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