Colonization is recreation. It features on board and computer games, from Simcity to Civilization, and from Settlers of Catan to Musk at Mars (ok, that one is apparently not a game). The games invite us to imagine a fresh start in a place where the past does not matter and where everything is a new adventure. It is to boldly go where no one has gone before. But it is harder than it seems. Our real lives are complex. We are dependent on interactions with others, and on products and services created by other people in different locations. We are not an island, and complete self-sufficiency comes at a high price. It brings fragility. And when things go wrong, help is hard to get.
Complete disappearance of a colony is rare. But it has happened. This post is about one such disappearance, one that shocked the world. It took 300 years for the remains of the colony to be found: some ruined farms and a roofless church. All traces of the cause of the failure had gone. Why did the Viking settlements of Greenland collapse? Was a volcano involved?
Iceland was not an easy place for colonization. Still the Vikings went for it in their search for pasture. Getting there from Norway took about 10 days, a long journey in an open boat but doable for experienced sailors during the summer season. The migrants kept coming; over the next 60 years the population of Iceland grew to some 30,000 people. The migration declined when all good farmland had been taken. Eldgja (939 AD) finally put an end to this era of settlement.
But for some, Iceland had already become too crowded; it was no longer the land of opportunity. And so Vikings moved on from Iceland to Greenland and turned it into the most isolated European colony in the world.
This was a surprising move. Greenland has the reputation of being a glaciated, uninhabitable wasteland. The glaciers are kilometers thick and cover almost all of the country. In the north and east the glaciers reach the coast. It is not an obvious place to start a dairy farm. But the west coast is different, and the climate is only a little colder than that of north Iceland. The southern tip of Greenland is further from the pole than Iceland and the sun and the wind from the high glaciers can bring some unexpected warmth. There are meadows here, along the deep fjords, and there are animals which call it home. Caribou roam the region. Greenland really can be green, in the right place at the right time. But the winters are long and the summers brief.
Eirik the Red (a colourful character) discovered the habitable regions on the southwest coast around 982 AD, only a few decades after Eldgja. He had been exiled from Iceland for bad behaviour (and that said something). Eirik decided to make it home, and starting his own settlement here. This required finding more would-be colonists. He called it ‘Greenland’ to make it sound more attractive, in order to entice people in Iceland to come with him to a new and empty world. The origin of the name was soon forgotten. Adam of Bremen, in 1072, wrote “The people there are green from the salt water, whence, too, that region gets its name. The people live in the same manner as the Icelanders except that they are fiercer and trouble seafarers by their piratical attacks.“ The people who made Greenland their home were as rough as the country they lived in.
Around 985 AD, 25 boats went on the migration, each carrying perhaps 30 to 40 people. Only 14 boats arrived: the remainder turned back before arrival, and some may have been lost at sea. Most of the around 500 people who came settled in a region just beyond the southern tip of Greenland. This was where Eirik had spend the three years of his banishment. It became known as the Eastern Settlement. (This unfortunate name caused serious problems later.) But 2 or 3 of the arriving boats moved on, and went further up the coast, 400 kilometers and another 6 days of travel away. This became the Western Settlement. These were the two main regions that were (somewhat) suitable for farming.
The first years must have been very hard. After the arduous and long journey, the settlers now had to set up home. Eirik and the people who had accompanied him in exile already had dwellings, but the others had to decide on a location, build houses, and hunt and farm enough food for the long winter, in just a few remaining weeks of summer. They managed, and over the next years more people came from Iceland to join them in their brave new world. The Eastern Settlement grew to 2000-3000 people; the Western Settlement may have homed 1000 people.
For centuries the settlements survived and even prospered. But it did not last. After four centuries, contact with Norway and Iceland was lost, and when people came to look for them the settlements could not be found. The rescuers were confused by the name, and searched for the lost tribes on the wrong side of Greenland, the ice-covered east coast. The search for the lost Greenland Vikings became legendary.
