Vanished Vikings of the West: the Eastern Settlement

In part I, we have discussed how the Greenland Vikings lived. After the initial settlement around 1000 AD, there was a century of expansion as they made their homes and explored – and used – the North American coast. Walrus ivory brought them a valuable export product. But Greenland was always marginal for their way of life. They were dependent on factors they had no control over. The trade with Europe was one, as they had no ocean-going vessels themselves. The climate was the other. In the end, these two turned against them at the same time.

The Vikings came at a time when there was a relatively mild climate. This did not last. The climate in Europe turned colder (and wetter) during the 14th century, starting with the Great Famine of 1315 which was caused by incessant rain in the northern half of Europe. But the change in climate came at different times in different places. Greenland was already feeling the effects a century earlier.

We do not have direct measurement of temperatures in the Middle Ages. The thermometer had not yet been invented. We have however indicators for temperatures. Tree rings are commonly used. The fraction of the isotope 18O in rain or snow is the second most important one.

The results show that cooling began in the southern hemisphere around 1400, in Europe around 1300, and north of 60 degrees latitude already in 1200. The decline in the south is most obvious in ice cores from the Andes. The decline in the far north is seen in tree rings (red line), especially from trees in North America.


A study in a lake in Western Greenland, not far from the Western Settlement, has shown that here the temperature became unstable. There was warming trend between 900 and 1100 AD. After 1100, the temperatures cooled markedly, by a staggering 4C in 80 years. The cold continued until 1320. After a brief warmer interlude, the cold returned. Tree rings on North America show a decline until about 1380, with a warming episode lasting until 1450, before a very cold period.

Strangely, the Eastern Settlement was more affected than the Western Settlement, and it began to enter a slow decline.

The Eastern Settlement covered a large area, with some 400 farms in total. (Not all may have been occupied at the same time.) The largest farms with the best pasture where along in-land fjords. Gardar, the largest, had space for as many as 100 cows. Smaller farms would have depended on them to rebuild the herd after a bad winter. Three other farms were also large enough to build great halls. Other farms were located along the outer fjords, close to the coast, with poorer soils but access to the seals along the coast. And some farms were in the uplands, in valleys. The land here had some important resources, such as small trees, but the grazing was poor and mainly suitable for sheep.

The most notable upland area was a wooded valley (in Greenland!) called Vatnahverfi. There were seven farms in this valley, showing how important this was. The area was used for agriculture, and there was little evidence for hunting. The first of the farms were vacated by 1250. The last one was abandoned probably between 1350 and 1400. Conditions were getting worse at this location.

The upland valley of Vatnahverfi was thus mostly abandoned during the earlier period of cooling climate. The last farm endured until after 1350, but failed shortly before the warmer interlude arrived. They could not adjust to the colder weather and especially the shorter summers.

The decline of the Vikings is often attributed to their inflexibility and their adherence to a particular way of life which was poorly suitable to Greenland. But the Vikings did adjust and they did change. While the mountain valley was abandoned, low-land farms did fine. The reliance on cows may seem strange for such cold conditions, but cows are well suited to good grazing fields, and are very productive both with milk and meat. When sheep are kept at high density, they can cause severe soil erosion: this became a major problem in Iceland after 1200.

Farming is always hit and miss, with good years and bad years. Large storage barns at the four main farms may show the precautions that they took. Obviously, a distant small farm may have suffered much more but that is part of farming life.

Improvements were made to their farming methods, fine-tuning them to the local conditions. These changes date from this time and may have helped to keep up the productivity of the land. The Greenland farmers improved the soil using the manure from the cattle. Perhaps unexpected for Greenland, irrigation was needed in summer when western Greenland can be dry. A cutting-edge system of hay-field irrigation was used, developed in Germany and probably introduced by bishop Arnald in 1126. There was exchange and trade of food, so that even in-land farms could obtain seal meat, and hunting was done communally.

Other changes were made. Pigs were part of their farm animals, but were found to be unsuitable and the Vikings quickly stopped keeping them. Cattle were initially kept in byres in the winter, but as the climate got colder especially in smaller farms they were moved into the houses. Sheep and goats could survive outside, given enough shelter. The number of cattle compared to sheep and goats went down over the years, because they were harder to keep alive during the long winters. This too was a change in response to the climate.

