The Vikings in Greenland and America (part 4 of 4)
The previous articles in this short series described the Viking expeditions to North America recorded in the sagas. We can say with some confidence, though, that there were more of these adventures. There are hints in the historical record of journeys to Vinland and Markland for lumber or raw materials. There is also the possibility that some small numbers of people may have attempted colonies there as conditions in Greenland deteriorated.
Archaeologists are finding artifacts spread over various parts of Newfoundland and beyond. However, finding definitive proof of lasting contact can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Experts caution against over-reaching or accepting evidence uncritically, and more than once fantastic finds have turned out to be based on loose interpretations or even hoaxes. But, archaeology has made some significant discoveries that substantiate the sagas, and just in the last few years, new research is adding depth to the picture of the Vikings in America.
The most significant archaeological find by far has been the site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Now officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was excavated in the 1960s. There were numerous structures, including houses similar to the 11th-century timber and turf buildings in Iceland or Greenland. Over 800 artifacts, including evidence of iron smelting, woodworking, ship repair, and indications of travel further afield have been found, dated, and documented.
In 2015, archaeologists using new technology discovered another multi-structured settlement of 11th-century timber and turf buildings near Point Rosee, Newfoundland. This discovery is especially exciting because Point Rosee is on the western tip of Newfoundland, while L’Anse aux Meadows is on the eastern point. Today, these two possible Viking settlements are almost 10 hours away from each other by car. So, the Vikings were not just revisiting the same familiar sites to cut timber, as has been suggested, but were exploring deeper into North America.
In the summer of 2019, archaeologists announced potentially-game-changing new research from the site of known Norse settlements in Newfoundland. Analysis of the peat bogs immediately surrounding L'Anse aux Meadows yielded pollen and other plant matter samples or non-native species often associated with human habitation. These include walnuts (one of the Vikings’ favorite fast foods) and – the most headline-grabbing – cannabis or hemp. The hemp could have been from clothing or rope, though the medicinal or recreational use of cannabis was not unknown to the far-traveling Vikings. Analysis of the data suggests that Vikings may have inhabited the site for up to 200 years.
Where Happened to the American Vikings?
So, if the Vikings had such a prolonged presence in North America, what happened to them? We will probably never know for sure and can only speculate.
First, we must remember that isolated populations are very fragile, and a few high-casualty events (such as widespread illness, famine, or war) can doom a colony. Arguably, the biggest reason later European colonization took root in America is that new people kept coming in all the time. It would be natural enough for the Norse to go to America, have a good run for a while, and then die out.
Another theory is that the Vikings were chased out by the Native Americans. Allegedly, there were plenty of arrowheads found around L'Anse aux Meadows (but no signs of burning or severe slaughter).
It is also possible that in time the Norse settlers were assimilated into the larger Native American population. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions the Vikings adopting two Skræling children and teaching them their language. It could have also worked in the other direction as a mutual struggle for survival became more important than differences. This same theory has been applied to Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke in the 16th century. In the case of the Vikings, it would be an easy question for modern DNA research to answer – but the last known Beothuk died in 1829. The people that had held their lands against the Viking incursions eventually succumbed to ever-expanding colonization and the exploitation of their hunting and fishing grounds.
We will probably never know the full extent of Viking involvement on North American soil. When it came to the exploration of the unknown world, the Vikings were ahead of their time, but their efforts here were not fated to last.
The End of Viking Greenland
The Vikings believed that all things must one day end and are reborn. During the lifetimes of Erik the Red and Leif the Lucky, Greenland grew and flourished on trade despite the stark environment. At the height of its known population, about 3000 people were living in 30 farms (for comparison, Iceland had about 77,500 at the end of the Viking Age or about 15 times as many people as Greenland). But there was something that neither Erik nor Leif could have known – they were living in what scientists would later call the Medieval Warm Period.
Just before the Viking Age, climates had been trending cold and wet. This harsh environment – along with the geography and political conditions of Scandinavia – had even honed the Viking ethos, culture, and character, for as Herodotus said, "Hard lands make hard men." But from around the year, 950 to about 1250 temperatures in the Atlantic region of the world were considerably warmer. This period of warm temperatures is called the Medieval Warm Period, or the Medieval Climate Optimization. It was an excellent thing for the Vikings in general because population growth and more accessible trade routes accompanied it.
But what goes up must come down, and around the year 1197 the glaciers began to advance, and the Atlantic pack ice began to grow (possibly due to increased volcanic activity). It was not the worsened cold that the hardy Greenlanders noticed most – their sea routes to Iceland and the rest of Europe were becoming choked with floating ice. The shortest route to Iceland was three days hard sailing, but by the 1300s this way was blocked. To go from Greenland to their markets, sailors had to go far to the south and then turn north again. This longer route, too, began to close. As one eyewitness wrote in 1364, "now the ice is come from the north, so close to the reefs that none can sail by the old route without risking his life.”
In time, the trade routes that Vikings had established through Russia and Eastern Europe were seen as far safer and swifter than venturing to Greenland. With the end of trade, the Greenlanders had to be entirely self-sufficient. They were not the only human population on the island. Even during the new Little Ice Age, the Inuit tribes grew in Greenland. An aggressive tribe known as the Thule began taking over coastal territories from Inuit and non-Inuit alike. The Inuit were adapted by thousands of years to living in the snow and ice. The Norse brought their Northern European way of life with them and depended on trade, but the Inuit's lifestyle of fishing and hunting marine mammals did not need any help from the outside.
There are some Inuit legends of conflict between the Inuit/Thule and the Norse in Greenland. But the archaeological record suggests that the end of Erik the Red's people was overall a quiet one. The last record from Greenland was of a wedding held at Hvalsey Church in 1408.
In 1492, as Columbus prepared to seek out his path to the Indies, the Pope remarked that no one had been to Greenland in more than 80 years. In the 1700s, the King of Denmark read The Saga of Erik the Red and realized that the Greenlanders had probably not heard of the Reformation. The Danish mission he sent found only long-abandoned buildings and freely roaming herds of Scandinavian sheep. Twentieth-century archaeology determined that the descendants of Erik's people had made a brave struggle for survival to the end, but that the elements, famine, and isolation had made many of the last Greenlanders "severely crippled, dwarflike, twisted, and diseased."
Recently, some researchers have challenged this bleak picture. They argue that Greenland should have been less affected by the Little Ice Age, and younger generations simply left to find better opportunities elsewhere as economic factors choked out trade. The remains of the malnourished Greenlanders (exhumed from a graveyard that had been used for many years) could have been just a segment of the population and not representative of the whole. This debate remains active today.
Finally, Erik the Red's independent kingdom at the edge of the world collapsed. We can only wonder how many of the Greenland Vikings left for Vinland before it was too late.
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David Gray Rodgers is a college lecturer, and author of several books, including Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome. He is co-author of Sons of Vikings: History, Legend, and Impact of the Viking Age.