It took more than 300 years before the location of the two settlements was finally found. But there were only ruins, and they showed very little evidence of what had happened to the people. The discussions continue to this day. Some blame the worsening climate of the middle ages. Others give the cause as ecocide, with depletion of the local farming land and fishing grounds. English pirates have been blamed, or wars with the Inuit population. Speculation is rife and facts are few. The failure of the Greenland Vikings does not bode well for Musk on Mars, and it is important that we understand how isolation can lead to fragility, and finally to disappearance. It turns out that there were two extinction events. Were the triggers volcanic?
Vikings were farmers. This is of course not what they are remembered for, but the looting, murdering, piracy and conquering much of the known world was a bit of a sideline to making ends meet. Farming in Norway was hit-and-miss, and when things went wrong or a new generation grew too numerous for the carrying capacity of the land, a bit of piracy seemed a good way to supplement one’s income, and perhaps reduce the overpopulation. When the Vikings moved to Iceland, they took their farm animals and culture with them. Norway has a cold climate and their way of life was suitable to the Icelandic climate. When moving to Greenland, they again did the same thing. The boats had carried not only the settlers but also their cows, sheep, goats and pigs. And all lived on a small open boat in difficult seas for weeks. Just imagine the smell!
The Greenland settlers never build towns. Instead they build farms of a variety of sizes, ranging from single family dwellings to large manors which supported tens of people. Some outlying buildings were occupied only in summer. The farms were typically 1 to 5 kilometers apart. You do get the impression that the Vikings needed their distance from each other! The Western settlement consisted of perhaps 90 farms; the Eastern settlement was a few times larger. The farms were located along extensive and multi-armed fjord systems. Each of the settlements extended over 100 km! The farms were mostly located quite far in-land where the climate was a bit better suited to farming. This is a second reason why the search parties took 300 years to locate the ruins. They were looking along the coast, while the farms were mostly in-land.
There is a limit to what farming is possible in Greenland, and in the Western Settlement this was even more restricted than in the milder climate of the Eastern Settlement. Grain would not grow and bread did not exist. Some root vegetables were grown. Iceland is fertilized by frequent volcanic ash. Greenland is not, and it is ancient rock. Glaciers have scraped the ground down to the bedrock, and around the Eastern Settlement this bedrock is a staggering 3.6 billion years old! It has long lost any fertility it may have had. The farms were completely dependent on what patches of soil there were. They were dairy farms with a small herd of cows providing milk. All suitable soil was used to grow the hay that was needed to keep the cattle alive during the long winters. Poorer fields were used for sheep. The hay was supplemented with anything else they could get, including some seaweed. The cows stayed inside (in the houses!) for 5 months (Eastern Settlement) to 7 months (Western Settlement). The calves were born here. At the end of the winter, sometimes they had to be carried outside, being too weak to walk. In autumn, famers would need to decide how many cows they could keep through the winter.
Hunting supplemented the meat. Caribou meat was especially valued. Seal meat was eaten when caribou was not available, but was not the preferred meat: the manors mostly ate caribou, the poorer farms ate seals. Fish was taken from the rivers and lakes, but not from the open sea. The Greenland Vikings (unlike those at Iceland) used no nets or harpoons, only hooks. Seals were hunted in the spring on their breeding ground on the shore.
The big attraction of living in Greenland, though, was something entirely different. Walrus tusks were highly valued for their ivory, and this became Greenland’s dominant export product. Iceland’s supply of walruses had been quickly exterminated. Greenland had unlimited numbers. Their ivory made Greenland economically viable. The walruses were hunted at Disko Bay, 300 kilometers north of the Western Settlement. Hunting parties from both settlements would go there. Disko Bay was perhaps the reason why the Western Settlement had been build in such a marginal location. Not only could the people here travel to the walruses much quicker, they could also set off earlier in the season. Drift ice from East Greenland could block the fjords of the Eastern Settlements until June, whilst the Western Settlement had much less drift ice: they could go to Disko Bay as early as April. Within a century of Eirik the Red, all ivory in Europe came from Greenland.The final aspect of the economy of Greenland involved what they lacked. They were an island, and any essentials which Greenland could not provide had to come from overseas. Wood especially was scarce. The Greenland colonies had summers that were too short for trees to grow, except in a few sheltered places in the south. The Western Settlement only had drift wood; the Eastern Settlement had some limited tree growth (dwarf birch). These sources sufficed for some purposes but not for timber. Timber was needed for houses, but crucially also for the boats. Viking longboats came in a variety of sizes, set by the number of pair of oars they used. These ranged from 12 to 32 pairs and were build from overlapping planks. The drift wood the Greenlanders had access to was sufficient for the smallest type. Anything larger needed timber.
