, 2, 1999, pp. 157–8 Thomas McGovern, ‘The economics of landnám: animal bone evidence from Iceland and Greenland’, Report, Conference on ‘The North Atlantic Saga’, Reykjavík, 9–11 August 1999 Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 238–48.

64 Axel Kristínsson, ‘Productivity and population in pre-industrial Iceland’, in Sigurðsson and Skaptason, Aspects, pp. 270–8.

65 J. Kisbye Møller, ‘Isaac de la Peyrère: relation du Groenlande’, Grønland, 29, 1981, pp. 168–84 Henry Lintot and John Osborn, eds., A collection of voyages and travels, 2 vols., London, 1744, vol. 2, pp. 363–406 Diplomatarium Islandicum, vol. 6, nos. 66, 67 Seaver, Frozen echo, pp. 205–6, 251, and 361, n. 65 Seaver, Maps, pp. 83–4.

66 Eleanora Mary Carus-Wilson, The merchant adventurers of Bristol, Bristol: Local History Pamphlet 4, 1962, pp. 15–16.

Over-hunting walruses contributed to the collapse of Norse Greenland, study suggests

The mysterious disappearance of Greenland's Norse colonies sometime in the 15th century may have been down to the overexploitation of walrus populations for their tusks, according to a study of medieval artefacts from across Europe.

Founded by Erik the Red around 985AD after his exile from Iceland (or so the Sagas tell us), Norse communities in Greenland thrived for centuries - even gaining a bishop - before vanishing in the 1400s, leaving only ruins.

Latest research from the universities of Cambridge, Oslo and Trondheim has found that, for hundreds of years, almost all ivory traded across Europe came from walruses hunted in seas only accessible via Norse settlements in south-western Greenland.

Walrus ivory was a valuable medieval commodity, used to carve luxury items such as ornate crucifixes or pieces for games like chess and Viking favourite hnefatafl. The famous Lewis chessmen are made of walrus tusk.

However, the study also indicates that, as time wore on, the ivory came from smaller animals, often female with genetic and archaeological evidence suggesting they were sourced from ever farther north - meaning longer and more treacherous hunting voyages for less reward.

Increasingly globalised trade saw elephant ivory flood European markets in the 13th century, and fashions changed. There is little evidence of walrus ivory imports to mainland Europe after 1400.

Dr James H. Barrett, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, argues that the Norse abandonment of Greenland may have been precipitated by a "perfect storm" of depleted resources and volatile prices, exacerbated by climate change.

"Norse Greenlanders needed to trade with Europe for iron and timber, and had mainly walrus products to export in exchange," said Barrett, lead author of the study published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

"We suspect that decreasing values of walrus ivory in Europe meant more and more tusks were harvested to keep the Greenland colonies economically viable."

"Mass hunting can end the use of traditional haul-out sites by walruses. Our findings suggest that Norse hunters were forced to venture deeper into the Arctic Circle for increasingly meagre ivory harvests. This would have exacerbated the decline of walrus populations, and consequently those sustained by the walrus trade."

Other theories for collapse of the colonies have included climate change - the "Little Ice Age", a sustained period of lower temperatures, began in the 14th century - as well as unsustainable farming methods and even the Black Death.

"An overreliance on walrus ivory was not the only factor in Norse Greenland's demise. However, if both the population and price of walrus started to tumble, it must have badly undermined the resilience of the settlements," says co-author Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo. "Our study suggests the writing was on the wall."

Analysis using carved artefacts would risk damage, so researchers examined pieces of "rostrum": the walrus skull and snout to which tusks remained attached during shipment, creating a protective "package" that got broken up in the ivory workshops of medieval trading centres such as Dublin, Trondheim and Bergen.

In total, the team studied 67 rostra taken from sites across Europe, dating between the 11th and 15th century. Ancient DNA (25 samples) and stable isotopes (31 samples) extracted from samples of bone, as well as tusk socket size, provided clues to the animals' sex and origins.

The stable isotope analysis was conducted by Cambridge's Dorothy Garrod Laboratory for Isotopic Analysis, and the DNA analysis by Oslo's Department of Biosciences.

The researchers also studied traces of "manufacturing techniques" - changing styles of butchery and skull preparation - to help place the walrus remains in history.

While impossible to determine exact provenance, the researchers detected a shift in European walrus finds around the 13th century to walruses from an evolutionary branch most prevalent in the waters around Baffin Bay.

These animals must have been hunted by sailing northwest up the Greenland coast, and more recent specimens were smaller and often female. "If the original hunting grounds of the Greenland Norse, around Disko Bay, were overexploited, they may have journeyed as far north as Smith Sound to find sufficient herds of walrus," said Barrett.

Norse artefacts have previously been found among the remains of 13th and 14th century Inuit settlements in this most northern of regions. One former Inuit camp on an islet off Ellesmere Island contained the rivets of a Norse boat - quite possibly a hunting trip that never returned.

"Ancestors of the Inuit occupied northern Greenland during the time of the Norse colonies. They probably encountered and traded with the Norse," said Barrett. "That pieces of a Norse boat were found so far north hints of the risks these hunters might have ended up taking in their quest for ivory."

Barrett points out that the Inuit of the region favoured female walruses when hunting, so the prevalence of females in Greenland's later exports could imply a growing Norse reliance on Inuit supply.

He says that hunting season for the Norse would have been short, as seas were choked with ice for much of the year. "The brief window of summer would have barely been sufficient for rowing the many hundreds of miles north and back."

The legend of Erik the Red itself may mask what Barrett calls "ecological globalisation": the chasing of natural resources as supply dwindles. Recent research revealed that Greenland might have been settled only after Icelandic walruses were hunted to exhaustion.

Ultimately, having been highly prized for centuries, the marbled appearance of walrus ivory fell out of favour as West African trade routes opened up, and the homogenous finish of elephant ivory became de rigueur in the 13th century.

One account suggest that in the 1120s, Norse Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure their own bishopric from the King of Norway. By 1282, however, the Pope requests his Greenland tithes be converted from walrus tusk into silver or gold.

"Despite a significant drop in value, the rostra evidence implies that exploitation of walruses may have even increased during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries," said Barrett.

"As the Greenlanders chased depleted walrus populations ever northwards for less and less return in trade, there must have come a point where it was unsustainable. We believe this 'resource curse' undermined the resilience of the Greenland colonies."

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, The Research Council of Norway and the Nansenfondet.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

Scientists measure severity of drought during the Maya collapse

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Florida developed a method to measure the different isotopes of water trapped in gypsum, a mineral that forms during times of drought when the water level is lowered, in Lake Chichancanab in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya were based.

Based on these measurements, the researchers found that annual precipitation decreased between 41% and 54% relative to today during the period of the Maya civilisation’s collapse, with periods of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions, and that relative humidity declined by 2% to 7% relative to today. The results are reported in the journal Science.

“The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions, for example whether conditions were wetter or drier,” said Nick Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author. “Our study represents a substantial advance as it provides statistically robust estimates of rainfall and humidity levels during the Maya downfall.”

Maya civilisation is divided into four main periods: the Preclassic (2000 BCE – 250 CE), Classic (250 CE – 800 CE), terminal Classic (800 – 1000 CE) and Postclassic (1000 CE – 1539 CE). The Classic period was marked by the construction of monumental architecture, intellectual and artistic development, and the growth of large city-states.

During the 9 th century however, there was a major political collapse in the central Maya region: their famous limestone cities were abandoned and dynasties ended. And while the Maya people survived beyond this period, their political and economic power was depleted.

There are multiple theories as to what caused the collapse of the Maya civilisation, such as invasion, war, environmental degradation and collapsing trade routes. In the 1990s, however, researchers were able to piece together climate records for the period of the Maya collapse and found that it correlated with an extended period of extreme drought.

Professor David Hodell, Director of Cambridge’s Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research and the senior author of the current paper, provided the first physical evidence of a correlation between this period of drought at Lake Chichancanab and the downfall of the Classic Maya civilisation in a paper published in 1995.

Now, Hodell and his colleagues have applied a new method and estimated the extent of this drought. Using a new geochemical method to measure the water locked within gypsum from Chichancanab, the researchers have built a complete model of hydrological conditions during the terminal Classic Period when the Maya collapsed.

The researchers analysed the different isotopes of water trapped within the crystal structure of the gypsum to determine changes in rainfall and relative humidity during the Maya downfall.

They measured three oxygen and two hydrogen isotopes to reconstruct the history of the lake water between 800 and 1000 CE. When gypsum forms, water molecules are incorporated directly into its crystalline structure, and this water records the different isotopes that were present in the ancient lake water at the time of its formation. “This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself,” said Evans.

In periods of drought, more water evaporates from lakes such as Chichancanab, and because the lighter isotopes of water evaporate faster, the water becomes heavier. A higher proportion of the heavier isotopes, such as oxygen-18 and hydrogen-2 (deuterium), would indicate drought conditions. By mapping the proportion of the different isotopes contained within each layer of gypsum, the researchers were able to build a model to estimate past changes in rainfall and relative humidity over the period of the Maya collapse.

This quantitative climate data can be used to better predict how these drought conditions may have affected agriculture, including yields of the Maya’s staple crops, such as maize.

Final Thoughts Stemming from the Elephant Tusk Research

Isotope analyses of the elephant tusks also suggests that the elephants lived in mixed forest habitat. Roca provided the significance of this find to understanding past and current lives of African elephants, “There had been some thinking that African forest elephants moved out into savanna habitats in the early 20th century, after almost all savanna elephants were eliminated in West Africa,” Roca said. “Our study showed that this was not the case, because the African forest elephant lived in savanna habitats in the early 16th century, long before the decimation of savanna elephants by the ivory trade occurred.”

de Flamingh said that the multidisciplinary nature of this research also “provides a framework for examining the vast collections of historic and archaeological ivories in museums across the world.” This type of study could be applied to future analyses of elephant tusks which have been recovered from other shipwrecks or different archaeological contexts as well. As Coutu says, “The revelation of these connections tell important global histories.”

Couto also pointed out that the study provided a better understanding of “the ecology of the West African forest elephant in its historic landscape,” which can help with modern wildlife conservation and finding the sources of confiscated illegal ivory.

Top Image: This photo shows Raw elephant tusks from the 16th century Bom Jesus shipwreck. Source: National Museum of Namibia


According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Norsemen from Iceland first settled Greenland in the 980s. There is no special reason to doubt the authority of the information that the sagas supply regarding the very beginning of the settlement, but they cannot be treated as primary evidence for the history of Norse Greenland because they embody the literary preoccupations of writers and audiences in medieval Iceland that are not always reliable. [5]

Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði), having been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, explored the uninhabited southwestern coast of Greenland during the three years of his banishment. [6] [7] He made plans to entice settlers to the area, naming it Greenland on the assumption that "people would be more eager to go there because the land had a good name". [8] The inner reaches of one long fjord, named Eiriksfjord after him, was where he eventually established his estate Brattahlid. He issued tracts of land to his followers. [9]

Norse Greenland consisted of two settlements. The Eastern was at the southwestern tip of Greenland, while the Western Settlement was about 500 km up the west coast, inland from present-day Nuuk. A smaller settlement near the Eastern Settlement is sometimes considered the Middle Settlement. The combined population was around 2,000–3,000. [10] At least 400 farms have been identified by archaeologists. [9] Norse Greenland had a bishopric (at Garðar) and exported walrus ivory, furs, rope, sheep, whale and seal blubber, live animals such as polar bears, supposed "unicorn horns" (in reality narwhal tusks), and cattle hides. In 1126, the population requested a bishop (headquartered at Garðar), and in 1261, they accepted the overlordship of the Norwegian king. They continued to have their own law and became almost completely politically independent after 1349, the time of the Black Death. In 1380, the Kingdom of Norway entered into a personal union with the Kingdom of Denmark. [11]

Western trade and decline Edit

There is evidence of Norse trade with the natives (called the Skræling by the Norse). The Norse would have encountered both Native Americans (the Beothuk, related to the Algonquin) and the Thule, the ancestors of the Inuit. The Dorset had withdrawn from Greenland before the Norse settlement of the island. Items such as comb fragments, pieces of iron cooking utensils and chisels, chess pieces, ship rivets, carpenter's planes, and oaken ship fragments used in Inuit boats have been found far beyond the traditional range of Norse colonization. A small ivory statue that appears to represent a European has also been found among the ruins of an Inuit community house. [11]

The settlements began to decline in the 14th century. The Western Settlement was abandoned around 1350, and the last bishop at Garðar died in 1377. [11] After a marriage was recorded in 1408, no written records mention the settlers. It is probable that the Eastern Settlement was defunct by the late 15th century. The most recent radiocarbon date found in Norse settlements as of 2002 was 1430 (±15 years). [ citation needed ] Several theories have been advanced to explain the decline.

The Little Ice Age of this period would have made travel between Greenland and Europe, as well as farming, more difficult although seal and other hunting provided a healthy diet, there was more prestige in cattle farming, and there was increased availability of farms in Scandinavian countries depopulated by famine and plague epidemics. In addition, Greenlandic ivory may have been supplanted in European markets by cheaper ivory from Africa. [12] Despite the loss of contact with the Greenlanders, the Norwegian-Danish crown continued to consider Greenland a possession.

Not knowing whether the old Norse civilization remained in Greenland or not—and worried that if it did, it would still be Orthodox [13] [14] [15] [16] or Catholic 200 years after the Scandinavian homelands had experienced the Reformation—a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by the Dano-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland in 1721. Though this expedition found no surviving Europeans, it marked the beginning of Denmark's re-assertion of sovereignty over the island.