Diets also changed with the conditions. Before 1200 AD, 20% to 40% of their food intake came from the sea. By the end of the settlement, this reached 80%. The species of seal was also changing. Initially they hunted harbour seals, during their spring sojourn on the beaches. After about 1300, harp seals became a larger part of their diet. These seals live on drift ice, and they became more numerous as the cold current brought in more ice for East Greenland.

But the one thing the Vikings could not do was to abandon their cattle for a few years in order to focus purely on hunting. Their cows were irreplaceable. The Vikings were therefore sedentary and for much of the year were limited to what their immediate environment could provide. This was different from the Inuit who fully depended on the sea, and moved around with their food sources. As conditions deteriorated, the Vikings successfully adjusted their farming methods but at the same time this pushed them towards a way of life that ultimately would become unsustainable. And while the Inuit had shown that hunting and foraging could sustain them (although individual Inuit groups could also be wiped out by a bad year) the Vikings were never able to let go of their farms and move to a migratory life style. To the end, they remained farmers.

Life was hard, for many brutally so. The figure shows what was done when, with the size of the symbols showing the amount of effort involved. The winters were quiet times, and May to October were busy. The walrus hunts in Disko Bay were essential to the economy, but they took a lot of man power away from the farms for several months.

As the growing season became shorter, much of the work had to be done in a perhaps one month less. Choices had to be made. The walrus hunt may have become difficult to maintain.

There were other problems. At the same time that the pressure on the settlement increased, support from Norway diminished. The European economy was now led by Denmark and Germany, but their ships focussed mainly on Iceland and on the fish trade. Greenland was too far for their ships, and Greenland did not have excess food to sell. After 1400, the only remaining contacts were with Iceland. There may have been shortages as a result. For instance, the Greenland Vikings depended on imports for iron and timber. Burials had used coffins, but increasingly used clothes instead. This shows that wood was becoming scarce.

There were some reports about hostilities with the Inuits. However, this seems to have been minor and by and large the two groups ignored each other. There is no genetic evidence for any mixing between the groups.

As conditions worsened, farms along the coast were also being abandoned. Herjolfsnes remained: this was a large coastal farm at the southernmost end of the Eastern Settlement, and it acted as their trading port. But otherwise, life in the Eastern Settlement now began to focus on the inner fjords which had the best land. The influx of people and their resources may have helped these farms to prosper. Between 1350 and 1400, while the last farm at Vatnahverfi was abandoned, the farms in the inner fjords added large new buildings and even churches. They may also have been helped by the climate, which improved a bit after 1380.

The most important farm, Gardar was owned by the bishop. But the last resident bishop had died in 1377. It is not clear who took over. We know that the farm was active in 1410, and that there were priests to conduct weddings and presumably baptisms. in 1406, a number of people came over from Iceland, a visit that resulted in a wedding between one of them and a woman who had emigrated from Iceland some 10 years earlier. (The woman had come into an inheritance back in Iceland and apparently was seen as worth the long sojourn.) The wedding took place at the main church of Gardar in 1408, and was witnessed by the two priests who apparently ran the farm. The party, together with the married couple, left for Norway in 1410. Their reports do not indicate any problems in the Eastern Settlement, however neither did they mention that parts of the area had been abandoned.

We have no more information after this. There were no further visits, and there is only archeology to help. Carbon dating has been done on some burials. The oldest burials were at Brattahild, the original farm of Eirik the Red, and are dated to 1000-1200. The youngest are at the convent (1320-1420) and at the port of Herjolfsnes (1400-1450). Only 27 individuals were dated, so this should be taken with some caution. But the distribution of dates suggests that the last burials were approximately around 1430, and that the colony failed not long after.

This is backed up by other evidence. The fields around the large farm at Gardar suddenly reverted to wild meadows. The timing is not well known. the earliest possible date is around 1420 but it may have been decades later. Peat, which had been cut before for flags, began to regrow sometime after 1420.