Because of the shortage of wood, Greenland eventually lacked the boats needed to trade their ivory themselves. They depended on visiting traders. In later years, one Greenland boat which managed to reach Iceland caused a bit of a sensation, by being so small and because it lacked an anchor. That was a second lack: Greenland had no iron.
The journey of the Vikings did not end in Greenland. A bigger prize was beckoning, and it became important in filling the gaps in Greenland’s economy: America.
There are two versions of the discovery of America. I will follow the Greenland saga which seems the more likely one. One of the original settlers of Greenland was called Herjolfr. He had left Iceland while his son Bjarni Herjofsson, was away in Norway. Bjarni went looking for his father, but wasn’t sure where this Greenland was. Driven too far west in a storm, he sighted a land with trees and mountains. This clearly wasn’t Greenland, and Bjarni backtracked to continue his search, without stopping. He managed to eventually find Greenland, and remained there with his father. After his father’s death Bjarni returned to Norway. The land he found sounded rather enticing, and when Bjarni left, Eirik’s son Leif bought Bjarni’s boat and went looking for this land. (This already indicates a lack of sufficiently large boats in Greenland.) Eirik himself stayed behind in Greenland. This happened around the year 1000.
The new land improved as Leif’s party sailed south along the coast. They gave it descriptive names: the northern area including Baffin Island was called ‘Helluland’ (slab land), south of about 60 degrees latitude it was ‘Mark land’ (forest land), and further south (Nova Scotia and perhaps around the St Lawrence river) they called ‘Vinland’ (wine land). Slab land had little to offer apart from foxes, and the winters here were much more severe (and snowy) than in their Greenland homes. Forest, though, was a very valuable find and grapes would have been out of this world for a people having neither wine nor beer. The party wintered in Newfoundland, and returned to Greenland the next year with their new-found treasures.
After this the story becomes vague. A settlement was started in the new land, from where they would travel south. This settlement was discovered at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, at the northern tip of Newfoundland. There may have been a second camp further south. Women joined the party, and a Viking child (‘Snorri’) is said to have been born in North America. Archaeology has shown that the people at L’Anse-aux-Meadown included Icelanders – it was not a purely Greenland exploration. The child was said to have ended up back in Iceland. There may still be people in Iceland with a North American link in their ancestry!
The travels to Newfoundland had a clear economic benefit. The Vikings needed wood for their boats and their houses, and there were trees at L’Anse-aux-Meadows. Iron too could be obtained from this region. There was also hunting, but the winters at L’Anse-aux-Meadows were quite severe (more so than at their homes in Greenland) and the game was scarce. This is one reason why there may have another camp further south. Around 100 people would have stayed at L’Anse-aux-Meadows.
How long the settlement lasted is not well known. The sagas talk about the conflicts with the local population, and also about murder in their own ranks. It appears that the site was abandoned within a century, perhaps even within a few decades. After that, Vinland was out of reach for the Vikings. But summer journeys to Newfoundland (or Markland) continued long after. Even at late times in the Greenland settlements, their boats and coffins contained larch wood which only grows there.
Why did the American settlement fail? In the end, they lacked the numbers to grow into a viable colony and to defend themselves against the local population. Greenland was settled by about 1 in 20 of the Icelandic population. L’Anse aux Meadows housed about 1 in 20 of Greenland’s population. Greenland was perhaps just too small to support another colony. If Eirik the Red had gone a bit further on his first attempt, straight for North America, a viable colony might have been possible and history could have been very different. But he didn’t.