Climate and Norse Greenland Edit

Norse Greenlanders were limited to scattered fjords on the island that provided a spot for their animals (such as cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and cats) to be kept and farms to be established. [17] [18] In these fjords, the farms depended upon byres to host their livestock in the winter, and routinely culled their herds in order to survive the season. [17] [18] [19] The coming warmer seasons meant that livestocks were taken from their byres to pasture, the most fertile being controlled by the most powerful farms and the church. [18] [19] [20] What was produced by livestock and farming was supplemented with subsistence hunting of mainly seal and caribou as well as walrus for trade. [17] [18] [19] The Norse mainly relied on the Nordrsetur hunt, a communal hunt of migratory harp seals that would take place during spring. [17] [20] Trade was highly important to the Greenland Norse and they relied on imports of lumber due to the barrenness of Greenland. In turn they exported goods such as walrus ivory and hide, live polar bears, and narwhal tusks. [19] [20] Ultimately these setups were vulnerable as they relied on migratory patterns created by climate as well as the well-being of the few fjords on the island. [18] [20] A portion of the time the Greenland settlements existed was during the Little Ice Age and the climate was, overall, becoming cooler and more humid. [17] [18] [19] As climate began to cool and humidity began to increase, this brought longer winters and shorter springs, more storms and affected the migratory patterns of the harp seal. [17] [18] [19] [20] Pasture space began to dwindle and fodder yields for the winter became much smaller. This combined with regular herd culling made it hard to maintain livestock, especially for the poorest of the Greenland Norse. [17] In spring, the voyages to where migratory harp seals could be found became more dangerous due to more frequent storms, and the lower population of harp seals meant that Nordrsetur hunts became less successful, making subsistence hunting extremely difficult. [17] [18] The strain on resources made trade difficult, and as time went on, Greenland exports lost value in the European market due to competing countries and the lack of interest in what was being traded. [20] Trade in elephant ivory began competing with the trade in walrus tusks that provided income to Greenland, and there is evidence that walrus over-hunting, particularly of the males with larger tusks, led to walrus population declines. [21]

In addition, it seemed that the Norse were unwilling to integrate with the Thule people of Greenland, either through marriage or culture. There is evidence of contact as seen through the Thule archaeological record including ivory depictions of the Norse as well as bronze and steel artifacts. However, there is essentially no material evidence of the Thule among Norse artifacts. [17] [18] In older research it was posited that it was not climate change alone that led to Norse decline, but also their unwillingness to adapt. [17] For example, if the Norse had decided to focus their subsistence hunting on the ringed seal (which could be hunted year round, though individually), and decided to reduce or do away with their communal hunts, food would have been much less scarce during the winter season. [18] [19] [20] [22] Also, had Norse individuals used skin instead of wool to produce their clothing, they would have been able to fare better nearer to the coast, and wouldn't have been as confined to the fjords. [18] [19] [20] However, more recent research has shown that the Norse did try to adapt in their own ways. [23] Some of these attempts included increased subsistence hunting. A significant number of bones of marine animals can be found at the settlements, suggesting increased hunting with the absence of farmed food. [23] In addition, pollen records show that the Norse didn't always devastate the small forests and foliage as previously thought. Instead the Norse ensured that overgrazed or overused sections were given time to regrow and moved to other areas. [23] Norse farmers also attempted to adapt. With the increased need for winter fodder and smaller pastures, they would self-fertilize their lands in an attempt to keep up with the new demands caused by the changing climate. [23] However, even with these attempts, climate change was not the only thing putting pressure on the Greenland Norse. The economy was changing, and the exports they relied on were losing value. [20] Current research suggests that the Norse were unable to maintain their settlements because of economic and climatic change happening at the same time. [23] [24]

According to the Icelandic sagas—Eirik the Red's Saga, [25] Saga of the Greenlanders, plus chapters of the Hauksbók and the Flatey Book—the Norse started to explore lands to the west of Greenland only a few years after the Greenland settlements were established. In 985, while sailing from Iceland to Greenland with a migration fleet consisting of 400–700 settlers [9] [26] and 25 other ships (14 of which completed the journey), a merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course, and after three days' sailing he sighted land west of the fleet. Bjarni was only interested in finding his father's farm, but he described his findings to Leif Erikson who explored the area in more detail and planted a small settlement fifteen years later. [9]

The sagas describe three separate areas that were explored: Helluland, which means "land of the flat stones" Markland, "the land of forests", definitely of interest to settlers in Greenland where there were few trees and Vinland, "the land of wine", found somewhere south of Markland. It was in Vinland that the settlement described in the sagas was founded.

Leif's winter camp Edit

Using the routes, landmarks, currents, rocks, and winds that Bjarni had described to him, Leif sailed from Greenland westward across the Labrador Sea, with a crew of 35—sailing the same knarr Bjarni had used to make the voyage. He described Helluland as "level and wooded, with broad white beaches wherever they went and a gently sloping shoreline." [9] Leif and others had wanted his father, Erik the Red, to lead this expedition and talked him into it. However, as Erik attempted to join his son Leif on the voyage towards these new lands, he fell off his horse as it slipped on the wet rocks near the shore thus he was injured and stayed behind. [9]

Leif wintered in 1001, probably near Cape Bauld on the northern tip of Newfoundland, where one day his foster father Tyrker was found drunk, on what the saga describes as "wine-berries." Squashberries, gooseberries, and cranberries all grew wild in the area. There are varying explanations for Leif apparently describing fermented berries as "wine."

Leif spent another winter at "Leifsbúðir" without conflict, and sailed back to Brattahlíð in Greenland to assume filial duties to his father.

Thorvald's voyage (1004 AD) Edit

In 1004, Leif's brother Thorvald Eiriksson sailed with a crew of 30 men to Vinland and spent the following winter at Leif's camp. In the spring, Thorvald attacked nine of the local people who were sleeping under three skin-covered canoes. The ninth victim escaped and soon came back to the Norse camp with a force. Thorvald was killed by an arrow that succeeded in passing through the barricade. Although brief hostilities ensued, the Norse explorers stayed another winter and left the following spring. Subsequently, another of Leif's brothers, Thorstein, sailed to the New World to retrieve his dead brother's body, but he died before leaving Greenland. [9]

Karlsefni's expedition (1009 AD) Edit

In 1009, Thorfinn Karlsefni, also known as "Thorfinn the Valiant", supplied three ships with livestock and 160 men and women [26] (although another source sets the number of settlers at 250). After a cruel winter, he headed south and landed at Straumfjord. He later moved to Straumsöy, possibly because the current was stronger there. A sign of peaceful relations between the indigenous peoples and the Norsemen is noted here. The two sides bartered with furs and gray squirrel skins for milk and red cloth, which the natives tied around their heads as a sort of headdress.

There are conflicting stories but one account states that a bull belonging to Karlsefni came storming out of the wood, so frightening the natives that they ran to their skin-boats and rowed away. They returned three days later, in force. The natives used catapults, hoisting "a large sphere on a pole it was dark blue in color" and about the size of a sheep's belly, [28] which flew over the heads of the men and made an ugly din. [28]

The Norsemen retreated. Leif Erikson's half-sister Freydís Eiríksdóttir was pregnant and unable to keep up with the retreating Norsemen. She called out to them to stop fleeing from "such pitiful wretches", adding that if she had weapons, she could do better than that. Freydís seized the sword belonging to a man who had been killed by the natives. She pulled one of her breasts out of her bodice and struck it with the sword, frightening the natives, who fled. [28]

Purported runestones have been found in North America, most famously the Kensington Runestone. These are generally considered to be hoaxes or misinterpretations of Native American petroglyphs. [29]

There are many claims of Norse colonization in New England, none well founded.

Monuments claimed to be Norse include: [30]

Horsford's Norumbega Edit

The nineteenth-century Harvard chemist Eben Norton Horsford connected the Charles River Basin to places described in the Norse sagas and elsewhere, notably Norumbega. [31] He published several books on the topic and had plaques, monuments, and statues erected in honor of the Norse. [32] His work received little support from mainstream historians and archeologists at the time, and even less today. [33] [34] [35]

Other nineteenth-century writers, such as Horsford's friend Thomas Gold Appleton, in his A Sheaf of Papers (1875), and George Perkins Marsh, in his The Goths in New England, seized upon such false notions of Viking history also to promote the superiority of white people (as well as to oppose the Catholic Church). Such misuse of Viking history and imagery reemerged in the twentieth century among some groups promoting white supremacy. [36]

Settlements in continental North America aimed to exploit natural resources such as furs and in particular lumber, which was in short supply in Greenland. [37] It is unclear why the short-term settlements did not become permanent, though it was likely in part because of hostile relations with the indigenous peoples, referred to as the Skræling by the Norse. [38] Nevertheless, it appears that sporadic voyages to Markland for forages, timber, and trade with the locals could have lasted as long as 400 years. [39] [40]

From 985 to 1410, Greenland was in touch with the world. Then silence. In 1492 the Vatican noted that no news of that country "at the end of the world" had been received for 80 years, and the bishopric of the colony was offered to a certain ecclesiastic if he would go and "restore Christianity" there. He didn't go. [41]

For centuries it remained unclear whether the Icelandic stories represented real voyages by the Norse to North America. The sagas first gained serious historic respectability in 1837 when the Danish antiquarian Carl Christian Rafn pointed out the possibility for a Norse settlement in, or voyages to, North America. North America, by the name Winland, first appeared in written sources in a work by Adam of Bremen from approximately 1075. The most important works about North America and the early Norse activities there, namely the Sagas of Icelanders, were recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1420, some Inuit captives and their kayaks were taken to Scandinavia. [43] The Norse sites were depicted in the Skálholt Map, made by an Icelandic teacher in 1570 and depicting part of northeastern North America and mentioning Helluland, Markland and Vinland. [44]

Evidence of the Norse west of Greenland came in the 1960s when archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her husband, outdoorsman and author Helge Ingstad, excavated a Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The location of the various lands described in the sagas remains unclear, however. Many historians identify Helluland with Baffin Island and Markland with Labrador. The location of Vinland poses a thornier question.

In 2012 Canadian researchers identified possible signs of Norse outposts in Nanook at Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island, as well as on Nunguvik, Willows Island, and Avayalik. [45] [46] [47] Unusual fabric cordage found on Baffin Island in the 1980s and stored at the Canadian Museum of Civilization was identified in 1999 as possibly of Norse manufacture that discovery led to more in-depth exploration of the Tanfield Valley archaeological site for points of contact between Norse Greenlanders and the indigenous Dorset people. [48] [49]

Archeological findings in 2015 at Point Rosee, [50] [51] on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, were originally thought to reveal evidence of a turf wall and the roasting of bog iron ore, and therefore a possible 10th century Norse settlement in Canada. [52] Findings from the 2016 excavation suggest the turf wall and the roasted bog iron ore discovered in 2015 were the result of natural processes. [53] The possible settlement was initially discovered through satellite imagery in 2014, [54] and archaeologists excavated the area in 2015 and 2016. [54] [52] Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, one of the leading experts of Norse archaeology in North America and an expert on the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows, is unsure of the identification of Point Rosee as a Norse site. [55] Archaeologist Karen Milek was a member of the 2016 Point Rosee excavation and is a Norse expert. She also expressed doubt that Point Rosee was a Norse site as there are no good landing sites for their boats and there are steep cliffs between the shoreline and the excavation site. [56] In their November 8, 2017, report [57] Sarah Parcak and Gregory Mumford, co-directors of the excavation, wrote that they "found no evidence whatsoever for either a Norse presence or human activity at Point Rosee prior to the historic period" [51] and that "none of the team members, including the Norse specialists, deemed this area as having any traces of human activity." [50]

New DNA study shows Greenlanders had monopoly on ivory trade in Europe

New study shows through DNA samples that the Norse settlements in Greenland provided Europe with virtually all the ivory used in the Middle Ages.

A completed study at the University of Cambridge shows through DNA analysis that the Norsemen who colonised Greenland had a virtual monopoly on the ivory trade in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Ivory may bring to mind elephant tusks, but this category also includes mammoth, hippo, walrus and narwhal bones. The Greenland ivory came exclusively from walruses.

The study also shows that during the last ice age the Atlantic walrus split into two subspecies, the "eastern" and the "western". The eastern walrus spread over large parts of the Arctic, including Scandinavia. The western walrus, on the other hand, is unique to the waters between western Greenland and Canada. The study shows that from the 12th century onwards, Europe's ivory came almost exclusively from the Western walrus.

But how did northerners end up in Greenland? Firstly, it was the Norwegians' well-developed sailing skills and technology that enabled them to expand out into the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and later Vinland. From what is now Norway, the Norsemen travelled west, while our ancestors in Sweden expanded eastwards, establishing settlements in the Baltic States and founding the first Russian Empire and sailing southwards on the Russian rivers. But in addition to the well-developed art of sailing, the Norse spirit of adventure also played a part in the colonisation of Greenland and, as we shall see, a great deal of murder and death.

The Icelandic fairy tales, including The Saga of Erik the Red, tells how Erik Röde (Old West Norse Eiríkr rauði Þorvaldsson) in 982 was exiled from the then stateless Iceland for 3 years after being convicted of murder. It all started when Erik's neighbour Eyjólfr sour killed Erik's slaves after they accidentally started a landslide on the neighbour's farm. In revenge, Erik killed his neighbour Eyjiolf and Hólmgöngu-Hrafn. To live in peace, Erik moved on to the island of Öxney, but it wasn't long before he got into trouble again. Erik got into a fight with a Thorgest (Þórgestr) and in the battle Erik killed both his sons and a couple of other men. The quarrel was resolved at the court where Erik was sentenced to exile.

He then set out on a journey westwards where he reached the island previously sighted by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson and Snæbjörn Galti. The island that would be named Greenland. Erik Röde is considered to be the first permanent resident of Greenland, having settled on the island 300 years before the Inuits arrived, and Erik is also the one who gave the island its rosy name. Erik's son Leif Eriksson would later be the first European to discover Vinland - North America.

After his 3-year exile, Erik Röde returned to Iceland with tales of "Greenland", and he is said to have deliberately given the island a more appealing name than Iceland to attract more settlers. More northerners headed west from Iceland and settled in two areas along the south-western coast.

At most, the Scandinavian population in the 12th and 13th centuries is said to have reached a size of 5,000 people, compared to today's population of 56,375 people. The western settlement (Old Norse Westribyggd) in the northwest, with up to 1000 inhabitants and the eastern settlement (Old Norse Eystribyggd) in the southeast, with up to 4000 inhabitants.

The Viking settlements on Greenland were then abandoned relatively quickly in the late 15th century. The Cambridge University study suggests that several factors may have played a role, including over-reliance on the ivory trade contributing to an economic collapse as interest in ivory waned in Europe in the 15th century.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the climate was also called, the so-called little ice age (and lasted until the 1850s), which may have made living in Greenland more inhospitable - despite the rosy name. The western settlement was abandoned around 1350, and the last known written source is from September 1408 when a marriage is recorded in Hvalsey Church, an ancient Norse church located in Hvalsey (Qaqortukulooq) not far from Qaqortoq, the largest city in southern Greenland.

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Lost Norse of Greenland Fueled the Medieval Ivory Trade, Ancient Walrus DNA Suggests - History

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Arm of Ericsfjord, on which Eric the Red had his farm
(Dale Mackenzie Brown)

Some people call it the Farm under the Sand, others Greenland's Pompeii. Dating to the mid-fourteenth century, it was once the site of a Viking colony founded along the island's grassy southwestern coast that stretches in a fjord-indented ribbon between the glaciers and the sea. Archaeologists Jette Arneborg of the Danish National Museum, Joel Berglund of the Greenland National Museum, and Claus Andreasen of Greenland University could not have guessed what would be revealed when they excavated the ruins of the five-room, stone-and-turf house in the early 1990s.

As the archaeologists dug through the permafrost and removed the windblown glacial sand that filled the rooms, they found fragments of looms and cloth. Scattered about were other household belongings, including an iron knife, whetstones, soapstone vessels, and a double-edged comb. Whoever lived here departed so hurriedly that they left behind iron and caribou antler arrows, weapons needed for survival in this harsh country, medieval Europe's farthest frontier. What drove the occupants away? Where did they go?

Map of Greenland showing settlements (Lynda D'Amico) [LARGER IMAGE]

The disappearance of the Greenlanders has intrigued students of history for centuries. One old source held that Skraelings, or Inuit, who had crossed over from Ellesmere Island in the far north around A.D. 1000, migrated down the west coast and overran the settlement. Ivar Bardarson, steward of the Church's property in Greenland, and a member of a sister settlement 300 miles to the southeast, was said to have gathered a force and sailed northwest to drive the interlopers out, but "when they came hither, behold they found no man, neither Christian nor heathen, naught but some wild cattle and sheep, and they killed as many of the wild cattle and sheep as they could carry and with them returned to their houses." The death of the Western Settlement portended the demise of the larger eastern one a century later.

Of the first 24 boatloads of land-hungry settlers who set out from Iceland in the summer of 986 to colonize new territory explored several years earlier by the vagabond and outlaw, Erik the Red, only 14 made it, the others having been forced back to port or lost at sea. Yet more brave souls, drawn by the promise of a better life for themselves, soon followed. Under the leadership of the red-faced, red-bearded Erik (who had given the island its attractive name, the better to lure settlers there), the colonists developed a little Europe of their own just a few hundred miles from North America, a full 500 years before Columbus set foot on the continent. They established dairy and sheep farms throughout the unglaciated areas of the south and built churches, a monastery, a nunnery, and a cathedral boasting an imported bronze bell and greenish tinted glass windows.