We don’t know exactly how the Eastern Settlement ended. There is no indication of destruction: it did not disappear through an outside attack. The cause was internal, related to a slow decline. We can make an educated guess. (Do be aware that what follows is speculation.) All individuals who were dated to after 1400 depended for the large majority of their diet on marine food. Agriculture was not doing well and they badly needed the spring seal hunts. The harp seals were numerous but required access to drift ice. These hunts may have been dangerous. Life expectancy was not high in any case. Most of the burials are of people younger than 40.

The focus on fewer farms suggests that the population had been decreasing: death rates exceeded birth rates. The annual walrus hunt ended due to lack of man power. The resources to make or repair their boats may also have run out. There were no longer any visits to the forests of Newfoundland, or any supplies of iron. The annual walrus hunt may well have ended when the last party of young men -and their boats- did not return. A loss of even 5% of the population each year could have put the settlement into a rapid decline, and caused complete failure within a few decades.

The settlement was now small and vulnerable. They needed both the seals and the farm animals, and had limited resources to do both. It may just have worked during the years of fair climate. But these better years suddenly ended in the 1450’s. Tree rings show a sharp cold spell, with 3 of the 40 coldest years of the past 2000 years occurring in sequence, starting in 1458. It took more than a decade for the climate to recover.

The farms may have failed completely in this period, if they were still operating at all. The caribou would have suffered badly as well. Now the survivors depended on the sea and its seals. There are three main groups of seals in the area. Harbour seals remain all year but congregate on ice-free beaches in spring. They would have disappeared with the increasing ice of the cold years. Harp seals live on drift ice and migrate along the coast. They became the main source of seal meat, available in spring during the migration. Finally, ringed seals live in the pack ice and use breathing holes. They are hunted year round and are numerous. But the Vikings lacked the technology to do so: they had no harpoons. A year in which the coast remained frozen until far into summer would have been disastrous to them, freezing them out from their two target species. Losing their boats would have been equally disastrous.

We can guess that the farms of the Eastern Settlement were abandoned in order to move to the Herfjolnes, closer to their remaining food source. But this move did not help, and eventually they ran out of reachable food.

A settlement in decline ended when a period of extreme cold cut them off from their main remaining source of food. But what caused these cold years? It turns out, they were volcanic. Far away, a mountain had exploded, and changed the weather worldwide. And the last Vikings were in the firing line.

The Western Settlement had another, more dramatic, but equally volcanic ending. That is a different story.

see here for Part III of the Greenland saga: how the west was lost

Albert, June 2021

85 thoughts on “Vanished Vikings of the West: the Eastern Settlement

    • I really liked the music, very atmospheric. What is it?
      There’s definitely a variation in the time intervals.

    • Great, Glad you also caught up with the Natthagi camera (were I did record but things went wrong)
      For the record, mbl.is now also make their own daily timelapses on their youtube channel.

      I also saw your Wolf Spider video. That is a great video.

  1. Another volcanic cliffhanger for the story of the lost vikings. I sense a mystery 1458 eruption coming up. Could Kuwae have done it, despite the missing deposits that one would expect out of such an eruption? Looking forward to the resolution of the story.

  2. It is sad to contemplate the demise of people. Winters are hard and it’s hard to think about a year without summer. Winter is waiting for spring and if no spring comes it’s bitter indeed. A bit like the Easter Islanders. And yet today we think we are in control of our survival… joke’s on us. Be Kind while You can. Best! and Thanks, Albert.

    • It is also hard to write about it. They were people like us, with happy days and less happy ones. But they were overtaken by events. Did they see it coming? No doubt some did, but many would just have continued their lives and hope for better days. The same attitude that some take to global warming. Small communities are susceptible to disasters. Wars have the same effect: it leaves people powerless to deal with whatever else the world throws at them. But we live in a larger world now, and help is more readily available than it was 600 years ago. Some things have changed for the better.

      • it wouldn’t take much to impact us tho………….
        But You are right, some things are better.
        VACCINES!!!