The two Greenland settlements did well for centuries. These were not marginal societies. Farmers were never wealthy, but they made a living and ivory provided income. Churches were build and even stained-glass windows were imported. But over time, cracks were showing. The lucrative trade in ivory remained important until around 1300. But after that it declined. In part this was because other sources of ivory had become available, but a more important reason was Norwegian politics. In 1294, the Norwegian king decreed that all trade had to be done on the Norwegian royal vessel. The aim was to make sure that taxes were paid, but it severely limited trade and import. The vessel came irregularly. It also never went to the Western Settlement, because adding this trip to the journey would have required the vessel to overwinter in Greenland. The Western Settlement had to bring their taxes (paid in kind, with ivory and walrus skins) to the Eastern Settlement and received little or nothing in return. In comparison, the Eastern Settlement still did well enough to build a small cathedral.
By the middle of the 14th century, trade with Greenland had diminished so much that in Europe ivory became in short supply. This reflects the lack of shipping opportunities. It became even worse during the years of the Black Death when few ships sailed the North Atlantic. (One visiting bishop in Iceland was stuck for four years because no ship came for him.) The Norwegian royal vessel was itself lost in 1367 and after that there was little contact between Norway and Greenland. A consequence of the diminishing trade was that the Black Death never made it to Greenland. It did get to Iceland, though with 50 years delay.
In the absence of trade, we do not know whether the hunts at Disko Bay still continued. The contacts between the Eastern and the Western Settlements had been decreasing. Travel between the two took 6 days, and was only possible in summer when there was much else to do. After a while, the only recorded visits were to pay taxes. The last such record was in 1327.
The Eastern Settlement also became isolated. The last documented visit by people from Iceland was in 1406-1410, with circumstantial (and unconvincing) evidence that the same people returned in 1418-1420. After that the Greenland Vikings were never seen again, at least by people which documented the visit. This was the time that European fishermen began to frequent the Newfoundland region for cod. New designs for boats had improved speed of travel, and now it was possible for the fishermen to make the journey within one summer. Before that, they would have had to winter. There may have been contact between the fishermen (mainly from the Basque region and from Bristol) but this is speculation.
In 1410 all had been well with the Eastern Settlement. But within decades it would be gone. Archaelogical evidence shows that the best farms reverted to wild meadows around 1450. At the very least this means there were no longer any cows, and at the worst it means there were no longer any farmers and the last true Vikings were gone.
It took many years for the disappearance of Greenlanders to be noticed. After 1500 even the pope expressed concern, and expeditions were planned to find them. But by that time the location of the settlement had been forgotten. People searched the east coast, opposite Iceland, being confused by the name ‘Eastern Settlement’. But this coast is unreachable due to ice. John Davis visited the western coast several times around 1585 while searching for the northwestern passage but he did not find anyone. The settlement was rather far from the coast, of course, and would not have been visible from the sea. The Eastern Settlement was found only when a Norwegian missionary, Egede, spend a winter on the coast, barely survived, and decided to move further in-land. He traveled widely in the area, and his Inuit guides showed him the remains of the Eastern Settlement, including the roofless church of Hvalsey. This was in 1723, almost 300 years after the failure of the colony. Egede, and others after him, thought this was the Western Settlement and that the Eastern Settlement would be on the east coast. This expectation was only disproven in the late 1800’s. The North American settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was found only in 1960. It really is possible for nations to be fully lost.
Archaeology has shown that the decline of the Eastern Settlement had happened over many years. The outlying farms were abandoned first and people moved closer to the better ones, perhaps in servitude. The abandoned farms were carefully demolished to save the timber – remember that wood was a precious commodity in a place without trees. That already shows it was a managed decline. It is even possible that people slowly migrated back to Europe when the British and Basque fishing vessels began to frequent the area. In any case, by 1500 and perhaps already by 1450, none were left.
The fate of the Western Settlement was different. It had ceased to exist much earlier, and so suddenly that not even the Eastern Settlement ever found out what had happened. A settlement that had existed and flourished for 350 years had been wiped out by a disaster. Was a volcano to blame?
Albert, June 2021