The Greenlanders prospered. From the number of farms in both colonies, whose 400 or so stone ruins still dot the landscape, archaeologists guess that the population may have risen to a peak of about 5,000. Trading with Norway, under whose rule they eventually came, the Greenlanders exchanged live falcons, polar bear skins, narwahl tusks, and walrus ivory and hides for timber, iron, tools, and other essentials, as well luxuries such as raisins, nuts, and wine.

Excavations of Erik's farm, Brattahlid ("Steep Slope"), in 1932 by Danish archaeologists (Greenland, which became Danish in 1814, is today a self-governing possession of Denmark), revealed the remains of a church, originally surrounded by a turf wall to keep farm animals out, and a great hall where settlers cooked in fire pits, ate their meals, recited sagas, and played board games. Behind the church they found ruins of a cow barn, with partitions between the stalls still in place, one of them the shoulder blade of a whale--a sign of Viking practicality in a treeless land where wood was always in short supply.

Church ruins with outer protective wall designed to keep out farm animals (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1961 workmen discovered near the barn a tiny horseshoe-shaped chapel built for Erik's wife Thjodhilde. When Erik and his supporters arrived in Greenland, the old Norse gods were still worshiped. Erik, a believer, upheld the ancient fatalistic philosophy of his Viking ancestors, but Thjodhilde converted to Christianity. Erik refused to surrender his beliefs, and Thjodhilde held steadfastly to hers. In time he granted her a small church 6.5 feet wide and 11.5 feet long, with room for 20 to 30 worshipers.

During the excavations of Thjodhilde's chapel and its immediate surroundings in the 1960s, Danish archaeologists uncovered 144 skeletons. Most of these indicated tall, strong individuals, not very different in build from modern Scandinavians. One male skeleton was found with a large knife between the ribs, evidence of violence on Greenland's frontier. A mass grave south of the church, containing 13 bodies. According to Neils Lynnerup of the Panum Institute of the University of Copenhagen, who performed forensic work on the remains, the bodies were male, ranging from teens to middle age, with head and arm wounds suggesting they may have died in battle.

The most compelling finds were three skeletons interred close to the church wall, just beneath where the eaves would have been. According to medieval Church accounts, those buried closest to the church were first in line for Judgement Day. Who were these three individuals? The archaeologists' best guess was that they were none other than Thjodhilde, Erik and their famous son, Leif, who around the year 1,000 had set sail from Brattahlid on his epochal journey to America. Today, their bones rest on laboratory shelves in Copenhagen.

With the islanders' early success came a desire to have someone of authority oversee the work of the Church in Greenland. Early in the twelfth century they dispatched one of their leaders, Einar Sokkason, to Norway to convince the king to send them a bishop. Bishop Arnald was chosen for the job, despite the hapless man's protestation that "I am no good at handling difficult people." Apparently the Greenlanders had a well-developed reputation for contentious behavior. Still, they provided Arnald with one of their finest farms, Gardar, on a fjord not far from Brattahlid. Here they erected a cathedral, built of the local reddish sandstone and dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers, St. Nicholas with a meeting hall capable of holding several hundred people a large barn for 100 cows and tithe barns to contain the goods that would be religiously collected from the farmers by priests and set aside for Rome.

Ruins of the tithe barns where goods collected from the farmers in the Church's name were kept (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

Although the presence of the Church had originally uplifted the Greenlanders, it now became their burden. By the middle of the fourteenth century, it owned two-thirds of the island's finest pastures, and tithes remained as onerous as ever, some of the proceeds going to the support of the Crusades half way around the world and even to fight heretics in Italy. Church authorities, however, found it increasingly difficult to get bishops to come to the distant island. Several clerics took the title, but never actually went there, preferring to bestow their blessings from afar.

Foundation stone of the Norse cathedral (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

Life went sour for the Greenlanders in other ways. The number of Norwegian merchant vessels arriving in their ports, though only one or two a year in the best of times, dropped until none came at all. This meant that the islanders were cut off from the major source of iron and tools needed for the smooth running of their farms and the construction and maintenance of their boats. Norway's long dominance of the northern sea trade withered as Germany's Hanseatic League rose to ascendancy. Although the league's bigger ships could carry more cargo than Norwegian vessels, they apparently never anchored in Greenland. The dangerous ocean crossing would have put them at too much risk for too little gain, especially now that elephant ivory, once difficult to obtain, could be gotten easily from Africa and replaced walrus ivory in prominence.

As the Greenlanders' isolation from Europe grew, they found themselves victims of a steadily deteriorating environment. Their farmland, exploited to the full, had lost fertility. Erosion followed severe reductions in ground cover. The cutting of dwarf willows and alders for fuel and for the production of charcoal to use in the smelting of bog iron, which yielded soft, inferior metal, deprived the soil of its anchor of roots. Pollen analysis shows a dramatic decline in these species during the Viking years. In addition, livestock probably consumed any regenerating scrub. Overgrazing, trampling, and scuffing by the Norsemen's sheep, goats and cattle, the core of the island's livelihood, left the land debased.

Greenland's climate began to change as well the summers grew shorter and progressively cooler, limiting the time cattle could be kept outdoors and increasing the need for winter fodder. During the worst years, when rains would have been heaviest, the hay crop would barely have been adequate to see the penned animals through the coldest days. Over the decades the drop in temperature seems to have had an effect on the design of the Greenlanders' houses. Originally conceived as single-roomed structures, like the great hall at Brattahlid, they were divided into smaller spaces for warmth, and then into warrens of interconnected chambers, with the cows kept close by so the owners might benefit from the animals' body heat.

Site of the great hall with sheep resting on the foundation. In a similar building, perhaps on the very spot, Leif Ericson may well have entertained family and friends with tales of his North American exploits. (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

When the Norsemen arrived in Greenland, they had the island and its waters to themselves. Now they had to contend with the Inuit, who were competing with them for animal resources. This was especially true in the Nordseta, the Greenlanders' traditional summer hunting grounds 240 miles north of the Eastern Settlement. For years the Norsemen had been traveling to the area they killed the walruses, narwahls, and polar bears they needed for trade with Europe and for payment of Church tithes and royal taxes. They also boiled seal blubber, filled skin bags with the oil, and gathered valuable driftwood.

Inuit-Norse relations seem to have been fairly friendly at times, hostile at others. Few Inuit objects have been unearthed at the farms. Various Norse items, including bits of chain mail and a hinged bronze bar from a folding scale, have been found at Inuit camps in Greenland, mainland Canada, and on Baffin, Ellesmere, and Devon Islands. These are suggestive of commerce between the two peoples, but they may also have been seized by Inuit during raids on hunting parties in the Nordseta or plundered from farms.

Norse mention of the Inuit is curiously scant in the surviving documents. An old story tells of hunters coming across "small people," the Skraelings, with whom the Greenlanders apparently fought. The text says that when these people "are hit, their wounds turn white and they do not bleed, but when they die there is no end to the bleeding." The next account is that of Ivar Bardarson in his Description of Greenland Bardarson reported on the take-over of the Western Settlement by the Skraelings, with the implication that they had killed the inhabitants. Years later, another source describes a Skraeling attack in the Eastern Settlement, in which 18 Greenlanders met their deaths and two boys and a woman were captured. As Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee has pointed out, there is no physical evidence of massacres, the destruction of Norse property, or the takeover and reuse of Norse shelters by the Inuit, and nothing in Inuit tales of Inuit-Norse contact to back up Bardarson's claim.

One valley farm, excavated in 1976 and 1977, revealed just how desperate some of the Greenlanders had become. During a freezing winter, the farmers killed and ate their livestock, including a newborn calf and lamb, leaving the bones and hoofs on the ground. Even the deerhound, probably the companion of many a hunt, may have been slaughtered for food one of its leg bones bore the knicks of a knifeblade. Similar remains were found on another farm, but if, like their masters, the animals were starving, their fatless meat would have offered little nourishment.

Whoever killed the animals was used to living in squalid conditions. The bone-littered earthen floors had been spread with an insulating layer of twigs that attracted mice and a variety of insect pests. Study of the farms' ancient insect fauna revealed the remains of flies. Brought inadvertently from Europe, the flies were dependent for their survival on the warm environment of the Norse houses and on the less than sanitary state of the interiors. Radiocarbon dating of their remains revealed that they died out suddenly when these conditions ceased to prevail around 1350, presumably when the structures were no longer inhabited. Some of the rooms had been used as latrines, possibly out of habit or because the occupants were reluctant to venture out into the searing cold. An ice core drilled from the island's massive icecap between 1992 and 1993 shows a decided cooling off in the Western Settlement during the mid-fourteenth century.

Ruins of a barn. Upright stones divided the cow stalls a whale shoulder blade (white partition on right) also served as a divider. (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

A church graveyard at Herjolfsnes on the southernmost tip of Greenland sheds further light on the final days of the Eastern Settlement. Reports reached Danish archaeologists in the 1920s that the cemetery was being washed away by the sea and that bones and scraps of clothing from the graves were strewn on the beach. The archaeologists hurried to save what remained. The skeletons revealed a hard life teeth showed heavy wear and the joints of many adults were thickened by rheumatism. Though the flesh had rotted away, the heavy woolen apparel the dead wore to the grave remained intact. No fewer than 30 robes, 17 hoods or cowls, five hats, and six woven stockings (knitting had yet to be invented) emerged from the frozen earth. Most of the robes were heavily patched, but were in good enough condition to be wearable.

The clothes were thought to reflect French and Dutch fashions, an unexpected find in a country supposedly out of touch with the rest of the world at the time. The generously cut hoods provided ample covering for shoulders and featured a long, decorative streamer known as a liripipe that hung down the back and could be wrapped across the face or around the hands to provide extra warmth. The most intriguing find seemed to be a tall cap, rather like a stove-pipe hat but flared at the back and without a brim. The archaeologists thought they recognized it as a Burgundian cap, which they had seen in European paintings of the high middle ages. Yet oddly here it was in Greenland. How were they to explain this anomaly?

Because of its location, Herjolfsnes had been the first port of call for ships from Iceland and northern Europe. Archaeologists wondered who might have come to Greenland after Norse traders ceased to arrive. The most likely answer was English sea rovers or Basque whalers. According to their own tradition, Basques founded a whaling station in Newfoundland as early as 1372. They had only to follow Leif Eriksson's route north to reach Greenland. The archaeologists working on the site surmised that these Basques might well have stepped ashore sporting the new fangled Burgundian cap, which some fashion-starved Greenlander rushed to copy. This suggested that the islanders, no matter how cut off they may have been from Europe, still hungered for things European.

The questions persist: what happened in the end to the last of the Greenlanders? what fate did the people who laid their loved ones to rest in this graveyard by the sea meet? who buried them when they died, and where? did the Greenlanders give up the island and depart for North America, as was said of the western settlers? It is hard to imagine such a mass-migration occurring, if for no other reason than that the islanders lacked the boats to carry it out. Without a ready source of nails, bolts, and wood for repairs, any ships that may have survived from earlier days would have made a leaky fleet indeed.

Were the Greenlanders killed off by the Black Plague? Iceland's population had been reduced by as much as two-thirds when an epidemic struck in 1402 and dragged on for two years. Norway had suffered similarly. Had the Greenlanders also been afflicted, mass graves would tell the tale of the dying, and none from this period have been discovered.

Were the islanders subject to intermittent pirate raids? It is conceivable that ship-borne marauders, rather than Skraelings, could have descended on the Western Settlement, but who could they have been? Basques? Perhaps. The archaeological date for the "Burgundian cap", set at A.D. 1500, has since been over-turned by radiocarbon dating. The new date for the cap is around 1300, suggesting that it reflected Nordic rather than southern European fashion. Such high-crowned caps are mentioned in Icelandic sagas from 1200-1300 and have been found as examples of women's fashion from this period. Archaeologists initially questioned the feasibility of the theory of an attack on the Greenlanders by Basques, believing the cap to be exemplary of Basque-influenced fashion, which seemed to preclude the possibility that the Norse settlers and the Basques were enemies. The re-dated cap is no longer evidence of friendly Greenlander-Basque relations, and the Basques are once again possible culprits in the mystery of the disappearance of the Greenlanders. English and German pirates also made several brutal attacks on Iceland in the fifteenth century possibly they struck Greenland as well, though the new dates for the Greenlanders' clothing suggests minimal, if any, contact with Europeans.

One Inuit story, recorded by Niels Egede, a Dane who grew up in Greenland during the eighteenth century when Denmark recolonized the island, lends some credence to the story of European raids. The narrator, whose ancestors had passed down the tale, recounts how three alien ships sailed in from the southwest "to plunder." In the ensuing fray, several of the Norsemen, to whom he refers as Norwegians, were killed. "But after the Norwegians had mastered them," he relates, "two of the ships had to sail away and the third they captured. The next year a whole fleet arrived and fought with the Norwegians, plundering and killing to obtain food. The survivors put out their vessels, loaded with what was left, and sailed away south, leaving some people behind. The next year the pirates came back again, and when we saw them we fled, taking some of the Norwegian women and children with us up the fjord, and left the others in the lurch. When we returned in the autumn hoping to find some people again, we saw to our horror that everything had been carried away, and houses and farms were burned down so that nothing was left."

Once again the absence of any archaeological evidence of such violence leaves the tale unsubstantiated. Of all the houses so far studied in the Western Settlement, only one can be said to have been destroyed by fire. If such raids happened in the larger Eastern Settlement there would be signs of the havoc they wrought. The churches of both colonies seem to have been stripped bare, but a people intent on protecting their contents would have removed the sacred items and hidden them or, if the Greenlanders were indeed the irreligious rapscallions some sources say they were, sold them.

A Danish monument to Eric the Red at Brattahlid (Dale Mackenzie Brown) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the end, the answer to the Greenlander question may be a lot less dramatic than the theories that have surrounded it in mystery. Thomas McGovern of New York's Hunter College, who has participated in excavations in Greenland, has proposed that the Norsemen lost the ability to adapt to changing conditions. He sees them as the victims of hidebound thinking and of a hierarchical society dominated by the Church and the biggest land owners. In their reluctance to see themselves as anything but Europeans, the Greenlanders failed to adopt the kind of apparel that the Inuit employed as protection against the cold and damp or to borrow any of the Eskimo hunting gear. They ignored the toggle harpoon, which would have allowed them to catch seals through holes in the ice in winter when food was scarce, and they seem not even to have bothered with fishhooks, which they could have fashioned easily from bone, as did the Inuit. Instead, the Norsemen remained wedded to their farms and to the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle in the face of ever worsening conditions that must have made maintaining their herds next to impossible.

McGovern also believes that as life became harder, the birthrate declined. The young people who did come along may have seen a brighter future waiting somewhere else. The depredations of the plague in Iceland and in Norway could have created vacancies overseas that able-bodied Greenlanders might have filled. Through the years there may have been a slow but persistent drift of Greenlanders to those places that had been home to their ancestors, further reducing the island's dwindling population.

Not everyone would have left some must have stayed on their homesteads, unable to give up old attachments and resolved to wait out their fate. One such stoic was found lying face down on the beach of a fjord in the 1540s by a party of Icelandic seafarers, who like so many sailors before them had been blown off course on their passage to Iceland and wound up in Greenland. The only Norseman they would come across during their stay, he died where he had fallen, dressed in a hood, homespun woolens and seal skins. Nearby lay his knife, "bent and much worn and eaten away." Moved by their find, the men took it as a memento and carried it with them to show when at last they reached home.