      • Thank you for Part II. I believe that people cannot live on one food source alone, here meat. You wrote that the contacts to Europe became sparce. So I strongly suspect that many of them died or might have died of Scorbut, lack of Vitamin C.
        It became colder and fruit and vegetables didn’t grow enough. There wasn’t enough trade.

        The next vitamin is D. It was extracted from livers of whales and possibly also seal and walrus. But this is only half of the story. To be efficient it needs a lot of sunshine. Without Vit D: Osteoporosis, fractures and a feeble constitution. That’s why very old people can easily fall sick and die from a viral or bacterial disease including Covid, no defense.

        The B group is another story. B is in grains, also in rice. Not enough B, neurological deficits. And a certain form of anemia.
        And so on. They might have had enough to eat for a while, but not enough vitamins, so they became sick, must have had stillbirths as well. And when it is too cold the newborn if alive tends to die in the first week.

        This was a bitter ending. Some might have made it to Iceland or Canada. Or storms destroyed the boats. Or they used up the wood for heating and had no material to build new boats (like Easter Island?).
        You can’t really live there in hard times. Only international trade allows a decent life up there close to the pole.

        • They lasted over 400 years so they must have done something right. I d not know whether they were affected by deficiencies. Vitamin C is actually available in Greenland: they had a species of scurvy grass. Western Greenland is sunnier than you may think (they also lived further south than Iceland) and vitamin D should not be a problem (rheumatism did affect many of the skeletons that have bene investigated). They ate some root vegetables as well. And, of course, the Inuit had a complete marine diet and they managed.

    • One easily imagines them returning, in the end, to their old faith. After all, what was happening surely resembled Ragnarok more than it did Armageddon. There was no rising of the dead, no great battle among mere mortals, just the tightening icy grip of the frost giants. And perhaps with the involvement of a distant fire giant.

  3. Thank you Albert.
    Your writing is so easy to read and simple to understand.
    I almost see this farms and cows and waiting to see secret vulcano.

  4. I’ve been thinking about how each time new ground is reached, the lava speedily covers and spreads. After any pause, the new spread ceases and instead the lava slows, thickens and turns to a’ā. After a period of days to weeks, the cycle repeats.
    Gutn Tog’s latest lava video caught my attention with its movement and behaviour. It reminded me of a caterpillar track, that great invention for getting a vehicle across rough ground quickly. Is it possible that the solid skin, here being overturned and laid down under the advancing interior flow, is acting in the same fashion? And somehow, the next lava doesn’t behave this way?
    https://youtu.be/7cmYNva7Z2Ms

  5. Ragnar is a volcano which is suffering from stomach flu with periodic vomiting.

  6. Visited L’Anse aux Meadows many years ago but never understood it in a broader context until reading your articles, Albert. Thank you.

    What I remember vividly about that trip was the Newfoundlander’s distress that Brigitte Bardot had flown in on a helicopter one winter’s day, quckly had her picture taken out on the ice with some young white-furred Harp Seals, and then just as quckly she flew away, essentially taking with her their source of income for the winter months after the market subsequently dropped out of the seal fur trade. That was their equivalent to the Greenlander’s walrus ivory.

    • A person ran to the left one minute earlier. I guess someone was feeling nauseous from the gases. It seemed less dramatic as soon as the white dressed person came to the person on the left.

  7. 20.30ish on the new vent webcam was a substantial overflow to both east and west. Very pretty.

    • is it a new vent or a new breakout? I don’t see any vents on the webcams I watch, just curious I don’t want to miss a new vent

    • It’s the new webcam installed on the now cut off Theatre Hill overlooking the monster vent, which is the main active cone. There are other ephemeral vents where lava tubes break the surface.

  8. It’s hard to think of this sedentary way of life as a better, more civilised societal arrangement when viewed in this context. When food is scarce, mobility offers flexibility; there must also be brain plasticity to acknowledge and adjust to the changing conditions. Perhaps these people were too embedded in their own cultural hegemony to be able to contemplate alternatives.

    I’m inexorably reminded of how ice age peoples were probably in the same situation at the end of interglacials and interstadials. Hunting and gathering, but gradually a more sedentary lifestyle as food became more plentiful, would have gradually become more difficult as the climate became colder. Those peoples, like the Mongol herders to come, would have followed their prey species southwards, ending up in the southernmost refuges until better times.