Dale Mackenzie Brown, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, was the editor of Time-Life Books' archaeology book series, Lost Civilizations.

What the Norse Greenlanders Ate 2020


The purpose of this paper is to list the type of food available by Norse settlers of medieval Greenland, exploring the food mentioned in the Greenland sagas, remains found in archeological digs, trace analysis of bones and what food was available to be eaten. There is some question as to how much food was available to the Norse and how nutritious it was. The US Military recommends that an average sized male adult should take in a minimum of 4,500 kcal per day during Arctic conditions. [1] Estimates of medieval European diet shows that the average farmer, during the Medieval Warm Period (the time period of the Norse occupation of Greenland) consumed between 2000 and 2200 kcal per day. [2] Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel calculated that the Basel Metabolic Rate of “an adult male, 5𔄀” tall and weighing 140 pounds - that is, a fairly average fourteenth-century farmer - the BMR is 1,576 Calories [3] a day. Fogel’s calculation for the additional calories needed to perform any sort of labor is 720, for a total of just under 2,300 Calories a day.” [4] Estimates of energy output can increase to 7,403 kcal for eight hours of chopping wood. [5]

Introduction to Greenland [6]

Greenland was first settled by Europeans in 986 by legendary Norwegian hot head Erik the Red (Eirikr rauði Þorvaldsson). Exiled from Norway for multiple killings, he resettled in Iceland in 960 and in 982 was exiled for murder. Taking advantage of the forced vacation, Erik followed up on a report, by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, of a large landmass West of Iceland. Erik discovered a suitable base camp at the fjord now known as Tunulliarfik. From this base camp, Erik and his crew spent the following two years exploring the coastline. In 985, Erik returned to Iceland and convinced a few hundred people to immigrate to this new Greenland. In 985, he set out with a fleet of 25 ships with over 400 people, livestock and supplies. 14 ships arrived in the new land and two major colonies were established: the Eastern Settlement (or Eystribyggð) and the Western Settlement (or Vestribyggð), the two best locations found to support farming, grazing and ship access. Several smaller settlements were established as the population increased, however, the total Norse population of Greenland never rose above 5,000 with around 1,000 at the Western Settlement and 4,000 at the Eastern at their maximum population density.

The Norse occupation lasted almost 500 years. They constructed multiple churches, a cathedral (with a Bishop [7] ), a monastery and a nunnery. They constructed houses, barns, dairy and sheep farms 400 stone ruins still remain. They traded falcons, eagles, polar bear hides, walrus ivory, narwhale tusks (passed off as unicorn horns) and walrus skin ropes for iron, tools, bells, stained glass, raisins, wine and other “luxuries”. We know that food staples were imported: wheat barley honey but Norwegian and Icelandic trading vessels cannot carry that much cargo (estimated at 7 pounds per Greenlander per year, on average) [8] and did not make that many trips perhaps two or three a year in the best of years. Certainly not enough trips to be the sole source of food for the Norse. As the weather grew colder, and the ice packs grew larger, and the North Atlantic grew rougher, the visits lessened until the island was cut off almost completely.

The Greenlanders could produce bog iron, but the method requires a great deal of wood, which has to be converted into charcoal. [9] Greenland did have alder and dwarf willow trees, but they grew slowly. Vinland and Markland [10] were nearby, but as the pack ice grew, journeys there became too dangerous and eventually stopped. Driftwood could have been plentiful if the ocean current co-operated: driftwood from Siberia washes up on Greenland’s shores today. The deforestation of Greenland increased soil erosion which reduced the number of acres available for hay and crops. As did over grazing by sheep, goats and cattle. As the climate of the North Atlantic grew colder, the summer growing season shrunk winters became longer and harsher and life became more difficult.

The remains of one farm are indication of how difficult life had become: the farmers killed and ate their entire livestock, including newborn calves and lambs, right down to the hooves. Their bones were cracked open to extract the marrow. The farmers even ate their dogs the bones show knife marks indicative of butchering. [11] How desperate they must have been to eat their livelihood and their hunting dogs. When they made that decision they must have known that they were done for. Without sheep and goats, they would not have any fleece to spin into wool. Without hunting dogs, their ability to hunt down wild game would have been diminished. Without cows, goats and sheep, there would be no milk to turn into cheese and butter. Did these farmers decide to survive the winter and then leave for better lands in the spring? We do not know: they did not leave any written records.

One final note: I will avoid using the word ‘viking’ in this paper. Greenland was not settled by vikings. The best definition of the word viking would be ‘raider’. The settlers of Greenland were farmers for the most part, not raiders. They were from Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden and as such, I will use the word ‘Norse’ to describe them. Any further usage of the word ‘viking’ will come from quoted sources.


As mentioned in the purpose, the minimum daily Calories for Arctic conditions is 4,500 kcal/d. In addition to Calories, humans require certain vitamins and minerals for good health. Signs and symptoms of malnutrition include:

Loss of fat (adipose tissue)

Breathing difficulties, a higher risk of respiratory failure

Higher risk of complications after surgery

Higher risk of hypothermia - abnormally low body temperature

The total number of some types of white blood cells falls consequently, the immune system is weakened, increasing the risk of infections.

Higher susceptibility to feeling cold

Longer healing times for wounds

Longer recovery times from infections

Longer recovery from illnesses

Tiredness, fatigue, or apathy

All of these symptoms would be harmful to the Norse living on the knife’s edge that was Greenland. People can survive one bad year perhaps two without too many loses. But several bad years will reduce the overall population. The famine of 1308 to 1315 killed off 5 to 12% of the population of Northern Europe. [13] With a maximum population of 5,000 people, a 1% loss of life, in one year, could have been devastating to the Greenland colony.

A lack of vitamin A can result in night blindness and poor vision in dim light. Something required for the dimly lit homes and barns of Greenland. [14] “In the absence of adequate exposure to sunlight, a lack of vitamin D can cause rickets, which results in malformed limbs in infants and children because the bones fail to harden properly. A lack of vitamin C causes scurvy, with symptoms of bleeding gums and easily bruised skin.” [15]

“The diets of at least half of the population was deficient not just in calories (particularly for growing children) but in lipids, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D and they contained so much fiber as to block the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. This was a particular problem for women of childbearing age - and, since average age at death was under forty, it affected virtually all women. Half of the adult population of Europe was constantly pregnant, and therefore constantly in need of vitamins B12, C and folic acid. And that was when things were normal.” [16]


The Norse brought livestock with them to Greenland, namely cows, pigs, goats, sheep, ducks geese and horses. I will ignore horses as there was a Christian religious ban against the eating of horse flesh [17] and they were used for transportation and work.

“Greenland’s settlers started out with aspirations based on the mix of livestock maintained by prosperous Norwegian chiefs: lots of cows and pigs, fewer sheep and still fewer goats, plus some horses, ducks, and geese. As gauged by counts of animal bones identified in radiocarbon-dated Greenland garbage middens from different centuries of Norse occupation, it quickly turned out that that ideal mix was not well suited to Greenland’s colder conditions. Barnyard ducks and geese dropped out immediately, perhaps even on the voyage to Greenland: there is no archaeological evidence of their ever having been kept there. Although pigs found abundant nuts to eat in Norway’s forests, and although Vikings prized pork above all other meats, pigs proved terribly destructive and unprofitable in lightly wooded Greenland, where they rooted up the fragile vegetation and soil. Within a short time they were reduced to low numbers or virtually eliminated.” [18]

The lack of domesticated ducks and geese not only meant a lack of meat, but a lack of readily available, easy to gather, eggs. [19] But, as I will cover later, the Norse had a source for eggs. Cattle, sheep and goats were kept, with cows being the greatest in importance for status: The largest and wealthiest of the farms had the greatest number of stalls for milk cows. The greatest was on the Gardar farm which had a barn with room for 100 cows. [20] The meat of sheep was preferred over that of goats, [21] although none of the three animals were raised strictly for their meat.

“But in Greenland, as elsewhere in the world where rich and poor people are interdependent, rich and poor people didn’t all end up with the same average wealth. Instead, different people ended up with different proportions of high-status and low-status foods in their diets, as reflected in counts of bones of different animal species in their garbage. The ratio of high-status cow to lower-status sheep bones, and of sheep to bottom-status goat bones, tends to be higher on good than on poorer farms, and higher on Eastern than on Western Settlement farms. Caribou bones, and especially seal bones, are more frequent at Western than at Eastern Settlement sites because Western Settlement was more marginal for raising livestock and was also near larger areas of caribou habitat. Among those two wild foods, caribou is better represented at the richest farms (especially Gardar), while people at poor farms ate much more seal. . As an illustration of these trends with some actual numbers, the garbage of the poor Western Settlement farm known as W48 or Niaquusat tells us that the meat consumed by its unfortunate inhabitants came to the horrifying extent of 85% from seals, with 6% from goats, only 5% from caribou, 3% from sheep, and 1% (O rare blessed day!) from beef. At the same time, the gentry at Sandnes, the richest Western Settlement farm, was enjoying a diet of 32% caribou venison, 17% beef, 6% sheep, and 6% goat, leaving only 39% to be made up by seal. Happiest of all was the Eastern Settlement elite at Erik the Red’s farm of Brattahlid, who succeeded in elevating beef consumption above either caribou or sheep, and suppressing goat to insignificant levels.” [22]

The fleece of the sheep and goats would have been prized over their meat. The fleece would have been spun into wool thread and the thread into clothing or sails. “The average Viking housewife like Gudrid needed to clean, sort, and spin the wool of 100 sheep a year to produce clothing for her husband and children and their servants and hired hands (who were paid in food and clothing), along with bedcloths, wall hangings, tents for travel, packs and sacks, diapers, bandages and burial shrouds.” [23] However, once the sheep or goat stopped growing decent fleece, it would have been killed and butchered for food.

All three animal types would have been kept for their milk, a far more valuable food source: You can only eat a cow once, but you can milk one for months. The milk was used to make butter, cheese, whey and a yogurt like substance called skyr. Whey was a popular beverage and was used for pickling [24] and was turned into a porridge-like “cheese”. [25] “The cream was churned into butter, kneaded into a block, squeezed to get every last but of buttermilk out of it, and stored in a box. Unsalted, it would sour, but keep for decades.” [26] It is worth mentioning that animals only produce milk when they are nursing young: medieval cows could not be milked year round like modern dairy cows. The milk that was collected was then converted into food stock that could be stored for later use, particularly during the long winters. Skyr was stored in barrels and kept cold either in mountain streams or buried underground. [27]

As cattle do not produce wool, at least not the cattle available to the Norse, males are only useful for work (ploughing or hauling) and for making little cows. Realistically, a farm only needs one bull and only a few oxen [28] for labor. Any additional male cattle would have been a drain on the farm’s hay stocks. “ may have kept up to twenty cows. Since they had to stay in their stalls for 200 days of the year, they required 55 tons of hay, or 500 horse loads. . He also kept goats, which can digest brush and scrub even better than sheep.” [29] Unneeded male calves were fattened up and then, after weaning, slaughtered, as dairy farmers have done throughout history.

All of the animal was used meat, intestines for sausage casing, the marrow from the bones, and the bones themselves could have been carved into more useful things. Anything that remained would have been fed to the dogs, boiled down into glue or used as fertilizer. The meat would have been smoked, salted, pickled or cured to last throughout the year. Farmers might also have had to cull their herds depending on how much hay and seaweed was harvested: too little hay and the farmers would have had to kill some of the cows to ensure that the remainder would have enough feed to survive the winter.

“Meat was available from the livestock just at times of culling, especially in the autumn, when farmers calculated how many animals they would be able to feed through the winter on the hay that they had brought in that fall. They slaughtered any remaining animals for which they estimated that they would not have enough winter fodder. Because meat of barnyard animals was thus in short supply, almost all bones of slaughtered animals in Greenland were split and broken to extract the last bits of marrow, far more so than in other Viking countries. At archaeological sites of Greenland Inuit, who were skilled hunters bringing in more wild meat than the Norse, the preserved larvae of flies that feed on rotting marrow and fat are abundant, but those flies found slim pickings at Norse sites. It took several tons of hay to maintain a cow, much less to maintain a sheep, throughout an average Greenland winter. Hence the main occupation of most Greenland Norse during the late summer had to be cutting, drying, and storing hay. The hay quantities accumulated then were critical because they determined how many animals could be fed throughout the following winter, but that depended on the duration of that winter, which could not be predicted exactly in advance. Hence each September the Norse had to make the agonizing decision how many of their precious livestock to cull, basing that decision on the amount of fodder available and on their guess as to the length of the coming winter. If they killed too many animals in September, they would end up in May with uneaten hay and just a small herd, and they might kick themselves for not having gambled on being able to feed more animals. But if they killed too few animals in September, they might find themselves running out of hay before May and risk the whole herd starving.” [30]

The Norse hunted for seal to supplement their meat supplies. They hunted for three species of seal: the harbor seal, which is resident year round and bears their pups in inner fjords in the spring the harp seal and the hooded seal, both of which are migratory and arrive around May along the seacoast, away from the majority of Norse farms. “To hunt those migratory seals, the Norse established seasonal bases on the outer fjords, dozens of miles from any farm.” [31] Seals, once on land, would have been easy to net and kill. Like modern seal hunters, the Norse might have singled out the pups as easy pickings. Even in the water, the Norse could have caught their fill of seal: “The bottleneck where the fjords emptied into the ocean made the settlement a natural trap.” [32] Harbor and hooded seal are more frequently found near the Western Settlement than the Eastern. [33]

“Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat)” [34]

Seal meat is high in Calories and fat. One ounce of harp seal meat contains 103 Calories with 63 coming from fat. [35] Compare that with 69 Calories for ground chuck, with 40 Calories from fat 66 Calories, 28 from fat for mutton 31 Calories, 6 from fat for goat and 34 Calories, 8 from fat for caribou. [36] Ounce per ounce, harp seal contained more chemical energy than other readily available meat. And adult males can grow up to 360 pounds, [37] which is a considerable return in investment. As I have quoted above, poorer farms ate more seal than land animals why would wealthier farmers turn up their noses at so rich of a food source?

“Having forced myself out of curiosity to taste seal while I was in Greenland, and not gotten beyond the second bite, I can understand why people from a European dietary background might prefer venison over seal if given the choice.” [38]

“The meat itself is bizarre. It’s deep and dark like duck or venison, but the animal has developed a totally different way of storing fat, due to its life in the cold North Atlantic. It doesn’t have marbling instead, the fat is liquid, like oil, and permeates all of the meat. “When you handle seal meat it’s almost like a lanolin kind of feeling, your hands get so soft,” says Perrin. But that oil is also one reason seal hasn’t caught on away from the coasts where it’s caught: like many oils (walnut and flax come to mind), seal oil goes bad incredibly quickly there’s no good way to preserve it. That’s why the native seal-hunting peoples of Canada tend to eat it raw it’s not for religious purposes, it’s simply because seal meat has a very short lifespan and is best when freshest.” [39]

“Seal flipper tasted like bear meat cooked with seaweed: dusky, feral, tidal.” [40]

“Seal flipper pie as usually prepared is one of the worst things I have ever put in my mouth. Imagine dog legs frozen in open air, tossed into the bottom of a boat, stored in a freezer for months, cleaned to get rid of residual fat, and baked in a pot pie. I’ve had edible pie exactly once in 25 years, done by a grad student from a freshly-killed animal without freezing. Still tastes fishy. I’ll take a turkey pot pie any day.” Dr. Steven M. Carr. [41]

Keep in mind that the Norse were christians, during this time period, and did not eat meat on fast days or during lent. That was okay as seals were considered “kosher” for lent and were, like beavers, swans, capybaras and alligators, treated as fish. [42] So, even though the wealthiest of the Greenlanders could have better fare on most days, they would have to choke down seal along with their poorer neighbors on meatless days.


The Norse did not hunt for whale: they possessed no harpoons and the sagas do not mention any whale hunting around Greenland, but they did take advantage of washed up carcasses. The Saga of the Greenlanders give the following description, “Soon, they got their hands on rich and plentiful provisions when a large, fresh rorqual (whale) was stranded on the beach. After they had cut it up, there was no shortage of food.” [43] The Norse of Norway, Iceland and the Shetland Islands were whale hunters, but the technology and skill did not make their way to Greenland, which does make sense: the settlers of Greenland were farmers, not whalers, and whaling was not a skill one would just pick up. The Inuit were whalers but relations between the Norse and Inuit were never good enough for the Inuit to teach the Norse how to whale or to trade the all-important harpoons, air bladders and umiaks. [44] Also, the sea captains who visited Greenland were traders, not whalers, and if any whale hunters did stop off at Greenland for re-stocking or trade, it would not have been in their best interest to teach the Greenlanders how to hunt whale.

There were enough washed up carcasses that the Norse were able to fashion furniture from whale bones and to use baleen to lash together their boats. [45] Even one whale carcass per year would have been seen as a boon. A bowhead whale can grow up to 100 tonnes if washed up freshly dead, it would provide enough meat to feed all of the Norse on the island for months.

“Laxdaela saga describes a new settlement in Iceland as an excellent location, because there was “an abundance of stranded whales and plenty of salmon, and good fishing-grounds year round”. In the depth of winter and the grip of famine, whales provided resources that the land could not, when men were otherwise unable to provide for themselves. Gul-thoris saga depicts a whale that feeds many farms in the north of Iceland as the end of winter: “a whale drifted ashore on an island called Hvallatur. Thorir went out and cut up the whale. He took some of it home, but game some to the people of the district. A large part of the whale still lay there which had not been cut up.” [46]

One ounce of bowhead meat contains 130 Calories with 116 coming from fat, 3.5g of protein, a good deal of Vitamin A, Omega fatty acids and calcium while one ounce of blubber [47] contains 244 Calories, with 243 from fat, and 14% of one’s daily intake of cholesterol. [48] Various sources on the Internet state that whale meat tastes like moose or reindeer, and that the blubber does not. I found references comparing the taste of blubber to congealed gravy, to walnut oil flavored bubble gum, to, in the words of scruffycat on Yahoo Answers, “As to taste. ever smelled the rubber padding under a VERY old and worn carpet? That’s exactly what it tasted like to me. or rather what the juices tasted like, as I could not bite an actual piece off to chew.”

Greenland also had a number of wild animals that the Norse could hunt. Caribou, [49] Arctic hare and fox. [50] The hare and fox could have been hunted by bow and arrow, slings, traps, or even with the Greenland gyrfalcon, which were caught and exported to falconers across Europe. While hare and fox don’t provide much meat, anything to break up the monotony of seal meat would have been welcome. Their pelts were also collected and exported. [51]

“Ameralik and Kangersuneq Fjords still have the best caribou hunting in Greenland, in the mountains behind the Western Settlement. The Norse killed animals that walked by the farms even in the dead of winter, as the caribou scratched through the snow to find reindeer moss, and used valley bottoms for shelter from winter storms. The Norse had two types of dogs, one of medium size presumably for herding, and a larger type like a long limbed deerhound. These large dogs drove the caribou down to the fjord to kill, or through lines of waiting hunters, and even brought down wounded animals on their own.” [52]

The Norse also traveled north to what was called the Nordrseta to hunt for walrus and polar bear. Although, perhaps not strictly for food.

“Walruses and polar bears were virtually confined to latitudes far to the north of the two Norse settlements, in an area called the Nordrseta (the northern hunting ground), which began several hundred miles beyond Western Settlement and stretched farther north along Greenland’s west coast. Hence each summer the Greenlanders sent out hunting parties in small, open, six-oared rowboats with sails, which could cover about 20 miles per day and could hold up to a ton-and-a-half of cargo. Hunters set off in June after the peak of the harp seal hunt, taking two weeks to reach the Nordrseta from Western Settlement or four weeks from Eastern Settlement, and returning again at the end of August. In such small boats they obviously could not carry the carcasses of hundreds of walruses and polar bears, each of which weighs about a ton or half-a-ton respectively. Instead, the animals were butchered on the spot, and only the walrus jaws with the tusks, and the bear skins with the paws (plus the occasional live captive bear), were brought home, for the tusks to be extracted and the skin to be cleaned at leisure back in the settlements during the long winter.” [53]

An adult walrus can weight up to 2,200 pounds polar bears can weigh as much as 1,600 pounds. [54] Assuming that half of that weight was usable meat, two or three kills could fill a boat. However, this appears to me to be waste of valuable resources and manpower: Four to eight weeks of travel time, plus the time for hunting, for a ton-and-a-half of meat? Plus the supplies necessary to accomplish that mission. That time could have been spent gathering seabirds and their eggs, fishing, collecting seaweed and edible plants, or making repairs to houses and barns. I think that these hunting parties were going after more valuable product than meat. We do know that live polar bears were captured and given as gifts. The Saga of Einar Sokkason tells of a Kolbein Thorljotsson who, in 1126, sailed to Norway with a live polar bear that he gave as a present to King Harald Gilli. [55] “In the Hungrcaka it is stated that Bishop Isleif gave Emperor Henry III a polar bear which had come from Greenland, and this bear was ‘the greatest treasure’. In 1123 Einar Sokkason shipped a bear, along with his cargo of walrus-hides and ivory, which, as already been explained, in due course he presented to the King of Norway, in order to gain the latter’s support for the establishment of a bishopric in Greenland.” [56] I would guess that it was much easier to capture and transport a cub than an adult, still: not a boat ride I would want to take.

But, the occasional live bear aside, the pelt of a polar bear was more valuable than the entire carcass. A shipload of polar bear pelts was sent by the Western Settlement in 1327 for taxes and tithes and “was easily converted to twenty-eight pounds of pure silver in Bergen for the Holy See.” [57] I’m willing to bet that the bears were skinned and only their pelts were brought back. I was unable to find out the weight of a polar bear pelt, but after checking with various hunting and taxidermy forums, a 6.5 foot black bear pelt, with the head and paws attached, weighs between 50 and 60 pounds. I estimate that a 10 foot polar bear pelt, with the head and paws, would weigh well over 100 pounds. A six-oar boat could carry up to 30 pelts, with some meat for the return voyage. The hunters most likely sustained themselves on the meat, which, apparently, tastes like mutton. [58]

Walruses were also hunted for other things than meat. [59] Walrus tusks were very valuable when access to elephant ivory was restricted. Excavations of the cathedral at Gardar, built in the 12th century, uncovered gaming pieces and a crozier head made of walrus ivory. [60] I was unable to find a picture of the mentioned crozier head, but there appear to be hundreds of pictures of medieval crozier heads made from walrus ivory from all parts of Europe. Outside of the cathedral grounds, pieces of ivory are very rare, although pieces of walrus skulls and jaws carved into gaming pieces are common enough, it suggests that long-range trade in ivory was so important that little to none of it was used locally. “Ivory was an export product, in the production of which everyone in the Norse settlement participated as evidenced by the extraction detrius found in almost every household. It was valuable enough that almost none was kept for domestic production.” [61]

“In A.D. 1327, a load of walrus tusks from Greenland was sold in Bergen. . This was the Peter’s Pence and the six-years tithe, a crusade tax which eventually helped finance King Magnus Eiriksson’s 1340ies crusade against Novgorod . The load of tusks may be estimated to 802 kilograms, suggesting ca 520 tusks representing some 260 animals. . The computed value of the 520 tusks from A.D. 1327 runs into something like 780 cow equivalents, or nearly 60 metric tons of stockfish. . A record from A.D 1311 shows that a total of 3,800 Icelandic farmers paid their (tax of) 20 ells of vaðmál (woollen cloth). The value that went to the king has been estimated to 317.5 cow equivalents, making the total (Greenlandic) payment twice as much, i.e. 635 cow equivalents. . Thus the value of the Greenland tusks from A.D. 1327 (representing the six years’ tithe) was worth more than the annual tax from nearly four thousand Icelandic farmers.” [62]

Not just the tusks walrus hide was also valuable. “Its hide is thick and good to make ropes of it can be cut into leather strips of such strength that sixty or more men may pull at one rope without breaking it.” [63] Recent finds suggest that Iceland’s walrus population was driven to extinction due to the value of the hides, tusks and meat. [64] Many of the Norse sagas speak of the value of walrus-hide ship’s ropes and belts. [65] Walrus hide ropes were used for ship’s rigging and anchor lines due to their natural strength and water resistance. [66] Like with polar bears, valuable cargo space could be filled with walrus heads and hides rather then with entire animals. The meat of the skinned and beheaded walruses would have been consumed by the hunters and it’s blubber burned for fuel, as I don’t think the hunters would have brought very much firewood with them.

“Walrus and polar bear bones are found in small numbers on almost every Norse site investigated, in both settlement areas, and on both inland and coastal farms. This unexpected distribution, like the distribution of seal and sea bird bones, suggest the working of a social rather than a biological mechanism. . the most common walrus bone elements come from the skull around the tusk (maxilla) or the peg-like post canine teeth behind the tusk. . Scapula and rub fragments suggest that while most of the walrus bone brought back was associated with tusk butchery units, some meat bearing elements also reached some farms participating in the hunt. The polar bear elements are mainly those associated with final finishing of raw skins removed elsewhere.” [67]

We know that the extraction of the tusks and teeth was a cottage industry throughout Greenland: [68] jaw bones were divided out to a multitude of households so that many people could extract the valuable teeth, most likely over the winter when people were stuck indoors. I believe that the tusks, which can grow up to three feet in length and up to 12 pounds in weight, were used to pay the island’s taxes and tithes and the teeth, which are only around 2 inches in length, were the property of the workers sort of a national salary that each household could use to purchase luxury items from visiting merchants.


Greenland is home to a number of bird species year round and is the nesting site of many migratory bird species, all of which could have been hunted for meat, feathers and for eggs. “They collected guillemots in late summer, butchering the partly flightless sea birds in a seasonal glut, before taking advantage of seasonal caribou migration in the autumn.” [69] Middens of three Norse farms near the head of the Ameralik fjord contained nearly 30,000 bone fragments dated from around 1000 to 1400. 201 of these bone fragments were from ptarmigan and 124 from a variety of guillemot. The middens also contained bones from two species of divers, whooper swan, white-fronted geese, Icelandic gull, and several other species. [70] Birds could have been caught with nets or traps I do not think that the Norse hunted the smaller birds with bow and arrows, but they could have used hunting gyrfalcons.

It goes without saying that bird’s eggs have almost everywhere been collected and eaten. Brunnich Guillemont’s eggs are “twice as big and just as good to eat as hen’s eggs, and yield 1988 calories per kilogram as opposed to ‘medium quality beef’ which yields only 1358 calories per kilogram.” [71] Ptarmigan eggs are about the size of those from quail, [72] but they lay clutches of 8 to 10. [73] The Icelandic gull egg is the size of two modern chicken eggs. [74] While we don’t know if the Norse Greenlanders preserved their eggs, by cooking and pickling them, or of they only ate them fresh the Inuit of Greenland still stash eggs under rocks to freeze them. Weeks or months later, the frozen eggs were retrieved, shelled and eaten raw. [75] 18th Century Icelanders preserved eggs by packing away fresh eggs in certain kinds of ashes, which preserved them for several months [76] while there is no evidence that the Greenlanders did this, it does appear to be a low-tech method of preservation well within the capability of the Greenlanders.

Hunting eggs would have been easier just chase the birds away and take them from the nests. For birds that nested along steep cliffs, it would have been a bit dangerous to get to the eggs, but Icelanders had a tradition of hunting eggs on cliff faces, [77] There is no reason why Greenlanders would not have continued this tradition.

Surprisingly, this is a controversial subject. Well, as controversial as the designated hitter rule. [78] Discussions of whether or not the Norse of Greenland ate fish range from polite statements, both for and against, to screaming matches on Internet forums. We must look at the existing evidence, both for and against the possibility of the Norse catching and eating fish.

In the ‘against’ column, there is a distinct lack of fish bones, in proportion to the bones of animals and birds. “Even at the GUS site, which yielded the largest number of fish bones - 166, representing a mere 0.7% of all animal bones recovered from the site - 26 of those bones come from the tail of a single cod, and bones of all fish species are still outnumbered 3 to 1 by bones of one bird species (the ptarmigan) and outnumbered 144 to 1 by mammal bones.” [79] There are many who support the theory that the Greenlanders made a conscious decision to avoid fishing, for some reason Diamond, Dugmore, McGovern, et al. The various incarnations of this theory propose that the Norse did not eat fish for some taboo reason, or they were convinced that the fish was harmful, or that they spent their time hunting seals instead of fishing. There is no evidence to support any of these theories.

There is also the nature of fish hooks. Medieval Norse, apparently, only fished with a hook and line, not with a net [80] and there is a distinct lack of both fish hooks and sinkers from any of the excavated sites in Greenland. Thomas McGovern, currently a professor of environmental archaeology and zooarchaeology at Hunter College, concluded that because of the lack of hooks and sinkers, and the comparative lack of fish bones, the Norse did not make use of the abundant fish on and around Greenland. I do wish to point out that the lack of evidence is not proof that the evidence was never there.

A poor argument on the ‘for’ side is that of course the Norse ate fish, why wouldn’t they? Well, a bad case of food poisoning can keep one away from a particular type of food for life. A charismatic person could have convinced others that fish were bad in much the same way that tomatoes and potatoes took so long to be adopted by Europeans. I will admit that the argument that the Greenlanders avoided fish due to religious reasons is difficult to support, as the significance of fish in the Catholic faith. I would also say that the counter argument to the missing fish bones that makes the case that the soil of Greenland is acidic and small, fragile fish bones just don’t last long in the ground just doesn’t add up. Yes, the soil is acidic but small, delicate bones of birds and some of cod have been preserved. Fish bones have survived in the middens and sewers of Pompeii and Hercalanium for twice as long as those on Greenland. It is a poor argument.

There is no reason to assume that the Norse ‘only’ fished with fish hooks, Jared Diamond recounts his visit to Greenland in seeing a Danish tourist who had caught two 2 pound char with her bare hands. [81] The Norse had hands just as quick and clever as the above mentioned tourist: there is no reason why they could not have caught a slow fish with fast hands. There is also no reason why a Greenlander would not use a seal net to catch fish: just because that’s not how Icelanders fish doesn’t mean Greenlanders wouldn’t try it. Unfortunately isotopic data of human remains cannot distinguish a between seal and fish in terms of diet [82] so we cannot make any definitive conclusions as to what marine life the Norse actually ate and archaeologists will be debating this issue for quite some time to come.