    These poor Vikings were stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. No decent boats, and therefore no path southwards to escape. The ending must have been horrendous; did all the young reproducers die, thus dooming the colony?

    • There have been many conflict between nomadic hunter/gatherers and farmers. In almost all cases, the farmers won. Greenland may be a rare exception. Farmers have one big advantage: they can have many more children. Nomadic people space out their children to typically 4 years apart because of the need to be on the move. (And yes, ways to achieve this may include infanticide.) Farmers quickly reach much higher population densities. That of course makes sense: hunting can support much less people per square kilometer. When hunters meet farmers, the hunters are normally heavily outnumbered. Imagine a small family of nomads trying to attack a town. They may be successful against a single farm, but not against a farming community.

        • I’m reading a book on Genghis Khan and his legacy. It’s great, but really dense, so I have to take it in smallish chunks. I’m learning so much about the history and geography of that part of the world, and how the geopolitics swirls and spirals back upon itself.

          • can we encourage you to move the comments to the new post? I am not sure how many people look at comments on previous posts

    • Someone is saying elsewhere that this shows lift-off not landing but that is not correct according to timestamps on raw images

      The final image (lowest) was taken at “This image was acquired on Jun. 8, 2021 (Sol 107 of the Perseverance rover mission) at the local mean solar time of 12:34:22.” and the highest “This image was acquired on Jun. 8, 2021 (Sol 107 of the Perseverance rover mission) at the local mean solar time of 12:34:13.”

      See https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/multimedia/raw-images/

    • All we need now is the Mars (Very) Late Period Volcanism so we can get some Iceland style drone footage!

      I’d bet you they’d find some way to enable video bandwidth for that 🙂

  9. On full screen, 1080 res, it looks like the lava is going to flow on to my desk!

    • Reminded me of the Keauhou Holua slide on the big Island.

      From WIKI
      Kāneaka Hōlua Slide [3] which is better known today as the Keauhou Hōlua Slide is located in Keauhou (original name of this area was Kahaluʻu) on the island of Hawaiʻi. It is the largest remaining hōlua course left in the islands, which needs to be better maintained and preserved as a usable hōlua course. This particular kahua hōlua (hōlua slide) was used in the extremely dangerous activity of sliding across solidified lava surface
      More here
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keauhou_Holua_Slide

  10. Any news from Meradalir? Nattagi is not collecting much lava last hours.

    Timelapse webcams ask for password now.

    • If someone with a password can put together a 24 hour ‘montage’, that would be a rather nice gesture….I can understand why they might want to limit use of their server space!

      🙂

    • Definitely in the early runup to eruption now. The tiltmeter is showing inflation overall and the GPS is showing extension of the caldera, along with localised rising in the south part of the caldera. Now we have quakes on the rift conduit, which only begin within the month before something breaks.

      Given the elevation and how flat the area is an eruption could basically happen anywhere in that area down to Mauna Ulu, Halemaumau is still the lowest but it is also half full of lava, so if a vent opens under the lava lake it will suddenly add a lot of pressure, rather than relieving it.

        • Yes, but it seems to have been a lone event. The quake on Mauna Loa was also after the quakes at Kilauea that Damon is talking about, I happened to be watching at the exact time it appeared 🙂

          I expect we will see Mauna Loa erupt this decade but it isnt going to be crazy unless it erupts at low altitude, which could see a caldera collapse. Kilauea is the place to watch, 2018 was evidently not the terminator event we expected, the rift is still open, there is just a hole up the top that needs filling first.

  11. Anyone read “The Farfarers”? Farley Mowat-author who popularized knowledge that vikings reached americas-posits they follwed the “albans”, possibly basque seafarers. Emtirely speculative-have the past 2+ decades shown this prescient or
    cockamanie?

    • The Basque did go to the area but only after around 1400 when they had developed boats that could make the fishing trip there and back within a single summer. So did the British, actually. There was a near-war on the Atlantic ocean between the various fishermen and the locals with fighting on Iceland. The story that they predate the Vikings lacks any evidence and can be dismissed.