“In Iceland, fish (both marine and freshwater) were an important wild resource (McGovern et al., 2007 Sveinbjörnsdóttir et al., 2010), but this does not appear to have been the case in Greenland. Fish bones are so rarely discovered in Norse contexts in Greenland that Dugmore et al. (2012) have hypothesized that the earliest Norse Greenlanders may have made a conscious decision to avoid fishing and to focus on sealing. This, they argue, was a pragmatic way of addressing a probable subsistence gap in early spring (McGovern, 1994), which was filled by the harp and hooded seals that arrived with the drift ice in the fjords of southern Greenland. Indeed, there is much persuasive evidence to support such a conclusion, such as the paucity of fish bones in middens and lack of any material culture relating to fishing (Dugmore et al., 2012). Yet, this overlooks the fact that the absence of fish bone may be a result of the Norse treatment of waste and the preparation of fish products, which would have been cleaned at the fishing grounds (Arneborg et al., 2012b). Furthermore, it fails to explain the near absence of freshwater fish, which could have been exploited with ease (especially in Vatnahverfi). Ívar Bárðarson made reference to ‘a great fishing lake’ in his Description of Greenland (Ingstad, 1966), which suggests fish may have been of greater importance to the Greenlanders than the archaeofaunal record currently suggests.” [83]

“Fish Bones are extremely rare on Norse sites in Greenland, in contrast to their abundance in contemporary context in Iceland. The single specimen from I17a upper is a galid (cod family) vertebra. [84]

“Fish and molluscan remains are rare in the Vatnahverfi, as they are in most collections from Norse Greenland.” [85]

“Fish bones are very rare in the excavated assemblages, which has given rise to a debate as to whether the Norse Greenlanders fished at all. The apparent lack of fish bones may well reflect the handling of refuse or methods of fish preparation. For example, fish could have been cleaned at the fishing grounds. The majority of the bone assemblages derive from midden deposits outside the farm buildings. It is possible that dogs, foxes, or ravens may have eaten the fish bones lying on these refuse dumps. In contrast, all finds from GUS derive from inside the building complex itself. Here, meticulous sieving of deposits from the house floors resulted in the retrieval of relatively large numbers of fish bones, and there is no doubt that the Norse did exploit the rich fish resources for dietary purposes. Sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpius), arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), capelin (Mallotus villosus), cod (Gadus morhua), three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), and halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) are all represented in the bone assemblages from GUS.” [86]

“The marine element should derive first and foremost from seal according to the animal bone assemblages found in middens in Greenland Norse settlements. Fish bones are nearly absent in the collections. This may, however, be explained by taphonomic biases such as the well-known poor preservation of fish bone and its appeal as a food source to both birds and domestic animals like dogs. It is hard to believe that the Greenland Norse did not tap the very rich resources of fish in the fjords, as did their relatives all over the North Atlantic and in Norway. Future isotope research may shed light on the extent to which fish actually formed part of the Greenland Norse diet.” [87]

“Both seaweed and fish were abundant, not at least the herring-like ammassat (capelin/Mallotus villosus), which can at many places close to the Norse farmsteads be “scooped” out of the water with buckets. It is therefore surprising that a study of isotopic nitrogen and carbon values in Norse animal husbandry show them - apart from the pigs and dogs - to have a minimal marine intake (Nelson et al. 2012). Although marine fodder could taint the taste of meat and milk, it is hard to believe that the Norse would have led the valuable and hard-to-replace livestock starve to death rather than to have them survive with an unpleasant aftertaste. If disbanding with a paradigm of arctic marginality, could this be taken to indicate that other supplemental fodder resources were preferred and sufficient? However, foraging for other fodder sources at distance from the farmsteads must also have been labor intensive.” [88]

“..given Norse traditions in fishing and curing cod, in which head and spines were preferably removed before the cod were hung across wooden poles to dry. Fish entrails apart from the valuable livers were often used as fertilizer, while other fish scraps - dried and crushed heads and spines included - would have been food supplements for both people and animals. A large codfish head is still considered a delicacy in both Iceland and Norway. [89]

I think that the Greenland Norse did exploit fish, both fresh and salt water varieties. They certainly made enough references to it in the surviving sagas. A line attributed to Leif Erikson is “Greenland is like a poor gnawed fish-bone and Vinland is like a huge sturgeon brimming with oil and stuffed with roe”. [90] Greenland was settled by Icelanders, a people with a rich history of fishing and unlike whaling, which requires specialized skill and tools, fishing can be done by almost anyone. Not only did early descriptions of Greenland mention fish, but so did Eirik’s Saga about Vinland, “There was a vast number of animals of all kinds in the forests, and every river was full of fish. They dug pits by the shore, and at low tide there was halibut in these pits.” [91] The translators, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, make the following note: “This is an ancient Norse method of fishing, employed in northern Norway, but the saga is on the wrong track when specifying halibut, a deep water fish - this method was employed when catching flounder.” [92] If the Greenlanders did not eat fish, why would they make note of how many fish there were in the Vinland rivers? That would not be of any interest for a people who did not eat fish. That would be like selling property to vegans by telling them that the rabbits are so tame they will hop right into the oven. The Norse Greenlanders, in my opinion, ate fish and recognized how abundant the fish were in and around their home.

“Additionally, fish abounded in both the fjords and mountain lakes Lysufjord got its name from lysa, a type of cod, while Agnafjord came from agn, or fishing. Perfect suited for a windy, cold, and bright climate, Atlantic cod ended up on racks drying into stockfish in Greenland, and provided food on voyages and hunts “spread with butter or blubber for more calories.” Nine years before Diamond’s comment about the Norse having a prohibition against eating fish, Kristin Seaver, a naturalized American writer of Norwegian birth, solved the issue of the Norse supposedly not eating fish in her 1996 book The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca A.D. 1000-1500. Medieval Norwegian sites also lacked fish bones and fish heads, for these were too valuable to throw away rather they were ground into valuable protein powder to feed cattle and horses. From her own childhood, Seaver remembered Norwegians grinding fish bones into protein powder for human use during World War II.” [93]

“ ‘Next lies Eijnerfiord, and between it and Rampnessefiord there is a large farm which belongs to the king the farm is called Foss, and there stands also a costly church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, which the king holds to rent. Nearby is a large island with huge fish, and near it a great lake. When rains come water flows in and out here are countless fish lying on the sand. When one sails into Eijnerfiord there lies on the left a bay which is called Tordzualsviigh, and further into the fjord on the same side is the little promontory which is called Kleinengh, and further still a bay called Grauevigh. Further still is a large farm called Daler which belongs to the cathedral, and on the right side, as one sails into the fjord to the cathedral, which is at the end, there is a large forest that belongs to the cathedral, and that provides all of its income, both large and small. The cathedral owns all of Eijnersfiord, and also the large island which lies off the fjord and is called Renøe, so-called because in autumn countless reindeer run there hunting is by common rights, but not without the bishop’s permission. On this island there is the best soapstone, which in Greenland is of such good quality that it is used to make pots and pans. It is so consistent that fire does not damage it, and it is made into vessels large enough to hold ten or twelve tuns. Further from land lies an island called Langhøø, and on this island are eight large farms the cathedral owns all of the islands except the tenth, which belongs to Hualzør church’. Ivárr Bárðarson’s Description of Greenland (75-97), mid-late 14th c. AD” [94]

Fishing did take place as evidenced by fishing gear like hooks and sinkers that have been found in Norse ruins in Greenland (Vebaek 1991:12-13), parts of nets that have been found in ruins in the Western Settlement (Arneborg 2004:269), and sources which mention processed dry fish (Halldorsson et al, 1935:290). However, buildings that can definitely be linked to fish processing have not been found. . Helge Ingstad suggested that the Greenland Norse cooked the fish bones into a thick soup and either ate it themselves or fed it to the cows, or that they used the leftovers from the fish processing as a fertilizer on the hay fields (Ingstad 1992 109). Both methods are known from Norway and Iceland. This kind of bone soup was in Iceland called brudningur or strjugur and was made from fish bones, mainly the skull. After all the fish meat was had been eaten from the skull, it was submerged in whey, which made it soft and edible. [95]

It is also worth noting that the Greenlanders had plenty of methods for preserving fish, from freezing it underground, to pickling it, to drying it. All it would take would be a cold and windy climate and someone who knew what to do. Someone from Iceland perhaps, where the process of turning freshly gutted and cleaned cod into stockfish was well known. “Stockfish requires no salt, an expensive commodity in medieval Europe, which in turn means that no extra investment was needed. The resulting high-protein product was ideal for consumption during long voyages when drinking water would be at a premium and cooking a high-risk endeavour.” [96]


Just as controversial as fish is the subject of grain: did the Norse grow crops in Greenland? “The Kongspillet [97] in the early 1200s proclaimed: ‘But most of them do not know what bread is, and have never seen bread!’” [98] The Norse, in other places, did grow a variety of crops, cereal and otherwise wheat, oats, barley, rye, cabbages, onions, peas, beans, hops and flax, for linen. At all Norse sites, the importance of crops diminished the farther north one traveled. [99] The wetter and colder the climate, and the reduced amount of daylight, the more problematic crop growing became.

There is no evidence of Greenlanders growing the traditional vegetables of the Norse, at least not on a long term basis, and it is unlikely that the soil of Greenland could have supported such cereal crops to sustain a population of 3,000 to 5,000 people year after year. “We know they grew the sort of crops they would have grown in Norway, France, England and Ireland - crops that may have been too intense for the soil.” [100]

“As to whether any sort of grain can grow there, my belief is that the country draws but little profit from that source. And yet there are men among those who are counted the wealthiest and most prominent who have tried to sow grain as an experiment but the great majority in that country do not know what bread is, having never seen it. . You ask what the inhabitants live on in that country since they sow no grain but men can live on other food than bread. It is reported that the pasturage is good and that there are large and fine farms in Greenland. The farmers raise cattle and sheep in large numbers and make butter and cheese in great quantities. The people subsist chiefly on these foods and on beef but they also eat the flesh of various kinds of game, such as reindeer, whales, seals, and bears. That is what men live on in that country.” [101]

Modern cereals and vegetables do grow on Greenland in greenhouses and in small, fenced off fields in the south of the island. Soil for the greenhouses was shipped in from Canada and modern fertilizers are required for the barley to grow without depleting the soil of nutrients. [102] The soil of Greenland was, and still is, very fragile and susceptible to erosion and over growing. Barley production has only been recently started using modern varieties bred for resistance to cold weather and to have early maturity, such as Tiril and Arve. [103]

“The mountains in South Greenland consist primarily of acidic rocks such as granite, gneiss and sandstone. Soils that develop from these rocks are acidic and low in nutrients. Many types of soil have a limited capacity to absorb water, and occasionally there is a lack of precipitation, particularly in the inner fjord areas. Droughts occur during the summer, causing low coarse fodder yields and economic difficulties. Permafrost, which is defined as soil that is at or below the freezing point of water (0°C) for at least two years, is found sporadically in the lowlands of Southwest Greenland.” [104]

There has been little evidence for grain farming until recently:

“”We excavated the rubbish heaps down to the bottom layers, which date from the time the settlers arrived,” says Henriksen, whose team took 300 kg of samples for further analysis. “The sample we took from the bottom layer of a heap contained grains of corn. The grains had been close to a fire and were charred, which preserved them.” From their shape and size, the grains of corn were identified as barley with complete certainty. And they came from agricultural production. Wild barley is not strong enough to grow in Greenland, says Henriksen, who also rules out imported barley, as even small quantities of grain would be too much for the cargo hold of the Vikings’ ships. “If the corn had been imported, it would have been threshed, so finding parts of grains of barley is a very strong indication that the Vikings grew their own corn,” he adds. The find also confirms researchers’ theory that the Vikings tried to continue the form of life they knew so well from their original homes.” [105]

“Archaeobotanical studies have never played an important role in the analysis of Norse resource utilization, and our knowledge of the Norse use of plants and berries is virtually non-existent. Knud Krogh (1982:103) reports on pollen of oats found in the turf wall that surrounded the small 11th-century church at Brattahlid, showing that the Norse Greenlanders, at least in the first period of settlement, grew or tried to grow cereals for either porridge or bread. At GUS in the Western Settlement, a fragment of a quernstone made of local material was found bordering an 11th century fireplace. This find, quernstones from other farms, and a single fragment of a baking plate - unfortunately without provenance - confirm that the Norse Greenlanders may have made bread, though not the leavened bread made with yeast which is mentioned in the King´s Mirror, but flat bread called leiv (Norwegian). Leiv was made from flour kneaded with water and baked in the hot ashes on flat baking plates.” [106]

It is worth noting that the oldest bread oven found on Greenland is a French design dating to the end of the 18th century, however “large ovens or stoves, interpreted as either bath stoves or drying kilns for grain, were found at four of the farms – Ø64a, Ø64c, Ø71 and Ø167”. [107] Flat bread was most like cooked over or next to a fire. [108]

One millstone has been found at each of the farms Brattahlid, E66 South Igaliku and Hcalset and at least four at Gardar. GUS was first settled ca. AD 1000 and in the second oldest achaeological level a millstone was found. Helge Ingstad points out that millstones turned by hand in Norway were also used to mill different kinds of wild plants, mosses, roots and fish bones which were used in bread and porridge. Not all quernstones were meant for imported grain. Discs made of soapstone for frying crisp bread have been found at several of the same sites. [109]

“Aside from these weedy species agricultural plants such as the cereals barley (Hordeum-type) and oats (Avena-type) were introduced. Hordeum appears more frequently in pollen diagrams (Erlendsson, 2007) whilst Avena is much rarer and where identified, such as at Ketilsstaðir, it is often interpreted as a weed within the barley crop (Erlendsson et al., 2009). Given the difficulties of identifying cereal-type pollen (Andersen, 1979) it is possible, that some of the Hordeum-type could be Elymus arenarius, a native wild grass historically used as a substitute for cereal in times of famine (Guðmundsson, 1996). A single occurrence of Linum (flax) has also been noted (Einarsson, 1963), which is similar to a rare occurrence of the plant at the site of Sandnæs in the Western Settlement of Greenland (Fredskild and Humle, 1991).” [110]

“The common perception is that cultivation of cereals in southern Greenland was not viable as a result of the harsh climate (Barlow et al., 1997). Documentary evidence from the Kings Mirror, a Norwegian manuscript dating to the early 13th century, records that some of the wealthiest Greenlanders at least attempted to grow grain (Larsen, 1917), although whether this can be substantiated is a matter of debate. Böcher et al., (1968) suggest that four cereal crops - Hordeum vulgare, Hordeum distichum (barley), Secale cereale (rye) and Triticum aestivum (bread wheat) - can be found in southern Greenland today. Of these there is plentiful evidence that Hordeum vulgare will, and is, grown today, but does not necessarily ripen (Schofield et al., 2007 Edwards et al., 2008 Moetzfeld per com., 2010). Additionally, Fredskild (1978: 37) suggests that ‘the south Greenland sheep farmers today grow barley, rye and oats for hay and ensilage’. Therefore it is plausible to assume that early Norse settlers made similar efforts to cultivate grain. Indeed, there is a growing corpus of ecofactual evidence to suggest that at the very least the Norse Greenlanders had access to cereal grains.” [111]

“The Greenland Vikings certainly played a part in their own demise, not just through the over-farming mentioned above, but also through destroying native vegetation for farmland and cutting turf that was not as rich in minerals as they were used to. Thanks to a heavy reliance on livestock farming, trees and crops may have been trampled by introduced livestock in the fragile winter months there is soil evidence from the lakes and rivers that many nutrients were simply washed away. We know this from the extensive palynology (pollen analysis) and radiocarbon dates that show a severe change in the topography and the crops that were being planted between the Viking arrival at the end of the 10th century, and the early 14th century where it all went wrong, replaced native trees on a mass scale.” [112]

“It has previously been discussed whether it was at all possible to grow barley to maturity in southern Greenland during the Norse period (Hansen 1991). Experiments conducted in 1997 by local agricultural consultant Kenneth Høegh showed that Norwegian and Icelandic barley types can reach germination maturity in the inner, warmest regions of the Eastern Settlement (K. Høegh 2011, pers. comm.). The climate during the beginning of the Norse period was as warm as at the present day or slightly warmer (Arneborg 2005) and would not have prevented barley cultivation.” [113]

It is very difficult to distinguish between natively grown cereal crops and imported varieties. While it was possible for Norse traders to bring ship loads of grain to Greenland, it is unlikely that they could have brought enough, year after year to feed the masses on the island. Also, it would not have been economical to transport cereals prior to threshing: not only would have taken up too much space aboard the open decked longships, but it would have been very difficult to keep dry on the voyage from Iceland. Once wet, cereal straw suffers from rotting unless it can be dried out. If grain were imported, it would have had to have been threshed and sealed in water proof containers.

But, this should not be an issue. Oak barrels can be made water tight, and in the absence of readily available timber, barrels would be especially useful to store food, and valuable in their own right. We do have evidence that grain was sent from Norway to Iceland and to Greenland. Trade ships could carry enough grain to make life better for the Greenlanders, although I do not think that they could have feed the entire island year after year. The WHO, UNICEF, and other global health organizations, estimate that 40kg (105#) of wheat is required to feed a family of five people for one month, assuming that 80% of their calories will be provided by the wheat. This is about 2 bushels of wheat corn. Norse ships varied in size and it is estimated that they could carry between 4 and 40 tons of cargo, depending of the design and size of the ship. Assuming that half of the weight would come from the containers, we can estimate that a large trading vessel could carry around 900 bushels of corn. This is enough to feed 180 families for a month, if they lived mostly on bread, porridge and beer. With the availability of meat, dairy, fish, and local flora, this grain allowance can be stretched well beyond a month.

It is worth noticing that a number of mill-stones have been discovered in the East Settlement, especially around Gardar. Though it is possible that the Greenlanders received cargoes of grain from Europe, from which they ground their flour, it is, on the whole, more probably that it was meal which was actually imported to Greenland in view of the fact that it was flour, rather than grain, which was generally imported to Iceland. [114]

If the Norse did grow barley, which it appears that they did towards the beginning of the colony, it was most likely grown in small quantities, in enclosures no bigger than their ability to weed and irrigate the crop. The grain would have to have been tightly fenced in to keep hungry sheep, goat, caribou, and cattle out. I also believe that there would have been a competition of time between any barley that was grown (ploughing, harrowing, planting, weeding, and threshing), and the amount of work needed to reap, dry, bundle and transport hay used for winter fodder. Examining the importance of livestock, I will conclude that once the soil in these enclosures became depleted of nutrients, and grain yields dropped below the ratio of work to yield, barley farming was discontinued almost everywhere on the island. My guess is that, eventually, barley might have been grown solely to make the bread used for communion: [115] I feel that it is more likely than the Bishop, priests, the wealthiest of landowners depended on imported corn to provide enough bread, year round, while everyone else depended on native lyme grass.

In the first centuries the Norse Greenlanders could pay for imports of [grain, malt, iron, timber]. But in the decades after ca. 1330 the international demand for walrus products declined. The Inuit pushed southward and made it risky for the Norse to continue their hunting expeditions to the Disco region. These two developments made the Norsemen cease their production of walrus products for export, and they could no longer pay for imports which they felt were necessary. The Norse Greenlanders must have experienced a gradual decline in their quality of life, and Norse Greenland became a less attractive place to live. [116]


It is vitally important for us to understand that the number one pain reliever, in medieval Europe, was alcohol. It was readily available at all social and economic levels and even beer brewed with a small ABV [117] can help ease the aches and pains of manual labor. The Norse of Greenland could not, like us, pop a couple of Aspirins after a hard day’s work of hauling in fishing nets. Alcohol is not a requirement for life on Greenland, but access to it would make life slightly better. As I have previously discussed, cargo ships could bring in beer and wine, but certainly not enough to provide a reliable source for everyone. Nor could they provide a yearly stock to be brewed for the entire island. Various sources state that communion wine was generously donated by some in Norway for the high sacrament. Do we have any evidence that alcohol was brewed in Greenland?

According to Konungs skuggsja, many Greenlanders never ate bread. The same goes for brewing material: hops, malt, and yeast. There is good evidence for the importance attached to these last items by the Norse chieftains. Hosting social gatherings where there was plenty to eat and drink was important for their status. According to Fostbraedra saga, one of the chieftains brewed large quantities of beer before Christmas to add to his merit because there were seldom drinking parties in Greenland. [118]

Thorkell [of Brattahlid] soon came down to the ship directly it was moored and bought from the captain and crew the things he wished to have. He bought all the malt that they had, and other things which were hardest to procure in Greenland. Next century, in 1131, after the merchant Arnbjorn had been wrecked on the east Greenland coast, and his nephew Ozurr came out the claim his inheritance, a similar custom prevailed. “They [Ozurr and his friends] got the Eiriksfjord from Norway, and men came down to meet them and do business.’ [119]

The same point is illustrated in episodes from two Islendingasogur. The Icelandic merchant Karlsfni stayed one winter at Brattahlid. He then told his hold Eirik Raudi that “on our ship is both malt and grain”, and he gave some of it to Eirik so that he could prepare a Christmas feast. Those present “thought they had never seen such generosity (rausn) in a poor land (in fatoku landi)”. The malt and grain were part of the commercial cargo to be sold in Greenland it had not been brought to Greenland as a gift for Eirik Raudi. [120]

When Christmas drew near, the chieftain Thorkell at Brattahlid brewed beer (mumgat) since he wanted to arraign a Christmas feast. He did so to obtain honour, since feasts with beer are far between in Greenland. He invited his friends to stay there during the Christmas holidays. [121]

According to Pals saga biskups, Bishop Jon smyrill Arnason of Gardar had learned to make crowberry wine from King Sverrir Sigursson. In Iceland, on his way to Greenland, he taught some Ice Landers this art, and without a doubt, his flock in Greenland benefited also from his knowledge. Crowberries are plentiful in Greenland, so there would have been no shortage of material. We know nothing of the quality of the [wine], but it is fair to assume that merchants selling European grape wine would have been welcomed as before. [122]

But the pope’s flexibility had limits. In 1237 the archbishop told the pope that in some churches in the Nidaros province it was problematic or impossible to obtain bread of wheat and wine of grapes to be used at Holy Communion. People therefore made bread of whatever material was at hand and used beer or other beverages instead of wine. The archbishop was anxious that this would make the sacrament of penance invalid. The pope answered that only bread of wheat and wine of grapes were to be used at Holy Communion. This prescription may have been impossible to practice in Greenland and the Faroes. The Norwegian King Sverrir (1177-1202) was born and been educated as a priest on the Faroes. He taught his foster son Jon, who was to become bishop of Greenland, how to make wine from crowberries. It cannot be dismissed that Greenlandic priests used wine from crowberries in Holy Communion despite the pope’s prohibition. [123]

Syra was made from skimmed milk and rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of a newborn calf). The calf was killed before it had ingested anything other than its mother’s milk and the stomach removed and hung up to dry with the milk still in it. Once dried, it was placed in a vat of salt water or whey for two weeks. It was then removed to another vat and mixed with boiled skimmed milk and left to cool (Fernando-Guerro-Rodriguez, 19-20). This mixture was known as misa (alternately defined as a kind of buttermilk or as curdled milk), which was a popular food, and a by-product of the process of making misa was syra, the liquid skimmed off the misa after it had cooled. The syra was left to ferment for upwards of two years before it could be served. It is said to have been highly acidic and although frequently consumed it does not seem to have been very popular. One would not serve syra to an honored guest, for example, because it was considered the drink of the lower classes who could not afford mead or ale. [124]

Malt for the brewing of ale was imported, chiefly from Norway, although the records mention the importing of both grain and malt from Orkney. Other imported food material are seldom mentioned, although there was some importing of honey and flour. . After the coming of Christianity, communion-wine became a necessity, but it was sometimes in short supply when trading vessels failed to arrive. For this reason, Icelanders began in 1203 to make berry-wine as a [substitute]. Bishop Jon of Greenland taught the Icelanders how to make this wine from crowberries [which] was then used for communion services to some extent until 1237, when the pope forbade the practice. [125]

The key components to brewing ale are a source of sugar, water, heat, yeast and time. With imports of barley flour and malt, they certainly had access to sugar. Water was plentiful. I would imagine that each household would have always has a fire burning. Yeast grows wild in Greenland. [126] Time the Greenlanders had plenty of. In addition, there were plenty of native plants that could have been used to flavor the ale in lieu of hops. For wine, there were plenty of crowberries once someone taught the farmers and hunter how to turn them into alcohol. Syra was a by product of cheese making. There is no reason why the Norse would not have made alcoholic beverages whenever they could. And if they could make alcohol, they could make vinegar, which can be used for food preservation, dye fixing, as well as for medicinal purposes.


The shores and shallows of Greenland contain seaweed, which can be used for food for both humans and animals. The Norse collected and dried seaweed in barrels. [127] “The inhabitants of both Iceland and the Faroe Islands seem to have learnt how to supplement their diet with edible seaweed, as witnessed by the words slafak ‘sea-lettuce”, from OIr. slabac, and Icel. myrikjani . which clearly derives from a Gaelic word (a variety of local forms exist, e.g. mircean in Scots Gaelic.” [128] “Dulse was used as a trading commodity on Iceland since the 700’s. . Written sources, namely sagas and law codes, record the use of seaweeds as human food on Iceland as far back as the 10th century. . For the preparation of a meal, seaweed was mixed with butter or lard and served with dried fish. ” [129]

“Burnt residue of knotted wrack . was found in many samples from most of the middens from both coastal and inland farmsteads, for example at Ø36 which is located 5 km from the coast. Its presence in the domestic middens shows that it was commonly used in Norse households. Seaweed can be used for insulation, fuel or animal feed but is also very tasty (author experience) with a high vitamin and mineral content (Pedersen 2011) and may therefore have been a beneficial part of the diet. The use of knotted wrack as feed for sheep is known from Norway (Pedersen 2011) but isotopic analysis of animal bones from Norse farms in Greenland shows that marine fodder was not used (Nelson et al. 2012).” [130]

Greenland is home to a number of edible species of seaweed aside from dulse: winged kelp, sugar kelp, bladder wrack, and knotted wrack. Inuit of modern Greenland still forage for these varieties. While not very Calorie ladened, (12 Calories per ounce) seaweed is loaded with needed vitamins and minerals. That same ounce of raw kelp contains Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, vitamins A, K and folate, a small amount of Vitamin C, pantothenic acid, choline, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and selenium. As well as plenty of iodine. [131] No goiters for our seaweed eating Norse. Seaweed also contains plenty of soluble fiber, something that would be seriously lacking in an otherwise all meat diet: up to 7.7g per 100g of seaweed. [132]

“A number of edible species of seaweed or marine algae occur along rocky shores of the arctic seas and several are used regularly, if mostly in times of scarcity, by the Eskimo. In Greenland, several species, including Rhodymenia palrnata and Laminaria spp. are eaten raw, dipped in boiling water or with seal oil. Rodahl (1950) estimated that 50 per cent of the vitamin C intake of the east Greenland Eskimo is derived from marine algae.” [133]

Since seaweed contains salt, both sodium and potassium salts, it is possible to produce salt by burning seaweed and extracting the salt from the ashes. [134] “The salt found in seaweed attracts both bovines and caprines - it is mesmerizing to watch Icelandic sheep devouring fresh seaweed down by the shore when they have only to walk a few steps up a sloping shore to reach green grass.” [135] Sheep in the Orkeneys are still feed seaweed and their meat is famed for its salty flavor. [136]

Wild Plants

In addition to growing European crops, at least for a brief time, the Norse would have had access to many of Greenland’s native, edible plants. Not only did the settlers gather berries and mushrooms, but they raised linseed, knot grass, chickweed, lyme grass, angelica and Iceland moss. [137] There are no known poisonous mushrooms, berries or roots native to Greenland [138] so anything that grew was safe to eat, although not all of it would have been tasty or nutritious.

“Finds from the midden deposits at the Sandnes farm in the Western Settlement indicate that the Norse also exploited edible plants. For example, seeds of crowberry (Empetrum) and mountain cranberry (Vaccinium) were found in small heaps highly reminiscent of human feces. Seeds and other macro-remains of knotgrass (Polygonum), corn spurrey (Spergula) and flax (Linum), which may also have played a role in the human diet, were present in the midden deposits as well (Fredskild and Humle 1991:77-80). In the midden at Niaquusat in the Western Settlement, pollen of Flax and spurrey was found. Spurrey is not an indigenous plant in Greenland, but is a common weed of Northern European grain fields, and the plant may have come to Greenland along with imported corn (Sørensen 1982:302). Flax is represented by both pollen and macro-remains and was most probably grown locally. It may have served as either animal fodder and/or for making linen.” [139]

The Norse would have had access to scurvy grass, [140] which can prevent and cure scurvy due to its high levels of vitamin C. Scurvy grass is not unique to Greenland as it grows throughout Canada, Iceland and northern Europe, however, due to the Arctic’s shorter growing season and reduced sunlight, the scurvy grass of Greenland is not as potent as that of lower latitudes. David Nicholson, writing for the Royal Society in the 18th century, said that the taste of the whole plant was, “as insipid as the colewort or beet.” [141] Dr. Richard Mead wrote that a Dutch sailor, disabled by scurvy, was put ashore in Greenland and, after partaking of scurvy grass, was cured. [142]

“It was the first herb I found in Spitzbergen, when we landed the first time it was so small I could hardly discern it to be scurvy-grass, but afterwards we found it in it’s full perfection, and it seeded in the month of July. It is observable, that the leaves of this herb have but little sharpness at Spitzbergen, and therefore is much weaker than the scurvy-grass of our countries, so that we eat it instead of salad at Spitzbergen, which we could not do our scurvy-grass.” [143]

“It is of interest to note that, although native plants have never been extensively used by whites living in the Arctic, those eaten-mostly in emergencies-have generally been different species from those used by the aborigines, and, in the light of our present knowledge of vitamins, of lesser value. Thus there are numerous examples in the narratives of arctic expeditions of the uses made of lichens-especially “rock tripe” or “tripe-de-roche” of the early Canadian Voyageurs-besides mushrooms, puffballs, and scurvy grass (Cochlearia), none of which is ever eaten by aboriginal tribes. Likewise, berries such as the mountain cranberry or cowberry ( Vaccinium Vitis-ldaea), bilberry or whortleberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and to a lesser extent baked-apple (Rubus Chamamorus) are perhaps among the most frequently and most readily used vegetable foods of white men living in the Arctic, whereas these fruits are generally ignored by aboriginal peoples who prefer the crowberry (Empetrum) which, in turn, is not favoured by whites.” [144]

Since the Norse did not leave us any cookbooks, we don’t know what, exactly, they ate. I have collected a list of native plants that are edible by humans and would have been available to the Norse. This list comes from various sources.