  12. 2021-06-08: The seismic data, recorded over the last few days, indicate little change from the situation at the time of the last release on 4 June 2021. Since 31 May, the GPS network and satellite radar imagery have not detected any significant displacement in the region. movements in the region. Earthquakes and ash fallout could still occur in the coming weeks or months in the weeks or months in the Lake Kivu Basin. Observations suggest that the magma intrusion crisis is no longer evolving. Nevertheless intensive daily monitoring by the OVG and some of its partners continues.
    https://georiska.africamuseum.be/en/news/nyiragongo_eruption

  13. Sure looks wet there this morning!

    I used to think the UK had “weather” where other countries had “climate” but Iceland beats the lot – you can have thick fog (really really thick, almost zero visibility, ‘interesting’ to drive in), torrential rain, glorious sunshine, howling gale – and that’s just in one afternoon.

    • If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes 🙂

      Sitting out there in the middle of the north Atlantic does make things interesting.

      • Cold rain and snow.
        Not sure how many Grateful Deadheads are on the board…but thought I’d mention nonetheless.
        Fire on the Mountain comes to mind as well.

        • At least one. 🙂

          Look out of any window
          Any morning, any evening, any day
          Maybe the sun is shining
          Birds are winging or rain is falling from a heavy sky

          Seems appropriate, except maybe the window (maybe substitute live cam, but it doesn’t rhyme)…

      • “Hail, rain and snow that praise the Lord
        I’ve met them at their work
        And wished we had another route – or they another kirk!”

  14. IMO are still showing the output at 12.4m3/s, total 62,059,700 m3, area covered, 2.89km2

    • Where did you find that information? I can only find the data from June 2. Usually a new measurement gets posted all over the place, but I can’t find it.

      • In Iceland, they have a TV channel switching between all 8 (yes 8 !!!) camera’s and this information is shown on the bottom of the screen in real time. The total output is constantly rising (obviously).

    • I like how your videos show the whole development of the pulses. Thanks!

      • Thank you. I like to watch the whole sequence myself.

        So many drones just zip about, but they have excellent hovering abilities. I don’t get why more don’t take in the full sequence.

        • i have a question…. is the lava silver an effect of sunshine? and when in shadow is the lava the dead liver color? Asking for myself… all my friends are off doing dumb stuff. 🙂

          • It is from the lava being very glassy so the silver sheen is both a reflection of sunlight and an effect of internal heat refracting in the glassy layers

    • Excellent video once again. Thank you! I half expected to see you running in panic to retrieve your drone as the batteries died… 🙂

    • Wow. Thanks for showing the whole thing. That puts into context how much the lava rises on each pulse and how much over flows

      Question for all, at the end of the video when we pan ouvre the hill where the spectators are. How many people think it looks like a residual vent like the current one! With the shallow dip in the middle. I can imagine it as a vent eroded round the sides and the inside filled in. Is my imagination overactive?

      Also, can we make requests? It would be nice to see a flyover of where the lava is at the far end of Geldingadlur where people used to walk up from and how close it is to overflowing that end. And of course, the mysterious goings on in Meradalir!

      • Have a look at Reykjavik Grapevine episode 108. Valur shows that part of southern Geldingadalir towards the end.

    • Just a comment to say you have a classy act. Just as I think “I wish he would pan to …” you do it.
      Clean stable flight shows the lavafield more impressively than the statistic cams.
      Well done.

    • Are you able to add dimensional reference to your images?

      I question how big this thing is, these flows look simple but must be massive.

    • That’s really fascinating, thank you.

      I wonder if it is possible to fly to the position of the first webcam on the hill overlooking the hill with the vents, including the main double one, and the valley below with the supposed grave?

      I am so curious to see what the same view looks like now. If you can spare the time, I know I and undoubtedly many others would be grateful. But I expect you have so much else to do. Thanks for your efforts.

  15. Really an incredible view point! We appreciate your posting these to the chat. I am curious for those in the know is it possible at some point that the crater becomes enclosed and the flows are just internalized? Also have there been any temperature changes in the lava as the eruption has progressed?

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