Crowberry: these berries were, and still are, an important part of Inuit diet and grow abundantly to latitude 70”N. They can be eaten fresh or can be frozen and stored all winter. A good source of ascorbic acid. And, as I have discussed, can be turned into wine.

Arctic bilberry: similar to European billberry. Can be found almost as far north as crowberries. Not only a good source of ascorbic acid, but they are a traditional herbal remedy to treat diarrhea. The National Institute of Health states that the leaves are “possibly effective for problems with the retina of the eye for people with diabetes or high blood pressure.” WWII pilots stationed in England, reported that eating bilberry before night raids improved night vision.

Mountain cranberry or cowberry: related to the lingonberry. Found in bogs and wet pastures. Contain vitamin A, C, B1, B2 and B3, as well as trace elements.

These berries can be converted into jams and jellies, all three contain enough natural pectin, although I do not think the Norse would have had access to sugar cane. Most likely they were eaten whole, squeezed for their juice, mixed in with porridge or baked within bread.

Angelica or kvan: found from Canada, east to Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. This is a very versatile plant. The roots are fragrant and can be found in modern pot pourris. A yellow dye can be extracted from the roots. The stems are used in herbal cough drops. They are candied and used in breads and cakes. The stems taste similar to juniper berries and are used to flavor gin. Young stalks can be substituted for celery stalks. The seeds are used to flavor Vermouth and Chartreuse, and the leaves, which are alkaline, are often added to other dishes to neutralize acidic ingredients.

“In the southern parts of east and west Greenland the kvan (Angelica Archangelica) is common along brooks, and in sheltered spots in the fiords may grow to a height of 6 feet. The tender, young leaf-stalks and flowering stems are considered a great delicacy and, when available, are eaten raw in great quantities. Because the kvan does not grow near the open sea coast, where most Greenland towns and villages are situated, and because this vegetable is in such great demand, long journeys are regularly undertaken by the Greenlanders to obtain it. The kvan is equally relished by the Danish residents who generally eat it cooked and creamed. Incidentally, the frequency with which the word kuaneq occurs in Eskimo place names antedating the present colonization of Greenland, shows that the Eskimo borrowed the Scandinavian word kvan an from the language of the medieval Norse settlers of Greenland. Since the ancestors of the present Greenland Eskimo arrived in Greenland after the Norse, they could have had no previous knowledge of the kvan, and clearly adopted both the word and the eating of this plant from the Norse. This is of particular interest because it shows that some, at any rate, of the early Norse-Eskimo contacts were not hostile.” [145]

Bladderwrack: actually a seaweed found along the coast. Made up of liquid filled globules. When freshly harvested, the liquid tastes like “salty grape juice.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a wine was made, in Wales, of bladderwrack and grape juice. The seaweed can be boiled and eaten, but in the last 100 years, it has been used primarily as fertilizer and animal feed. The juice, and the leaves, contain iodine and salt.

Broad-leaved willow-herb: the flowers can be eaten raw as a salad. The leaves are only edible when cooked and taste like spinach.

Flax was grown by the Norse in southern Greenland, not only for linen, but for the seeds, which could be pressed for their oil for a multitude of uses: from medicines, to cooking oil, to fueling lamps, or eaten by humans and livestock. 100g of Flax seeds contains 42g of fat, 29g of carbohydrates and 19g of protein, which gives 534kcal. By comparison, 100g of mutton gives 155kcal of energy.

Hairy fernweed: modern Chukchi turn the stems into a sauerkraut like dish. The rootstocks can be boiled into a soup base.

Hairy stonecrop: A variety of the Sedum family, which is found throughout Europe. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, but it is recommended that they should only be eaten when young in the early spring, otherwise the flavor is harsh and unpleasant. The leaves have mild pain relieving properties. It is written that it can cure scurvy, but the plant contains little to no vitamin C.

Water hemlock or musquash root: Not a food, but small doses of hemlock do have some benefits, such as lessoning cramps and muscle spasms and reducing lung inflammation due to bronchitis or asthma. It has also been used as a treatment for severe coughing.

Labrador Tea: grows in swamps and wet places of northern Europe, Asia, and America. The leaves are rich in vitamin C, gallic acid and tanins. The leaves have a pleasant odor to humans: they repel moths as they contain ledum camphor. In Russia, the leaves are used for tanning leather. Water infused with the leaves can be used to kill body lice and fleas. German sources indicate that leaves were added to ale before widespread use of hops. And the leaves contain some narcotic properties that are released when the leaves are boiled in water or alcohol.

Lyme or couch grass: grows throughout Europe. In the same family as rye, millet, barley and wheat. The roots have a sweet taste, somewhat resembling liquorice. The seeds can be harvested like those of wheat, rye and barley, however, unlike its more cultivated cousins, lyme grass doesn’t hold onto its seeds until the stalks have been harvested and threshed: the seeds have to be harvested before they fully ripen and are blown off of the stalks by wind. Once harvested and removed from the stalks, the corn can be ground into flour or boiled to make pottage. With the addition of the enzyme amylases, the starch can be converted into sugar which yeast can then convert into alcohol. [146] There are no records of the Norse doing so, but it is possible. Lyme grass could also have been mixed with imported barley or wheat to stretch out grain supplies. The caloric yield of lyme grass was measured and proved to be 419kcal per 100g. Barley flour gives 350 kcal per 100g. Lyme-grass ground to a flour was normally mixed with milk and consumed as porridge or soup up until modern times. It could also be made into a dough, fried, and consumed as something like a johnny-cake.

Marsh Fleabane: found in swampy places and grows well in manured soil. The young leaves and flowering stems may be eaten as a salad or cooked as a potherb. The leaves contain tannins and volatile oils that, while smell nice, give a bitter taste, like hops. Can be used to eliminate body odor or bad breath.

Marsh Marigold or “cowslip”: native to wetlands in Europe and North America. The leaves can be cooked as eaten like spinach, but they must be boiled in fresh water several times as they contain heborin, which is an irritant and a mild poison. Was used up until modern times as a purgative and a wart remover. The flower buds can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers.

Mouse ear chickweed: an herb with pairs of smooth-edged leaves with a white flower. The leaves have an anise like flavor. The leaves can be eaten raw or boiled and are best before the plant starts to flower.

Mountain Sorrel: grows on shaded slopes from mountain sides to as far south as New England. Leaves and stems are edible, although acidic when young. When cooked it looks and tastes like cooked spinach.

Mushrooms: There are no known poisonous species of mushrooms in Greenland. The birch bolate, slippery jack, and Arctic bolethe grow to hand size and are reported to be meaty and flavorful.

Roseroot: found in southern Greenland. You can eat the young leaves raw in a salad as it adds a slightly bitter taste to mixed greens. They can be cooked like spinach and the stems can be cooked as one would asparagus. Roseroot gets its name from the rose like smell of the plants roots, when they are dried. High in vitamins A and C.

Shrubby cinquefoil: varieties are found throughout Europe. The five-leaved flower can be found in medieval heraldry and carved into French churches. Tradition says that picking a perfect flower on a Wednesday when the moon was waxing and then pressing it in a Bible would produce a charm that would protect a house from witches. I couldn’t find out what it tastes like: all of my references relate to medicinal uses. Documentation dated to the 11th century detail that the whole plant can be used for inflammations, sore throats, joins pain, toothache, bruises, running sores, and “ to cool and temper the blood and humours in the body.” Modern Greenlanders use its dried leaves as a substitute for tea.

Snakeweed or bistort: grows almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere. The ancient Greeks wrote about it and its uses. It apparently doesn’t have much of a flavor other than “starchy”. The roots are full of tanins and starch enough starch that they can be pounded into flour. Its seeds are oily can be pressed like rapeseed. A traditional dish, that is still eaten in Westmorland, is a pudding made mostly of bistort roots, nettle leaves and oatmeal.

Star Chickweed: young leaves tastes like baby spinach. Loaded with beta-carotene, Vitamins C and B complex, zinc, iron, manganese, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, selenium silica, magnesium and sodium. Nicholas Culpeper, writing in his 17th century Herbal, says that Chickweed is a “fine, soft, pleasing herb.”

Taraxacum dandelion: very similar to the dandelions plaguing our lawns. The whole plant is rich in vitamins A, B complex, C and D, iron, potassium and zinc. They can be used to reduce mild fevers and as a mild laxative. The root can be roasted and then ground to make a coffee substitute. The leaves can be used to make ale and wine, if one had sugar and the right sort of yeast. The leaves can be make into soup and taste like mild endive.

Woolly and Arctic fernweeds: their roots are sweet and can be eaten like young carrots: raw or cooked. The stem can be boiled as a pot herb and its flowers contain a sizeable about of sweet nectar.

“Among the most easily recognized edible lichens are certain rock lichens of the genera Gyrophora and Umbilicaria - commonly known as “rock tripe” or “tripe-de-roche - and a few species of Cladonia and Cetraria, often mistakenly referred to as “moss” or “reindeer moss”. The former, as the name implies, grow on rock or boulders to which their irregularly shaped, saucer-like, leathery, brown, green, or black fronds are attached by the centre. When dry they are hard and brittle, but in damp weather become soft and cartilaginous and in this condition are easily detached from the rocks. The “mossy” kind grow on the ground, often among other plants, and sometimes form dense and almost pure carpets. The most important of these are the Iceland moss (Cetraria islandioa), said to contain 80 percent “lichen-starch”, besides some protein and fat, and “reindeer moss” (Cladonia rangiferina, Cl.. sylvatica, and Cl. alpestris). These are low, bushy, coral-like lichens. The first is dark brown, its fronds strap-like, crisply ciliated on ‘the edges while the fronds of “reindeer moss” are more coral-like, composed of round, hollow gray or greenish-gray, branches. These lichens, too, are brittle when dry and are best collected when moist. After parboiling with soda, the lichen should be dried, preferably in an oven, until brittle and then powdered this may be done by rubbing between the palms of the hands, or by pounding, or better yet by a grist mill. The powdered lichen, if put to macerate in water overnight, will jell when boiled with water or milk. One pound of powdered Iceland moss will produce four quarts of jelly similar to blancmange and is considered very nutritious and digestible. In Iceland and in northern Scandinavia, Iceland moss is used in puddings and in soups and formerly, in times of scarcity, flour prepared from this and other lichens was added to the bread-flour. The moistened lichen-flour will not form a dough unless mixed with a small quantity of wheat-flour. Very tasty biscuits may be prepared from equal parts of lichen- and wheat-flour. The starch-like substance contained in the lichen may be fermented, and in Scandinavia formerly found a limited use in the manufacture of alcohol.” [147]


When I started planning this paper, I was certain that Greenland was a caloric wasteland. That the Norse had very little food available to them mostly meat. I had thought, based on cursory reading, that the Norse were constantly dying of scurvy and rickets. However, it would appear that they had access to a wide variety of food and could have had a rich and varied diet. As I had stated, we don’t have any written sources of meal plans or recipes, but I feel that it is unlikely that the Norse would have eschewed plants and animals found in Greenland, particularly when much of those plants and animals were already part of the Norse culture of Iceland, Great Britain, Norway and Scandinavia. If the Norse took advantage of all of the food resources that I have listed in this paper, they would certainly have had not only the required 4,500 kcal/day, but all of the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy diet.

To be certain, the weather of Greenland can change at the drop of a hat. [148] Too much rain and hay yields suffer, which would impact the number of animals that can be kept through the winter. Too long of a winter means the animals need to be kept indoors longer and require more hay. Too cold of a summer and ice drifts can block access to the seal hunting grounds. Too cold of a winter and the bird, caribou and seal migration patterns can shift to less accessible areas. Too dry of a summer and edible plants might not be available. The colonies could survive one or two bad years (in a row), but they did not have the resources to survive, intact, beyond that. A biblical seven year famine, such as what hit Northern Europe in the early 14th century, would have decimated the Norse on Greenland beyond the ability to recover without a major influx of new colonists and herd animals. By the time the Norse reached that point of desperation, there was little to no interest in immigrating to Greenland. Recent theories have been gaining popularity that once walruses were found to be so plentiful, the purpose of Greenland shifted from farming and land ownership to ivory hunting. The theory is that farming was just a means to support the hunting of walrus. As long as elephant ivory wasn’t available in Europe, walrus ivory was worth it’s weight in silver. Enough money was in the hands of Greenlanders that they could afford to import luxuries from Europe: barley, honey, wine, iron, timber, the latest clothes and fashion accessories. Merchants could load a ship with tons of common goods and exchange them for a small amount of high value ivory, hides, falcons, and rope, which they could then sell for sky high profits. However, once trade with Africa and the Middle East opened up, and premium elephant ivory started to flow into Europe, the desire to make the perilous journey across the North Atlantic, particularly when loaded down with tons of cargo, ebbed and vanished. Soon trading vessels came only came once a year, or once every other year. Some sources state that towards the end of the colony, trading ships from Norway weren’t seen for a full decade.

The image I have of Greenland is similar to that of the gold rush towns in Western America: people might live in Greenland for a few years, hunting Walruses, and then leave with a bag of ivory that could be exchanged for a great deal of silver elsewhere in Europe. Unless you wished to buy land and either farm or raise livestock, why stay in Greenland if you could make good money and set yourself up like a lord elsewhere. As long as there was ivory to be desired, there were plenty of ships to and from Greenland. But, like the gold rush towns, once Europe shifted back to elephant ivory, no one was interested in traveling to the middle of nowhere, and the inhabitants left for richer places.

We cannot deny that the climate of Greenland at the end of the colony, sometime between 1450 and 1500, had changed to such an extent that the Norse farm and gather system could not produce enough food to support the population. Skeletons of the last of the Norse Greenlanders do show clear signs of malnutrition which coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period: shorter, wetter summers and longer, colder winters. The Norse did not adapt to this new climate and continued to rely on dairy products from non-native animals that required more fodder than what could be gathered or grazed. In addition, the shorter growing season, coupled with the fragile ecosystem, meant that less grass could grow before it could be reaped and dried into hay. This was compounded by the necessity of the walrus hunt, which took a certain percentage of the male population away from the farms for weeks at a time, which meant fewer hands to gather food for the winter.

One account, Grænlandie vetus chorographia ‘a afgömlu kveri, copied in a seventeenth-century Greenland account, even gives the rowing time to the hunting grounds in ‘days’ row’ for a six-oared boat. This record indicates that it took fifteen days’ row to reach the northern hunting ground around Disko Bay from the Western Settlement, and twenty-seven days’ row from the Eastern Settlement. If hunting parties left the settlements in June (after the main seal hunt) and returned in late August (in time for the hay harvest) this would leave only eleven weeks for the Western Settlement Norðurseta hunters and as little as seven weeks for the Eastern Settlement hunters (McGovern 1985a, 305). These estimates suggest significant problems in allocating boats and human labour in this small society, which also needed to carry out communal seal hunting in the early spring in the outer fjords of the two settlement zones and the vital late summer hay harvest on the home farms. Unlike Icelandic marine fisheries (which, in terms of agricultural labour requirements, could take place during the winter’s low season), the Greenlandic long-range walrus hunt imposed serious scheduling conflicts with the hunting/farming subsistence economy. [149]

And with the lack of overseas grain and iron, life became more and more uncertain. Eventually a tipping point was reached and first the Western, then the Eastern colony collapsed and the Norse either died of malnutrition or cold, or fled Greenland for warmer pastures. [150] But, while the weather was nice, the Norse thrived on Greenland for some 450 years, well fed and, presumably, happy with their lot in life.


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[3] A Calorie is 1000 calories or 1 kcal, in terms of energy extraction from food